Better Galle than blandness
Kanpur, April 2008, and Mickey Arthur is in no mood for pussyfooting. "Even we would have left a lot of grass on South African wickets in this situation. We would have played to our strength. We had expected India to prepare a wicket like this. In a funny sort of way a wicket like this will provide a very exciting result." So, in a funny, refreshingly frank sort of way, says South Africa's head coach after seeing the hosts grind out a narrow lead on the second day of the decisive third Test. Not that that stops him from telling it like it is. Denouncing the bone-dry Green Park pitch as "far from ideal", he castigates it as "a five-day wicket on day two".
Twenty-four hours and one horrid batting collapse later, despite a resounding defeat, the South African camp offers not a single bleat of protest. Not that there's any need: the chorus of disapproval is already uproarious enough to ensure official condemnation. "My considered view," states Roshan Mahanama in his match referee's report, "is that the pitch was poor as it was too dry and had considerable turn and variable bounce from the first day… The pitch was not up to Test match standards."
While it is impossible to be certain without having read the full text of Chris Broad's musings on the state of the pitch at Galle, it is almost as hard to believe his conclusions were not along much the same lines as Mahanama's. So far, so consistent, except that whereas the BCCI received an official warning and instructions to take "corrective measures" (and the next Test at Green Park, between India and Sri Lanka a year later, certainly lasted a good deal longer), the Sri Lankan board could also be slapped with a first-offence fine of up to US$15,000. That said, since no financial penalty was imposed in the case of Kanpur, it seems doubtful the fine will be imposed, given the accusations of double-standards that would surely, and justly, ensue. Not that such inconsistency would astonish those conversant with cricketing realpolitik.
Michael Clarke was even more damning than Arthur, insisting in Galle that "day one felt like day five". Ricky Ponting, meanwhile, likened it to conditions in Mumbai in 2004. On that occasion he was content to describe himself as "disappointed", but there was no mistaking the barely suppressed fury after his side had been spun-dried in barely two days' playing time: "It's fair to say that the wicket was nowhere near even being close to Test-match standard: that's pretty obvious given what we've seen… 40 wickets falling in just over two days of a Test is pretty much unheard of. It's disappointing that the series has ended this way. It puts a bit of a sour taste in the mouth." Imagine how sour it would have been if Australia hadn't already won the rubber.
But were that Mumbai mamba and Kanpur cobra really more treacherous to the spirit and purpose of sport than some of the limp fare liberally served up elsewhere? Take the previous Test at Green Park itself, in November 2004, when South Africa and India took turns hoovering up runs on a pitch where, according to Dileep Premachandran, "eternity might have been too short to produce a result". What of that immaculately imbalanced wrestling bout at Colombo's SSC last year, when Sri Lanka made 642 for not very many and India batted into the final afternoon to cobble together 707? If there has ever been a better advert for the cons of five-day cricket, it could only have been those interminable Antiguan affairs at St John's, where even Brian Lara's fondness for record-obliterating failed to compensate for a succession of soul-destroying, stupefying stalemates.
Now consider the orders Broad was obliged to follow in Galle, namely Appendix C of the latest ICC Operating Manual ("Guidance for Rating Pitches"): "All pitches will be judged solely on how they play. The objective shall be to provide a balanced contest between bat and ball over the course of the match, allowing all the individual skills of the game to be demonstrated by the players at various stages of the match." So far, so sensible.
Trouble is, the dubious priorities are somewhat betrayed by the four official criteria for a "poor" pitch: three are sympathetic to batsmen and only one, typically, gives a tinker's cuss for bowlers - and hence, many would argue, spectators. Nor should we be the slightest bit surprised, given the toxic spread of what are commonly called "chief executive's pitches" but really ought to be classified as "broadcasters' pitches", that no Test track has yet been adjudged "poor" for displaying "little or no seam movement or turn at any stage in the match together with no significant bounce or carry, thereby depriving the bowlers of a fair contest between bat and ball". Note the subtle but telling shift from "balanced" to "fair". It almost goes without saying that six of the seven match referees (Javagal Srinath is the token concession to the pie-chucking fraternity) are former batsmen.
All the same, I can't recall too much huffing or harrumphing from Tony Greig or Sanath Jayasuriya during their commentary duties in Galle. True, their employers wouldn't have been toasting their health had they so indulged, but Greig, for all his geniality towards Sri Lankans, has never quite mastered the art of biting his tongue. Besides, what, from a viewer's perspective, was there to whinge about? It was a compelling contest, and mostly gripping, as so often happens in games where slip catches flow more readily than sixes.
On the opening day Michael Hussey demonstrated that fluency and prosperity were eminently possible, as Mahela Jayawardene, Angelo Mathews and Clarke himself did subsequently, not to mention Australia's 9, 10 and Jack, the last two both debutants. Tharanga Paranavitana made 29 in three hours, a snail blissfully content in his shell. And there was as much in the pitch for Ryan Harris and Shane Watson as there was for Rangana Herath and Nathan Lyon. All in all, for all the undoubted imperfections, there was something for swingers, seamers and spinners, as well as for the steady and the strident. I don't know about you, but in my book that's the very definition of balance. Not insignificantly, and unlike those run splurges at St John's and the SSC, proceedings in Galle had the gall to finish a day early.
Spare a thought for the poor groundsman. "My stomach was in a bloody knot," confessed one eminent and passionate square-tender, recalling the early overs on one of his creations. "I thought 'If this bugger goes up and down, I'm dead.'" The dread came from the knowledge that he had started preparing it 48 hours too early. Come the rest day (remember them?), he decided there was no option but to cheat. "We're supposed to leave Test pitches open, but the Sunday was a lovely sunny day and I kept the covers on to stop the drying. I didn't want it to crack open any more. I needed to try and contain the steep bounce that was developing. It was against the rules. But I knew the pitch was unfit for Test match cricket and we still had two days to go. I was fearing something terrible taking place. I had visions of all sorts happening - I didn't want anybody to get hit."
The groundsman in question, a chap who would rather slit his throat than produce a "home" pitch to order, was Keith Boyce; the occasion, the 1981 Headingley Test. In other words, the greatest comeback in five-day annals was played out not on a surface that was merely "poor" but, in the very unvarnished words of the man responsible, "unfit" (granted, nobody was hurt badly on those final two days, but Trevor Chappell, Kim Hughes and Graham Yallop all might have done had they not got some wood on those brutish Bob Willis lifters that dismissed them).
So yes, it bears remembering that great cricket can be played on purportedly poor, even unfit, pitches, but the folk who run this precious game of ours would do even better to remind themselves that bad cricket can be played on allegedly good ones. Better Galle than blandness.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton