January 14, 2015

What's with Australia's pitches?

All four tracks for the India series were uncharacteristic of their venues, to varying degrees

So why were the pitches so un-Australian this season? Perhaps there was a slight subconscious bias towards not producing greentops in the wake of the Phillip Hughes incident © Getty Images

For the most unexpected reasons, doctored pitches have been the focus of attention in Australia these past few days. Gideon Haigh, arguably the most erudite and sensible cricket writer in the world, dared to say, in his column in the Australian this week what the rest of us were thinking throughout the recent India Test series. A few other writers followed suit, fuelled perhaps by some of the Australian fast bowlers' chagrin with the benign pitches dished up. Given the pre-season talk of retribution for the allegedly poor pitches that the Australians felt they copped in India in 2013, it all came to nothing. For reasons unknown, sinister or totally accidental, India were gifted with four Test strips that, in hindsight, with a bit of luck at the toss and with the umpiring decisions (bad luck India, you got what you deserve!), and barring some awful captaincy and selections, they ought to have capitalised on. They might look back and regret not drawing the series at the very least.

Adelaide and Sydney were two tosses that India would dearly have loved to have won, especially if they had also picked R Ashwin in Adelaide. Despite Australia's superiority in all four Tests, I am not convinced that batting fourth on those two decks would have been all that comfortable. Melbourne was just a poor cricket pitch, in the sense that it was not an even contest between bat and ball, while Brisbane looked and behaved nothing like a traditional Gabba surface. You could almost argue that if Australia's tail had batted like bowlers instead of batsmen, the result could have been reversed, irrespective of India's dire fast bowling and reactive captaincy.

So why were the pitches so un-Australian this season? Perhaps there was a slight subconscious bias towards not producing greentops in the wake of the Phillip Hughes incident, but that can hardly explain the extent to which the curators went in the opposite direction. My theory is that there must have been some sort of tacit understanding that most of the matches needed to go at least four days in order for the Indian television market to reap maximum dividends. No one will ever admit it, and it is unlikely to have been an "instruction" per se, but I am convinced that enough key people read between the lines. How else can you explain four consecutive pitches that were almost more Indian than they were Australian?

The TV and radio commentators kept using adjectives like "beautiful", "magnificent", "perfect", "true", but one assumes they were speaking through the prism of a pure batting focus. It could be argued that Adelaide was close to being the perfect game of cricket, but that was down to some magnificent Indian batting on the last day, which led to the drama in the final session. Brisbane was a far cry from anything we've seen at the Gabba. If India had played with more nous, they should have actually won that game, even after the Johnson-Smith partnership. Their second-innings meltdown and a key dropped catch by Virat Kohli, fielding out of position at second slip, cost them dearly, even allowing for all their other mistakes in that game. They clearly had the better of the conditions in Brisbane but showed a complete lack of understanding of the rhythms of Test cricket. That's MS Dhoni for you.

My theory is that there must have been some sort of tacit understanding that most of the matches needed to go at least four days in order for the Indian television market to reap maximum dividends

If you look at what was served up in Melbourne and Sydney, imagine what the local media would have said if those pitches were produced overseas. Actually we don't have to imagine it - we know what was said about India in 2013. Despite Australia winning all four tosses and batting first, they still crumbled to four losses, and the general consensus was that all those pitches were heavily doctored to suit the home team.

Let's compare this most recent Sydney pitch with the much-maligned Oval Test in the 2009 Ashes Series. To this day, there still remain a number of cricket writers who continue to refer to that Test as a blatant example of a doctored pitch, apparently prepared exclusively for Graeme Swann, as if no one else but Swann was allowed to bowl spin in that game!

Despite the conditions, Australia chose to leave out their specialist spinner (Nathan Hauritz) and went in with a four-pronged pace attack. Hardly the wisest selection - not if you thought it was doctored to suit an offspinner. Furthermore, on the last day of that supposed minefield, against a high-quality offspinner, Mike Hussey, a left-hander, despite the rough outside his off stump, scored a magnificent 121. Ricky Ponting cruised to 66 before he was run out, not spun out. That Test was lost on the second day, when Australia collapsed to 160 all out in their first dig, five of the top seven falling to Stuart Broad, not Swann. In the fourth innings, Australia scored at 3.4 runs per over. It may have spun, it may have been dry, it may have suited Swann, but when you choose to leave out your specialist spinner, you relinquish the moral high ground when it comes to complaining about doctored pitches. Similar accusations were made about the Oval Test in 2013, but England scored at a rollicking rate on the last day to almost snatch an unlikely victory after a generous declaration by Michael Clarke set up the game. This Sydney pitch produced none of that drama, but it copped very little criticism either.

If Australia had had a more penetrative spinner than Nathan Lyon, the Sydney pitch may well have behaved similarly to the one at The Oval. I have maintained for some time that Lyon, awfully likeable chap that he is, does not do enough on helpful pitches unless batsmen contribute to their own downfall by playing shots. Adelaide was a case in point - until tea on day five, he had but one scalp, but once India started taking risks, he came into his own. At the MCG and SCG, on fifth-day pitches, he was remarkably impotent. Against Pakistan recently, the same. So too against South Africa in Adelaide a few years ago, who, unlike India, defended rather than attacked on the last day. Lyon's lack of a doosra or even an arm-ball makes him a relatively easy bowler to survive against for any team stacked with right-handers. Some will argue that he is still Australia's best spinner - if so, expect the drought on tours of the subcontinent to continue for some time yet.

India will count themselves lucky and desperately profligate at the same time. Lucky they got four pitches that negated the Aussie quicks, wasteful in that they threw away positions of dominance in at least three Tests. In that context, enormous credit should go to Australia for winning the series so comprehensively, despite the emotional upheaval of Hughes' passing, and conditions that emasculated their natural advantages. For me, an entire series dominated by batsmen is too one-dimensional. What Australia usually throws up is a fair contest between bat and ball, different pitches that are unique to each state. What we got this time was the same old same old. Scoring rates were high, the games went deep but we never really saw the quicks in the game, we never saw the top orders of either team having to cope with sideways movement. It was almost an Indian summer.

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

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