December 22, 2010

All hail juicy pitches

Australian wickets have been denatured and characterless for far too long. Let's hope Melbourne produces a track like the one in Perth

Only in cricket can the pitch attract so much attention. A darts board is a darts board. Rugby and soccer fields vary little and home advantage is more often due to crowd support than changing conditions. Seas and golf courses have their local winds and ways, but it does not take long for competitors to adjust, and in any case they are mostly at the mercy of nature.

Probably tennis is the nearest comparison to cricket. Tennis courts vary a lot. They can be hard, slow or grassy, and each demands different skills. Some surfaces favour a lot of spin, others smile upon power, some give net players a better chance, others encourage baseline play. Inevitably most players are more comfortable on one surface than another. Accordingly Davis Cup hosts can choose a surface that suits their style of play.

No sooner had the Perth Test finished than eyes and ears turned towards the MCG and the supposedly dastardly deeds of its curator. Before a night had passed, the aforementioned and hitherto blameless gentleman has been accused of cooking the books, preparing a green top, changing the track, moving the cameras, and all manner of other infractions calculated to tip the balance in favour of the home team.

Naturally England was doing the accusing; though the players held their tongues (they had not seen the wicket or spoken to the groundsman, aspects that had not restrained the more forthright members of their media). England's paranoia was founded more upon self-analysis than any mere fact or figure. At a critical moment in its own Ashes history the game's inventors and self-appointed trustees had discovered a disease called Fusarium, a fungus that by some miracle of fate provided particular assistance to the bowling of Derek Underwood, the home nation's match-winner. Locals talk about this uninvited guest with a conviction later detected in Justin Langer as he described how his bat handle broke in Hobart at the very moment the ball passed by, thereby creating the wholly misleading impression that he had edged it.

More recently, in 2005 as a matter of fact, the Poms left the Oval pitch so open to the sun that it burnt yellow, became parched and began crumbling before a ball had been bowled. Of course this was part of a crafty plan to ensure that the match produced a result. Had the Australians won the toss and included a spinner the series might have gone the other way, but that was a risk the hosts were willing to take.

As a rule Australians are a bit less inclined towards contrivance. One of the differences between the nations - apart obviously from the fact that Australians are more literate and Englishmen more sports-obsessed (they even invent games suitable for pubs - hence skittles, darts and shove halfpenny) - is that Australians are mostly confronting by word whereas Englishmen tend to rely on deed (Bodyline was another instance) As a traveller between these nations I admit an enthusiasm for Bodyline and toleration of the 2009 Oval pitch, and a suspicion about Fusarium, a blight that does not seem to have struck again anywhere else in the world. Incidentally Australia too has it blights, including can toads, speeds cops and parking police.

Not that Australia can plead complete innocence in the matter of pitch preparation. States routinely prepare tracks designed to promote results. For years Queensland produced green tops at the Gabba and relied on their experienced batting and strong pace bowling to take the spoils. Nowadays Tasmania have tried to inject life into the notoriously unreceptive deck at Bellerive Oval. Tired of docile decks, NSW recently urged the curator at the SCG to leave lots of grass on the pitch for the Shield match against Tasmania. The contest was over before tea on the third day.

Test pitches are another matter. Over the years series in Australia have provided a superb examination of skills. Perth was famous for its pace and bounce, Brisbane was green on the opening morning and a batting wicket thereafter. Adelaide was flat on the first few days but started to wear towards the end, Sydney favoured spin and the MCG was unpredictable. In other words every aspect of team strength was tested before the issue had been decided.

Of late, though, the pitches had lost their individuality. Perth had become tame, the Gabba had lost its edge, Melbourne's drop-in pitch was sleepier than a teenager at breakfast time. Adelaide too had lost is sting. Various explanations were offered, including orders from CEOs anxious to placate TV companies, sponsors, treasurers and guests; the tiredness of the squares; and the game's leaning towards batsmen. Cricket has long been a game run by batsmen for batsmen but the case has become stronger in the last 10 years.

Whatever the reason, Test cricket suffered. Australian pitches had lost their distinctive flavour as compared with each other and the rest of the world. If anything, English pitches were bouncier in 2009. Part of the reason English cricket is rising is that puddings are nowadays reserved for supper. Accordingly England's batsmen are better able to deal with all except the steep bounce provided in Johannesburg, and last week in Perth.

Test cricket has a fight on its hands and cannot afford the luxury of dreary pitches in Australia or anywhere else. A hard core of supporters might continue to attend a match doomed to a stalemate by stumps on the first day but it'd be hard to convince youngsters or the half-interested that the visit was worth the bother. The latest series between India and Sri Lanka was a high-scoring farce that did nothing to advance the game and a lot to improve averages. Cricket would be a better game if averages were ignored. Instead they are revered. In no other game are statistics held in such high esteem. Cricket suffers more from its mathematicians even than its romantics. At least the rankings compiled by the ICC attempt to put the numbers in context.

Cricket would be a better game if averages were ignored. Instead they are revered. In no other game are statistics held in such high esteem. Cricket suffers more from its mathematicians even than its romantics

Whereas one-day matches can be entertaining on any surface, balance is needed to sustain interest in a five-day encounter. Otherwise it might as well be consigned to the dustbin. No one in the right mind - a tally that includes a surprising number of statisticians - is interested in a collection of cold figures. It's the story that counts, the human journey, the struggle for supremacy. Dull pitches produce dull players, dull matches and dull coverage. Before long, interest fades. As Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have observed, "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all the people all of the time."

By producing insipid tracks Test cricket was signing its own death warrant. Cricket cannot be so reckless as to scorn its audience. Spectators are not obliged to come. History might mean nothing to them. They pay their rupees and rands by choice, attracted by the names and nations taking part, to the promise of a meaningful battle fought to the end between forces with a roughly equal chance of taking the spoils. All the more reason to welcome the livelier pitches provided in Adelaide and Perth and to condemn the lifeless deck produced at the Gabba.

The new man in Adelaide dared to leave a bit of grass on the pitch on the opening day and may have felt pangs of regret as the hosts lost three wickets in 10 minutes. But first-day pitches are supposed to be a handful. Opening batting has been in decline because its unique requirements have been rendered well-nigh redundant. It had become a doddle.

Suddenly courage, tenacity and judgement mattered. Suddenly tension attended ever ball as the English speedsters whipped the ball about. Everyone understood that the batsmen needed to hang on till lunch. They did not make it and England seized the initiative. Compared to the pale substitute seen in recent campaigns, the cricket was compelling.

Perth was also a corker of a pitch. To his credit Graham Gooch praised the groundsman after the match. Here was a man capable of seeing the bigger picture. It's always easy to pass around compliments in victory but his team had been beaten. Gooch rejoiced in the pace and bounce and relished the struggle between bat and ball. Perhaps it took him back to his heyday, when openers had to play late and grit their teeth, when defensive technique was of paramount importance.

Now the show moves to Melbourne and 100,000 people will pack into the MCG, eager to see a stirring contest between two proud teams. It is a mouth-watering prospect. Over the next few days the 22 yards to be used on Boxing Day will be subjected to more inspections than a security detail in a dictatorship.

Doubtless Ricky Ponting and chums are keen to play on another fast track, but that might not be so easy. In any case Australia needs to prove they can win on any surface. Ponting needs to prove he can manage a varied attack as well as a four-pronged pace outfit. The main thing is that the pitch offers bounce and gives bowlers a chance. It is possible for two well-matched sides to play an exciting game on a dozy pitch, but it's much harder.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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