September 7, 2011

Better Galle than blandness

Why is a pitch that does a little too much deemed so much worse than one that's dead from day one?
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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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark00 on September 9, 2011, 11:14 GMT

    A rare moment of lucidity from Mr Steen. Well said.

  • trepuR on September 8, 2011, 13:28 GMT

    Despite being an Aussie myself, I agree with rahulcricket007 wholeheartedly, an interesting wicket does not have to be a green top, I love watching a dry, crumbly wicket that asks the batsmen to actualy work for their runs. There is a huge number of boring flat wickets in test matches, keep them for the shorter format. Idealy, there should be a variety of wickets: flat, 'normal', crumbly/dry, green. The point has been brought up so many times before that in an effort to keep games going for five days, groundskeepers are instructed by administrators to ere on the side of the batsmen and while this will create short term profits, in the long run it will hurt the game by driving people away with boring batsmen dominated matches. The problem with having a variety of pitches means that some grounds will produce more revenue and as such, pitches need to be regulated moreso to allow for that combination of fair contests and games dominated by bat or ball.

  • dummy4fb on September 8, 2011, 13:22 GMT

    The future of Test Cricket depends on the kind of Pitches officials encourage. If they encourage DEAD pitches, Test Cricket will DIE, if they produce pitches with LIFE, then Test cricket will come to life. No one has time to waste 5 days for a game without a result.

    Pitches should be designed to produce results in 3 to 4 days.

  • Elliott_Tree on September 8, 2011, 12:08 GMT

    @rahulcricket007, @Wasim Raja: I agree. While uneven, unpredictable bounce is not desirable, I think that a pitch that takes loads of turn is comparable to a fast, bouncy pitch, or one that seams nicely. Though I fear it is the same in English domestic cricket - pitches seem more likely to get marked down for 'taking excessive turn' than anything else :o( (though I'm happy to be corrected on this - it is an anecdotal feeling, I haven't done the proper research)

  • dummy4fb on September 8, 2011, 11:54 GMT

    Well said.. rahulcricket007

    When australia, england, south africa can prepare lush green pitches favouring their pacers, why cant we prepare pitches which aids spin. In what sense does a green pitch favouring pacers offers more of a contest between bat and ball than a spinner friendly pitch.

  • Elliott_Tree on September 8, 2011, 9:08 GMT

    AFAICS the only undesirable aspect of these dry pitches which get marked down is the uneven bounce, because it is more about luck than skill in using the surface. So fair enough, the Galle pitch wasn't a great Test pitch, but it really irks me that SLC might get censured for it, while no-one ever gets marked down for a flat, dead pitch. GRRRR! (at least there seems to a general and reasonable consensus on Cricinfo, though - so in one aspect of cricket the fans are all in agreement)

  • rahulcricket007 on September 8, 2011, 7:12 GMT

    I HAVE JUST ONE QUESTION IN MY MIND THAT WHENEVER A TEST MATCH ON A SUBCONTINENTAL PITCH ENDED WITHIN 3 OR 4 DAYS (LIKE KANPUR 2008, GALLE 2011 I M NOT COUNTING MUMBAI2004 BECAUSE THAT PITCH WAS REALLY BAD) EVRYBODY STARTS CRITISIZING PITCH . REFREES REPORT IT A BAD PITCH.WHAT ABOUT PITCHES LIKE WACA (PERTH) &KINGSMEAD (DURBAN) IN WHICH TOO MOSTLY TEST MATCHES END WITHIN 4 OR EVEN 3 DAYS.NOBODY COMPLAINT ON THOSE PITCHES .WHY? YEAH U ALL WILL SAY THAT THOSE PITCHES PRODUCE RESULT IN EVERY MATCH AND MAKES TEST CRICKET INTERESTING , THEN THE SAME GOES TO THE SUBCONTINENT TURNING PITCHES .

  • johnathonjosephs on September 8, 2011, 6:45 GMT

    Galle and Mumbai pitches should be used more often. Granted the Mumbai pitch was a little TOO extreme, but in all honesty the only reason Ponting is complaining is because he is a batsman. If warne was the captain/playing that time he would have been applauding the pitch

  • landl47 on September 8, 2011, 4:25 GMT

    A good test wicket, in my view, has to have two characteristics: first, it should favor both bowlers and batsmen at different times in the contest, so that overall the contest is even; and second, it should be designed to enable a contest between two evenly matched sides to last into the fifth day. The ideal pitch would contain enough juice to be of assistance to bowlers on day one; would be at its best for batting on days 2 and 3; would begin to allow spin and reverse swing on day 4 and be helpful to bowlers on day 5. OK, so not every pitch will meet those criteria, but that should be the aim. The pitch in Galle was deliberately created to be in the same condition on day 1 as the ideal pitch would be on day 4- favorable to spin and reverse swing- and to further deteriorate on day 2. The side winning the toss had a huge advantage, which enabled Australia to win the match. Though it's good to see results, that pitch did not lead to a fair contest, so it was rightly judged poor.

  • Humdingers on September 8, 2011, 2:35 GMT

    Chris Broad is a waste of space. He has contributed absolutely nothing to the game from his position.

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