SL v Pak, 1st semi-final, World Twenty20, Colombo October 5, 2012

Crumbling pitch clouds judgement

The track at the Premadasa had captains unsure what a good total was, and batsmen unsure whether to attack or consolidate

The sight of a wearing pitch can play tricks on the mind. Anything could happen. The ball could spit, snarl, jump, turn, shoot, or could do none of the above. Reading the ball from the hand, or judging the length could mean nothing because the surface could grant the ball a will of its own. Or it could all be a grand deception and batting could be just as easy as the other day.

You see a crumbling pitch in a fixed-over format game, or any game for that matter, and pray that the coin falls your way, and you bat. But it's not as simple. Setting a target can be equally spooky. If it's a knockout match, you want nothing to be left to chance. But what's enough? By aiming high you could end up with too little. But you never want to aim too low.

And do you want to attack the new ball because the pitch might be the most stable then and risk losing wickets up front? Or do you want to save up for the final flourish? And what are your scoring options? Do you forsake the cover drive, your favourite shot, because you can't trust the bounce and the pace? Do you still take on the left-arm spinner?

Pitches and curators have got a lot of praise during this World Twenty20. There has been variety and they have produced interesting cricket. But the ones at Premadasa are beginning to worry. The toss should never decide a semi-final or a final. You could argue the conditions don't change drastically in a match lasting 40 overs. But when you start on a crumbling pitch even a marginal deterioration could be decisive. All forms of cricket should test the skills of batsmen, but no match should be a lottery.

At the completion of Sri Lanka's innings it was impossible to tell what sort of score Sri Lanka had managed. Two days ago Australia ended 32 runs short of 149 against Pakistan, but South Africa, batting in the fourth innings of day came within one run of 152. But then India were playing, incredibly, only one specialist spinner.

The captains were not sure even after the match was done. Mahela Jayawardene thought it was just about par. They would have liked 150 but they knew they could work with 139. Mohammad Hafeez said the target was perfectly chaseable and his batsmen had stuffed it.

Both the captains scored 42. Both opened. The strike-rate wasn't hugely different. Jayawardene took 36 balls, Hafeez consumed four more. But Hafeez batted in fits and starts. His first three runs took 15 balls. Then he hit a four and could have been caught in the deep the next ball. Then he swung and missed. Was beaten again. And then he nearly ran himself out. Four overs later he was dropped again, this time a sitter. Then he swatted a four, reverse-swept another, swung a six that nearly burst through the hands of the fielder at long-on, and then charged down the wicket and was stumped by mile. It seemed like an inevitability.

Mahela purred and motored. There was an early play and miss against Sohail Tanveer and he missed a reverse-sweep that went for two byes, but how quickly he tempered his game to the surroundings. Playing on the up wasn't an option, neither was driving down the ground. Skillful batsmen use the turning on spinning wickets. He swept, reverse-swept, played late, cut, deflected and nudged.

If you carved up his innings and watched it in isolation, he would have fooled you in thinking that batting was effortless in those conditions. The truth is that he didn't let the conditions spook him. Instead, he seemed to relish the challenge and revel in them. It was the most perfect demonstration of a batsman transcending the conditions. Only five of his runs were scored down the ground and five of his seven fours came behind the wicket.

In contrast, Tillakaratne Dilshan, his normally swashbuckling partner, scratched and scratched. His first ten runs took 20 balls. The pitch blunted his cut and thrust strokes, and he couldn't find another game. His dismissal in the 18th over nearly brought relief to the Sri Lankan fans because he was comfortably poised to play the slowest innings for an opener playing out all the overs in a T20I.

But how are we to judge Dilshan's innings in the light of the outcome? That Pakistan went in to the final over with only a mathematical possibility of winning not only deprived the match of the thrill and tension that low-scoring games on tough pitches tend to provide, but it also muddied judgment over Dilshan's performance which, midway through the match, had seemed to have left Sri Lanka at least ten short of a comfortable score.

In hindsight, was it an innings that Sri Lanka needed to keep the innings together? Or was it made to look better by the poor batting of the Pakistani batsmen? Or were the poor strokes from Pakistani batsmen brought about by the pitch that made raising the tempo a dangerous option?

Having earned their place in the final Sri Lanka and Jayawardene, who also captained splendidly, Sri Lanka can ponder these questions at leisure as they watch West Indies and Australia weigh their options on a crumbly, powdery surface.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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