Minefield, or incompetent batting?
The slowly fatiguing pitch in Harare provided the perfect backdrop for the follow-up to my previous piece on doctored pitches. Shaun Pollock, on commentary, alluded to this very theme when he expressed surprise that the turning pitch, becoming increasingly drier as the tournament wears on, should have caused so much "chatter" about home team advantage. The rolling news ticker on breakfast TV in Brisbane ran with "Australia undermined on minefield", while the other stations were less eloquent with their "Pore pitch defeats Aussies" headline. Poor spelling, poor analysis, no mention of Zimbabwe.
That it was dry was not in question. That it would turn was obvious to everybody except the Australia selectors. Minefield? Australia managed 209 on it after all, and chose to leave Steven Smith out of the playing XI. So they either misread the pitch or figured that it couldn't have been that much of a problem child. Otherwise why leave out a top-order batsman (who is also a very fine player of spin and a handy part-time legspinner) for a game on an allegedly poor pitch? Note that it nevertheless allowed a modest Zimbabwe batting line-up to chase 209 with 12 balls to spare.
Batting on a pitch like this takes a different set of skills, just as intriguing and admirable, as scoring runs on a greentop. Cricket's global appeal lies in the broad spectrum of skills that the very best batsmen need to have in their portfolio to be considered the complete package. Michael Clarke is one of these men. The last time I saw him bat was when he was worked over round the wicket by Morne Morkel in Cape Town, as compelling a piece of cricket theatre as there ever was, resulting in him surviving and then thriving to go on to make a match-winning century, despite a badly damaged shoulder. In Harare, nursing a sore hamstring that must surely have hamstrung his quick feet, he played another innings of composure and skill, completely opposite in nature to the Newlands masterpiece. Clarke, in his current form, is worth paying entrance money to watch; his range of skills showcases a batsman who has truly mastered all conditions.
As for the pitch itself, it took spin and it was challenging to bat on, but a total of 209, albeit aided by some truly bizarre captaincy by Elton Chigumbura (in persisting with his mediocre medium-pacers when he had unused spin overs up his sleeve), suggests a combative surface but hardly a minefield. Similar in some ways to the dry pitch at Trent Bridge on Saturday, when India's batsmen batted with relative ease on a more worn pitch than England batted first on to make 227. Australia won the toss and batted first, scrapped bravely for 50 overs and still had a wicket in hand. Challenging? Yes. Minefield? Hardly.
Perth 2012-13, Australia v West Indies. The entire game was done and dusted within 33 overs, before the caterers had boiled the potatoes. Perth is generally regarded as a great cricket wicket, so if you only make 70 in 24 overs, that means you're simply not good enough to deal with those conditions.
A few weeks earlier, Nuwan Kulasekara ran through Australia at the Gabba. Match numbers - 149 runs, 16 wickets, 46.4 overs. Game over before the scheduled dinner break. Sure, it seamed and swung and bounced disconcertingly but the Australians were gracious in defeat, despite being humbled at their own game in conditions that were totally foreign to the visitors. Those two games combined lasted 79.4 overs, almost 20 fewer than this single game in Harare. I cannot recall sub-editors running with the "pore" pitches banner.
South Africa, despite their much-vaunted pace attack and batsmen who are accustomed to batting on seam-friendly pitches, capitulated against Australia in Sydney in 2001-02. They were all out for 106 in 38.3 overs, Glenn McGrath and Andy Bichel starring with the ball. It proved no problem for the superior Australian batting line-up of that era as they knocked it off in just 18.4 overs, losing two wickets. Skill with ball and skill with bat.
It's about having the all-round game to adjust to the conditions and play accordingly. South Africa did a number on Pakistan in 2006-07, in conditions that were initially described as "treacherous". Pakistan limped to 107 in 45.4 overs, only for South Africa to make a mockery of those claims when they knocked it off without losing a single wicket, in 14 overs. Treacherous? Only if you can't play high-quality seam bowling on a greenish pitch. Or if your bowlers cannot exploit those conditions.
Pakistan's last home ODI saw Sri Lanka peel off 309 and the hosts succumb meekly for 75. The Sri Lanka seamers took seven of the ten wickets to fall, so hardly a Bunsen burner. The 2002-03 season in New Zealand saw India struggle on greentops while the home team knocked off the required runs with minimum fuss. Was that skill? Sure was. That's cricket. Likewise, when it spins, like it did at Trent Bridge on Saturday and in Harare on Sunday, that too is an opportunity for great players to show us another side to their game.
In their previous game against South Africa, Australia left out Nathan Lyon and paid the price when AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis knocked off a big chase on a pitch where Imran Tahir was the best bowler. The affable George Bailey offered no limp excuses, saying his pace attack should have been good enough to defend 327.
If there's any blame to be levelled, look no further than the selectors. The Zimbabwe tri-series is a series to be played on the same pitch over two weeks. It is inevitable it will get increasingly slower and spin more as the tournament progresses. So Australia pick one genuine spinner in the squad, leave out the part-time legspinner and second-best player of spin (Smith) and then find out their part-timers (Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell) are far less skilful than Sean Williams and Malcolm Waller. And that their middle order is less adept than Chigumbura and Prosper Utseya. Clarke's darts would have been perfect for this surface but the selectors paid the price for believing he was 100% fit (as he claimed he was).
It might be another 31 years before Zimbabwe beats Australia again, such is the chasm that separates the teams. I spend a lot of time in Zimbabwe with my safari operations and no doubt my phone and Skype account will be pinging all day with friendly banter. Thanks to the local cricket experts I listened to this morning on the news, I've got the perfect excuse, though - if it spins, it is not real cricket, so this game doesn't count!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane