February 4, 2018

For good Test pitches, leave the curators alone

When captains interfere and ask for custom-made tracks, it leads to situations like the one at the Wanderers

Dean Elgar was brave to weather the blows, but all the demons were not in the pitch © BCCI

At Augusta Golf Club they have a saying: "Sunday afternoon on the back nine at the Masters, the cream rises to the top."

On wickets that ranged between tricky and treacherous in South Africa, the cream also rose to the top. Virat Kohli was the outstanding batsman. After twin failures at Newlands, he came into his own, compiling the only century of the series, in Centurion, and then two worthy innings on the snake pit that masqueraded as the Wanderers cricket pitch.

Kohli went as close as anyone to conquering the treacherous Bullring pitch and he did it with a flashing blade rather than a whirling cape. He achieved this meritorious feat by playing as near to his natural game as possible, picking off glorious off-side drives from time to time where most others could only defend and nudge.

In a short but decisive partnership with the restored Ajinkya Rahane, who matched Kohli shot for shot, India edged ahead in a see-sawing Test. It's not surprising then that having endured the seaming, spitting and steepling bounce of the Wanderers pitch, Kohli was extremely animated when the umpires decided to halt play after the courageous Dean Elgar was hit on the grill on the third evening.

Elgar is one of the braver batsmen around, but his technique leaves a bit to be desired. His minimal footwork leaves him vulnerable to the short ball and it was this, rather than the spiteful pitch, that caused him to receive a nasty blow to the helmet.

Although the officials claimed it wasn't the blow to Elgar that led them to abandon play for the day and consider not completing the Test, the timing of their decision wasn't ideal. It was an affront to Kohli and the Indian batsmen who had bravely amassed a testing lead on exactly the same surface to put themselves in a winning position.

The only good that might come out of such an occurrence is if it highlights the anomalies that can arise when pitches are specifically requested and the practice is banned. I live in hope

Elgar later claimed that the match should have been called off earlier, but he only had to look around his own dressing room to find the culprit for his many bruises.

His captain, Faf du Plessis, had pleaded for a pitch that helped the pace men and it backfired in more ways than just losing a Test match.

I've always believed that pitch preparation should be left entirely to the ground staff. Nobody - captains, coaches or administrators - should have any input into the type of surface provided and if it turns out to be not up to standard, then the curator is the man to question.

The good curators are like the best players. They take great pride in their work. The best ones I've spoken to all say a similar thing: "I want the pitch to provide opportunities for all players and a result late on the fifth day."

Asking them to prepare something other than their preferred surface is a risky proposition and in the case of the Wanderers, a dangerous one.

Now, through no fault of his own - other than listening to the South African team request - there's a danger the Wanderers' curator will miss out on future international cricket if there are further complaints about the pitch.

The end result could be that the teams are presented with a bland pitch for the upcoming Test against Australia. If this spoils what promises to be an enthralling contest between two very strong bowling attacks, then it will be a great pity. The only good that might come out of such an occurrence is if it highlights the anomalies that can arise when pitches are specifically requested and the practice is banned. I live in hope.

I'm all for pitches that make it a contest between bat and ball. The best Test matches are the ones when this occurs. The Adelaide Oval pitch for day-night encounters has been a superb example and three enthralling Tests have ensued.

If curators are allowed to provide good pitches that challenge all players then Test cricket can be an entertaining spectacle that doesn't unduly endanger the performers.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is a cricket commentator for Channel Nine, and a columnist

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