August 19, 2007

Good teams, good pitches, good cricket

Swing bowlers and wrist spinners are two of the most important attacking weapons in the game of cricket and both need to be encouraged



The bowler-friendly wickets were among the things the series had going in its favour © Getty Images

The entertaining and competitive Test series between India and England provided much good cricket and plenty of food for thought. In addition to two evenly matched teams, good pitches and the swinging ball played their part in providing entertaining cricket.

There has been a tendency to produce flat pitches in limited-overs cricket and this may well have spilled over into the Test arena. However, the three English groundsmen for this series provided ample proof that a good cricket wicket, which allows the bowlers to compete on even terms, is the best ingredient for an entertaining match.

The coverage of grass on the Lord's pitch was beautifully even and provided a good surface for both batsmen and bowlers. In recent times grass has become a five-letter swear word to some players. Curators, too, need to be encouraged to restrict their shaving to what they do in front of the mirror in the morning. The part pitches play in maintaining the critical balance between bat and ball should never be overlooked.

Swing bowlers and wrist spinners are two of the most important attacking weapons in the game of cricket and both need to be encouraged. Mammoth first-innings totals lead to lop-sided contests but the swinging ball usually eradicates any such blights on the game.

Bouncy pitches are appreciated by every good player, but I'm also all for allowing bowlers one method of assisting the ball to swing, and making that method legal while outlawing every other form of ball-tampering. The teams could provide a list of their preferred methods of assisting the ball to swing and then the ICC would decide on the one to be legalised.

Ever since Adam Gilchrist hit the Test arena and international bowlers like a tornado, other teams have been trying to replicate his style of middle-order mayhem. England in particular have eschewed picking the best wicketkeepers in an attempt to get more runs from the lower order, and in doing so the selectors have ignored a couple of important factors.

Firstly, Gilchrist was always a wicketkeeper who just happened to also be a very destructive batsman. Secondly, an average of 40 runs from the wicketkeeper doesn't compensate for dropping catches off players of the calibre of Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman.

The excuse that Matthew Prior, like everyone else, is entitled to a bad game overlooks a basic flaw in his game: his footwork is negligible and the practice drills he uses don't address this issue, making it highly unlikely there'll be any great improvement in his glove work. Once a keeper starts to cost a team in the field he should lose his Test place, and Prior has reached that point.

I'm all for allowing bowlers one method of assisting the ball to swing, and making that method legal while outlawing every other form of ball-tampering

If England played four bowlers and used Paul Collingwood, Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen to occasionally rest them they could bat Andrew Flintoff at No. 7 and then lower-order runs wouldn't be an issue. Good selection is about getting the right combination and England won't unearth that team while they continue to play poor wicketkeepers.

India did well to beat England 1-0, however they could easily have won the Oval Test if they'd enforced the follow-on. India were without a head coach on the tour but there was no shortage of advisors when it came time for the captain to decide on the follow-on. Captaincy by committee never works, because the responsibility for a poor decision falls squarely on the skipper's shoulders anyway.

The only question Rahul Dravid needed to ask at The Oval was: "Any injuries among the bowlers?" If there were no injuries then he should have enforced the follow-on, especially if he'd left the decision to the moment the tenth English first-innings wicket fell. By then it would have been obvious the overcast conditions favoured bowling. If England had followed-on, the game would have been all but over by the fourth evening.

However, being captain of India isn't as straightforward as leading, say, Australia. If Ricky Ponting makes a poor judgment, as he did during the 2005 Ashes series, his effigy isn't burned in the streets or his family threatened. This is why an Australian captain is able to challenge his team to become better, which gives him a considerable advantage over his Indian counterpart.

By the time the two teams meet in Australia later this year, India will have appointed a new coach, meaning there'll be an extra advisor adding to the long list already in Dravid's ear. This will make India's job of trying to beat Australia at home even more difficult - an extremely unpalatable thought for such a demanding cricket nation.

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