India in England 2014 July 1, 2014

Surface tension misplaced

Conspiracy theorists may like to imagine the ECB plotting India's downfall by demanding seam-friendly surfaces but the truth is that the tourists have little to fear

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When India and England met in the final of the Champions Trophy at Edgbaston in June last year, the casual observer might have expected home advantage to play a key role.

It was not so. Instead, with the groundsman not allowed to water due to ICC regulations, conditions favoured India, with a dry, dusty pitch offering assistance to spin bowlers and minimising the effectiveness of England's seamers. It could have been Ahmedabad.

It may well prove a similar story in the Test series this English summer. While conspiracy theorists like to imagine the powerbrokers of English cricket gathered in smoke-filled rooms plotting the downfall of the tourists, the truth is that, even if everyone involved could agree on the sort of pitch that suited them best, there is some doubt as to whether they could produce it.

Most would agree that England's best hope of success might well be to produce lively, seaming wickets offering bounce and pace to the faster bowlers. They might also prefer not to provide much assistance to spinners.

But such wickets are becoming hard to find in England. While there may be more pace, movement and bounce than is seen in India, there should be nothing to fear, with the pitches almost universally offering conditions that will favour batsmen.

There are two major reasons for this. The first is that, with many of the grounds in England having recently redeveloped at great expense, they are desperate for Tests to last at least four and preferably five days.

Several of these grounds are heavily in debt. They have had to fight to host these games - grounds as well-established as Edgbaston have missed out - and, with the competition to stage Test cricket growing by the year, they have to maximise the benefits.

So even if the England management demand seam-friendly conditions, the grounds - and the groundsmen employed by the individual counties - will be understandably reluctant to prepare a surface that could bring about a three-day result and squander the chance of two days of ticket sales.

Consider, for example, the recent Lord's Test against Sri Lanka. Staged in early June - six weeks before the Test against India - it was low, slow and encouraged little other than attritional cricket. There was little home advantage.

Even if the England management could convince the counties to provide the pitches they require, though, there is some doubt whether they could do so successfully.

In the last few years, all the major grounds have installed new drainage systems. This has been, to some extent, a great success: the time spent off the pitch after rain has been reduced greatly and the unsatisfactory days when full grounds had to wait in fine weather for grass to dry have all but gone.

But there were unforeseen consequences. So quickly does the water drain, that it has become very difficult to retain any moisture in the pitch. While groundsmen can leave more grass on the wicket, there is little evidence to suggest they have found a way to prepare pitches that will remain lively throughout a Test. As a result, the surfaces may offer most assistance on the first day and could even convince England, with their relatively modest spin attack, to consider inserting India on occasions if they win the toss.

In the last few seasons, the counties have experimented with the use - or absence - of the heavy roller. Heavily rolled pitches tended to die and produce relatively unedifying cricket, whereas the entertainment value of games where the heavy roller was outlawed increased. It was eventually concluded, however, that unrolled surfaces provided too much assistance to the bowlers and, in Test cricket, the heavy roller will continue to crush the life out of pitches.

Atmospheric conditions may still prove a factor and there will be days, no doubt, when the ball swings. But this is an inexperienced England batting line-up - greener than any pitch - with an opening batsman as captain who is currently struggling for form. They are unlikely to risk exposing Alastair Cook's side to anything that will risk prolonging his grim run. India, in bringing six quicks plus a seam-bowling allrounder, will not rely solely on spin to trouble England.

The days when international pitches in England offered excessive bounce and movement are largely gone. Conditions will, of course, vary from the subcontinent. But, this time, India have little to fear from England's pitches.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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