January 7, 2019

Get the pitch right and the balance between bat and ball will sort itself out

Pitches and over rates matter. Spectators must feel that their attendance is valued

Creating a Test-match pitch that offers just enough to both batsmen and bowlers is hard, but it's also crucial for the good health of the game © Getty Images

It is unlikely that a fast-bowling attack as fast and variously skilled as the West Indians during the 1980s will ever again be on show. The documentary Fire in Babylon shows them at their best and most frightening, while those who battled against them tell stories of wonder to this day. Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft played together in 11 Test matches; replace Croft with Malcolm Marshall and you find to some surprise that the most magnificent of all quartets played together just six times. Later, the mature version of Marshall, along with Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Patrick Patterson and Ian Bishop were other fearsome propositions, but those that followed them had little of the skill, only a hint of the pace and accuracy, and next to none of the magic. The folklore of cricket is all the more special for the electricity and brilliance the West Indian bowlers of what we might call a golden era brought to the game.

I thought of these men upon the news that Faf du Plessis had been suspended from the next Test match, at the Wanderers, after maintaining a slow over rate - not much above 12 an hour - for the second time in the last 12 months. He was also collared for 20% of his match fee. One supposes Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards would have missed a few games too.

Unsurprisingly, the current players argue that Test cricket has never been more enterprising and exciting. Results come thick and fast as the draw is consigned to the same corner of the memory bank as black-and-white television, typewriters and teletext, reverse charges, fax, videotape, analogue, and Apple's amazing first iPod. Michael Holding reckons West Indies bowled around 12 to 13 an hour, though they dropped well below that when successfully looking to save a Test against England in Trinidad in 1990. Under the temporary stewardship of Desmond Haynes, the rate hit rock bottom at nine an hour - cynicism for which no punishment was received. Ah well, that was then.

Over rates do matter. So much time is wasted and the game, as viewed from the outer, often feels as if it doesn't care about those who pay the bucks to sustain it. The many drinks breaks - scheduled or otherwise - are unnecessary, and the forensic depth of discussion over field placements is excruciating. If four-day Test cricket is to be further explored, then 100 overs per day should be the ambition: a challenge indeed, given the strife to achieve 90!

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Du Plessis will have to suck it up. Someone has to take the knuckle rap, though it seems unfair it is one of the game's very best men. Generally over rates are between 13 and 14 an hour these days, 15 at a guess in India and Sri Lanka. That is pretty feeble. The target should be 16 an hour, which would give Test cricket an even greater sense of purpose, and indicate to the spectator that the ambition to reward their attendance spreads wider than just achievement.

There are myriad reasons for the healthy balance between bat and ball in 2018, but first among them must be the generally soft standard of batting that comes from the nanny state in which most cricketers are now reared

Obviously enough, the common denominator between the du Plessis suspension and West Indies is the selection of four fast bowlers in the same attack. The stats prove that visiting teams have had issues at Newlands: over the last three years none had lasted for an innings of more than 74 overs, and Protea pacemen were the reason why; the pacemen and the pitch that is. It was a devil of a thing when India were in Cape Town a year ago, and not a great deal less demanding this past week in the second Test match against Pakistan, when the surface had the look of an imaginatively laid stone terrace, with its rough and ungrouted cracks edged by thick, juicy grass. From this grass the ball zipped around like a startled reptile, often striking to deadly effect.

South Africa left Keshav Maharaj on the sidelines and Pakistan might as well have done the same with Yasir Shah. But for a late no-ball, the match would have finished inside three days, exactly as the first Test, in Centurion, had done on a pitch that looked similar and played with equal spite if not at quite the same speed.

Mickey Arthur was right to say that pitches in South Africa had deteriorated and Sarfraz Ahmed was correct in his observation that his own bowlers had neither the pace nor the ruthless intent of their opponents. The rest of us imagined Imran, Wasim and Waqar on these pitches - and we imagined pain.

Much has been made of the healthy recalibration of the balance between bat and ball during 2018, a year of five-fors and high-fives, as against fifties, hundreds and double-hundreds. There are myriad reasons for this, but first among them must be the generally soft standard of batting that comes from the nanny state in which most cricketers are now reared, and the daft obsession with short formats that ask so few questions of technical awareness, never mind accomplishment and mental strength.

ALSO READ: Test cricket is great again. Thank the bowlers for it

At Newlands, both du Plessis and Temba Bavuma looked to preserve their wicket, much as Cheteshwar Pujara did all series in Australia. Theirs was a fight in which body blows were taken and minds were frequently unsettled. They won through, creating a total with which the South African bowlers could confidently work. The four of them - fast, strong, skilful and varied - were an alarming proposition on such an uneven pitch, much as the four West Indians were on any surface, anywhere in the world. (A fact that sets them apart from any other fast bowling attack in history.)

Faf du Plessis took several blows to his gloves in Cape Town © Getty Images

The groundsman's lot is rarely a happy one. A fine Test match in Perth just before Christmas received an "average" mark from the match referee, as the Newlands one might from David Boon. Defining "average" is difficult, for these things mean one thing to one man and quite another to his neighbour. In short, the aim of a groundsman should be to challenge batsmen and stretch bowlers so that the cream of each rises to the top. Bavuma thought the Newlands pitch harder to bat on than the one in Centurion but he didn't grumble. Rather, he took a lead from the hard-nosed attitude of his captain and got stuck in. Shan Masood and Asad Shafiq followed suit, and yes, runs flowed from their hard labour.

Masood is the find of the tour. Not initially selected, he has grabbed the chance with glee. Tall and elegant, his decisive strokeplay complements an easy and well thought-through defence. He picks length quicker than most and moves efficiently into position. It is stress-free batting, and against a strong opposition in tricky conditions, he has impressed well beyond expectation. Perhaps he is the next good thing among Pakistan batsmen.

The schedule for 2019 is packed full of interest. The stock of the bowler is on the rise, the corollary of which is that shares in batsmen have fallen. Umpires receive the benefit of the doubt from the DRS, which, in turn, has helped two fingerspinners - Nathan Lyon and Dilruwan Perera - to be near the top of the wicket-taking column for 2018. Cricket has a wonderful way of balancing its books.

Groundsmen are judged as much by the failings or otherwise of the players and less by the detail of the pitch they look to provide. If home teams are clearly taking home advantage to an extreme, the match referee needs to say so. If not, their reports should support the idea of a tough contest in which every milestone, not least victory, is hard-earned. The pitch is critical to cricket's health and appeal. Get it right and the game can be sold with confidence in all its formats as both batsmen and bowlers share the spoils. Few have transcended the simple principle of a balance between bat and ball. Of them, Sir Donald Bradman and the West Indian bowling attack from Roberts and Holding in the mid-1970s to Walsh and Ambrose 20 years later are unlikely to be matched.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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