Twenty-two yards of cricket's ever evolving unknown
There was a sense of fear in some Indian fans on the opening day at Lord's. Green pitch fear. Terror of the lush grass. One told his friend that India would be bowled out by lunch. Another said that only Cheteshwar Pujara could survive such a wicket, the rest were front runners or hopeless. They can't play the swinging ball, let alone the seaming ball said a third friend.
Yet, India made it to stumps. They scored their highest ever Lord's total when batting first. The ball swung, and it occasionally seamed, but it was not a minefield. There were no booby traps hidden by lushness. It was a Test match wicket with a slightly longer covering of grass.
There is a cricket pitch in every cricket competition in the world that is green. The opposition turn up, they see the colour, they bowl first, the home side smash them everywhere. Week after week this happens at this ground. Because we as cricketers are bred to see green and assume green means bowl. Carnage, collapse and calamity.
Even Wikipedia agrees: "A natural pitch with grass longer or more moist than usual is described as a green pitch. This favours the bowler over the batsman as the ball can be made to behave erratically on longer or wet grass." See, it is written on digital stone tablets. It must be true.
But we do not really know anything about pitches. Sure, the horticultural of us might be able to talk about the mix of seeds used. Maybe even the grading or watering requirements. But even that is not about pitches; it is about advanced gardening.
Mark Butcher, the former England batsman, says by the end of his career he would talk to the groundsman about the pitch just so he had something to laugh about in the upcoming days. A groundsman can tell you what a pitch has had done to it. It cannot tell you what an offcutter might do late on day four after the covers have been on and off and once really hot session has baked it.
Other than facing Mitchell Johnson or bowling to Hashim Amla, there are few worse jobs in cricket than standing in front of a TV camera and predicting what the wicket will do. It is like cricket weather reporting, but only using your eye and past experience. Isa Guha is currently doing it for Star Sports. She just stands in front of the pitch doing her best Tony Greig impression and guesses. That is what the job is. That is how most people in cricket do it. It is as scientific as the Spirit of Cricket. Guha will use her cricket experience to guess, and be as wrong as any great that has done it before her .
On November 7, 2002 Nasser Hussain made a mistake at the Gabba. But it was not a spontaneous mistake. Hussain had seen the ball nipping about in the nets. Thought his bowlers could use that well. Saw that Sheffield Shield sides had sent teams in. Felt the humid Queensland conditions. And then he decided to send Australia in to bat.
Hussain was not wet behind the ears. He had played all around the world. He had captained England 37 times before that Test. He was an experienced professional international cricketer, but even he admits he was "searching for something that wasn't there" and using "guesswork". At the close on day one Australia were 364 for 2. If someone with that much help and information can make such a bad call what hope do we all have on our couches.
Even when they are not green monsters, they are living breathing changing things. Or sometimes dead and decaying. And on the odd occasion they are kept in formaldehyde or cryogenically frozen. But mostly they change and grow depending on where the bowlers bowl, where they follow through, weather conditions, and everything else. And once you have worked them out, they have often changed again.
The perfect pitch could be one that has movement on day one, but not so much that you cannot bat. On days two and three it should flatten out, but not so much that bowlers want to self-harm. By day four it should be an even contest as the ball starts to misbehave a bit. On day five it should get a bit messy for batsmen as the pitch disintegrates.
That would be the utopian cricket pitch. But on day one people would complain about the movement. For days two and three they would complain about how flat the pitch is. By day four some would be complaining about how spicy the pitch is, and some how boring the match is. And on day five people would complain unless it gets close.
At Cape Town nine years after Hussain's mistake there was a Test with an odd pitch. Australia batted out the first day on a helpful surface thanks to an as good a Michael Clarke hundred as any he had made before. The next day 23 wickets were taken. The day after only one was taken. On day one the pitch was seen as fair. On day two the pitch was seen as a minefield unfit for humans. On day three it was as flat as a pancake.
Mark Nicholas believes that despite bland batting pitches we still get results as modern cricketers try to move the game on and make mistakes. Considering only last week the pitch was doing everything it could not to give a result, and one small collapse from India almost forced one, you can see what he means.
Here the pitch did very little. For all the colour and fear, how many wickets have seamed so much that they were unplayable? Perhaps Stuart Binny's wicket, but that should not have been out anyway. Maybe Pujara, as there can be little other reason for him missing a fairly straight ball. Ian Bell's ball certainly behaved oddly, although it was the pace and bounce that took him by surprise as much as anything. That is three out of 13 wickets to seam bowlers. That is not even a monster from a kid's film.
With only 16 wickets in two whole days of cricket, and rain to come, people have already started to suggest this could be a draw. It is a monster, it is a road, and it is a fair cricket pitch. The only certainty is that no matter what the pitch does, how it changes, what it produces, someone, somewhere will suggest Ishant Sharma was unlucky on it.