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August 21, 2014

It's home advantage, not doctored pitches

Michael Jeh
Unplayable pitch or really poor batting?  © Getty Images
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Amusement and bemusement are twin emotions I usually experience when reading cricket columnists in broadsheets who often write to their audience rather than writing for them. The distinction is worth noting; writers like Michael Atherton and Gideon Haigh, for example, write to educate and inform. The vast majority of cricket columnists seize on a comment that will resonate with their readers and run with a theme that is populist but not necessarily factually or analytically accurate.

In the Australian, a typically irreverent comment by Darren Lehmann, meant seriously but with a twinkle in his eye, as is his style, was the trigger for a piece that brought into focus the issue of "doctored" pitches. This was in relation to India's meek capitulation on a seamer-friendly deck at The Oval, the inference being that England deliberately produced a "dustbowl" to suit Graeme Swann in the corresponding Ashes Test a year prior. On the face of it, it is an observation that tells us nothing new. Most pitches favour the home side, mainly because the home team are accustomed to playing in those conditions. Nothing sinister in that. I scoured the Indian press and found precious little evidence of any suggestion that they were cheated by a doctored pitch. It was all focused on poor batting (India) and excellent bowling/catching (England). The conspiracy theories were non-existent as far as my searches revealed.

Even if there is any truth to England preparing typical seaming pitches to suit their strengths against India, what's the big deal? It has always been thus. Visiting teams tend to struggle on pitches that home teams seemingly have no problem with. England faced 116 overs for 486 runs (ten wickets) and India lost 20 wickets for 242 runs in 91 overs. That suggests a vast gulf in ability, not a diabolical, sub-standard pitch. There were similar embarrassing scorelines in Australia last summer but most fair-minded cricket followers would mark that down to an Australian performance that was par excellence. Anything else would be to short-change a brilliantly executed Australian strategy.

Sometimes a lazy journalist will either deliberately ignore facts, or worse still, not have the cricketing nous to understand the nuances of the game. Take the Ashes Test at The Oval last year. For all the talk of it being a dustbowl and being doctored for Swann, it produced five runs per over in the last session on day five, with Nathan Lyon going at 4.4 runs an over. Unlike the recent India Test, which finished on day three, it went the full five days. How many other pitches anywhere in the world allow the batting side to score at over five an over in the 15th session of a Test match?

Likewise, Australia's visit to India in early 2013, on pitches that Ricky Ponting recently described as "ordinary". Australia's performance on that tour may well have fit that description but the pitches were typically Indian. Most games went deep into day four or five, Australia won every toss, batted first and scored close to 250 (minimum) in the first innings every time. India replied with massive totals in most games and the lowest of Australia's second-innings scores was 131. That's a far cry from being bowled out for 152, 161, 148 and 94 (India's last four innings in England). For all the talk of it being doctored to suit England's quicks, Moeen Ali took 19 wickets at 23 apiece against arguably the best players of spin in the world.

Compare Australia's batting in India in 2013 (380, 241, 237, 131, 408, 223, 262, 164 for a total of 2046 runs at 25.8 per wicket) to India's abject performance in Australia in 2011-12 (282, 169, 191, 400, 161, 171, 272, 201 for a total of 1847 runs 23.08 per wicket). The numbers tell a story - the Indians found it harder to bat on Australian pitches than the Australians did in India. India had a star-studded batting line-up compared to Australia's youthful team, but I can't recall any visiting Indian journalists decrying doctored pitches. The only doctors spoken of were to patch up any physical or mental wounds inflicted by a superior Australian team, revelling in home conditions. So what's new about that? Has it not always been thus?

Look at England's last Ashes series scores: 136, 179, 172, 312, 251, 353, 255, 179, 155, 166 at 21.58 per wicket. Australia's visit to England in 2013 on allegedly "doctored" pitches produced scores of 280, 296, 128, 235, 527, 172, 270, 224, 492, 111 at 30.7 runs per wicket. That's nine runs per dismissal higher than England could manage in Australia. Where's the factual evidence to support this theory of doctored pitches?

Skill needs to be celebrated in its own right, not sullied by sour grapes. Mitchell Johnson's phenomenal bowling last summer was a triumph of his skill and hard work, nothing whatsoever to do with home pitches that naturally suited him. I haven't heard Pakistan complaining about being spun out by Rangana Herath on pitches that traditionally turn big. They had Saeed Ajmal but Sri Lanka countered him effectively. That's skill, not skulduggery. Most good teams win at home in conditions that favour them. Very good teams sometimes win away from home. Australia beat South Africa recently, the South Africans did likewise in Australia in 2008-09 and again in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago even in spin-friendly conditions. It's hard to put a spin on that!

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Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by Towner on (August 23, 2014, 14:15 GMT)

Mick - very sensible comments - different countries have different surfaces, and the home players tend to be more comfortable on those surfaces. Every league cricketer knows when they see a Southern Hemisphere bowler start an English season banging it in half way down, to no effect, and it takes time to adjust. In the modern game, when there are so few meaningful pre-test warm up games, adjusting is even more difficult for the players. Throw in IPL/ODI focus for some more senior players (Dhoni, Kholi) and it makes India's start to the series all the more laudable. What will have hurt is the lack of fight shown in tests 4/5, but as an England supporter, we saw the same happen in Australia, as a tour party fell to pieces under the intense pressure applied by Australia.

I agree we should give more credit to the winners, and recognise that England played much better cricket in tests 3-5 (as Australia played much better cricket in all tests last winter!).

Posted by   on (August 23, 2014, 5:15 GMT)

Compare Australia's batting in India in 2013 (380, 241, 237, 131, 408, 223, 262, 164 for a total of 2046 runs at 25.8 per wicket) to India's abject performance in Australia in 2011-12 (282, 169, 191, 400, 161, 171, 272, 201 for a total of 1847 runs 23.08 per wicket). --------

I actually don't see much of a difference. Given the high standard deviation, I don't think the difference would reach statistical significance.

Secondly, the author has not presented the stats for the winning side. If the runs per wicket of India in 2013 was higher than the runs per wicket of Australia in 2011-12, then one can say that the pitches were more conducive to run-scoring in India. If that's correct, the higher runs per wicket of Australians in India, as compared to Indians in Australia, is expected.

Posted by CricketPissek on (August 22, 2014, 17:35 GMT)

the only doctoring of pitches I remember was in 2002 when Sri Lanka toured South Africa. The disgraceful Saffers cut the grass on the pitch overnight when it was SA who were going to bat the next day after SL were 9 down at the close. Captain Jayasuriya and team manager complained, but the ICC as usual couldn't care less. There was even TV footage of it! A stronger captain like Arjuna or Mahela wouldn't take something like that lying down.

Posted by LourensGrobbelaar on (August 22, 2014, 8:32 GMT)

That is the beauty of Test Cricket, and why it is called Test Cricket. Not every pitch and country is the same. It tests your alround ability and adaptability in foreign and familiar conditions. Home advantage is a must. The only thing is that it should give equal conditions for as long as possible to both teams.

Posted by android_user on (August 22, 2014, 1:42 GMT)

The talk about doctored pitches always amuses me. Both teams obviously have to bat and bowl on the same surface. If the home team declarer overnight and the ground staff came out with some pickaxes to break up the pitch, that would be one thing...

Posted by NCP1 on (August 21, 2014, 22:00 GMT)

Aren't you supposed to have a balance team that can play on any wickets? The wicket is the same for both teams. WI team in the 70s and 80s and AUS team in 90s beat everyone around the world because they had a great balanced team. Indian team in ENG couldn't score runs against swing or spin bowling, it all came down to a mental block, they just went down after 2nd test, as England came up from Low. England team is not that great nor Indian team that bad as shown by the results of the last three tests, England played well and nothing to do with the pitch, on the same pitches AUS or SA would have bowled ENG out twice for low scores.

Posted by nursery_ender on (August 21, 2014, 16:46 GMT)

Posted by Naresh28 on (August 21, 2014, 14:09 GMT) Short batsman will struggle in English conditions.

James Taylor seems to cope pretty well. As did the even shorter Harry Pilling. I also seem to remember Gavaskar doing pretty well over here.

Posted by Naresh28 on (August 21, 2014, 15:09 GMT)

Agree about home advantage. Its not doctored pitches. India played poorly against a great bowler like Anderson in England recently. The real reason for Indian batsman's failures in England is do with the average height of Indian batsman. Short batsman will struggle in English conditions. That is why Dravid or even Ashwin would do well. India needs to find two tall openers. Also no use playing timid shots that is only going to get you caught out. If you play like Dhoni in those conditions you are better off. Some shorter players like Jardwardene can rely on timing to take them through those conditions.

Posted by Hrolf on (August 21, 2014, 14:03 GMT)

Whilst I agree there is little evidence for widespread practice of pitch doctoring, I did notice a disturbing feature of the English media I have not noticed before, and that was different from that expressed by the non-English media. In the recent India/England test series, when characterising the various pitches as good or bad there appeared to be a distinct bias towards those that provided strong English performances. It was almost as if there was an unconscious belief that a balanced pitch would naturally favour England. Such expressions cannot be good in determining what truly makes a fair pitch, and I think it was this more than anything that prompted Lehmann's opinion in the Australian.

Posted by DEArdeshir on (August 21, 2014, 12:54 GMT)

Michael Jeh - excellent article - but you cannot be a cricket writer - your views are too sensible and unbiased !

Daraius Ardeshir

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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