September 15, 2011

Why Australia needs spicy pitches

There has been comment about result wickets in Shield cricket, but those aren't as bad as they're being made out to be

Close your eyes and think of the last three Test matches that have had you utterly enthralled in the contest. The type of game that you find yourself making excuses to keep watching - staying up a little later than you should, getting a makeshift sandwich instead of taking your wife out to lunch, avoiding your after-work walk to grab the last hour of play. The kind of game you remember individual performances from vividly.

Mine were all over without a ball being bowled on the fifth day - the latest being Australia's win in Galle. This is not because I like my action hard and fast, but more purely I like my cricket being an even contest between bat and ball. None of my three picks, despite popular suggestion, were determined by the toss of the coin. The other two, England's recent win at Trent Bridge and Australia's win over Pakistan at the SCG in 2010 (match-fixing cloud aside) were both played in conditions that had the batsmen uncomfortably focused on survival, until they settled and able to dominate, if and when they did.

These matches offered Test cricket as it should be: a test of skill for all involved in the game, every ball, over the course of the game, providing a fair contest. Only those at the top of their game succeeded, needing every ounce of their power to do so. If you got runs, you certainly deserved them. And wickets weren't just a case of letting go of the ball; you had to be able to stand up the seam, swing it on cue, or as in Galle, give it a rip.

There is a sad assumption by administrators and curators around the world that Test wickets should heavily favour batsmen. Galle, the latest surface to come under scrutiny, turned prodigiously from day one and swung reverse if the quicks had the ability to do so. The sight of top-class batsman scrapping for every run made for compulsive viewing.

Was it dangerous? No. Did the pitch deteriorate so badly that the game was lop-sided? The fact the fourth innings was the second-largest of the game suggests otherwise. Were broadcasters unhappy with the game not going late into day five? More than likely. We didn't, after all, get to see the batsmen queue up for a subcontinental feast, and rely on a couple of declarations to set up the result. Compare it to the spectacle of the second Test, in Kandy, and the prosecution can rest its case.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the beauty of attrition in Test cricket more than most - I am after all a stodgy grafter with the bat - but if a wicket doesn't offer any assistance to the new ball upfront, it needs to be balanced by significant deterioration and turn as the game goes on. In an ideal world, you would wish for both.

While people point the finger at national boards for the prevalence of the "corporate Test match" - a term used to suggest flat wickets are produced to maximise revenue - they do so, in Australia at least, incorrectly. It is the states who employ the ground staff who produce the wickets, and also take the gate receipts - the only variable revenue not locked-in in advance. Cricket Australia doesn't even budget for the final's day play.

Does my spectator opinion differ from my opening-batsman alter ego? Not in the slightest. There is no better feeling than having an attack on their knees - powerless against you and the conditions - willing you to make a mistake. However, by far the best games of cricket I have played in have been those where 40 wickets have fallen and 280 is par for both sides in the first innings. It is exhilarating seeing the ball nip about or kick out of the rough. A slight feeling always exists, deep inside, that your average may take a battering, but that also means runs will be cherished, and that there is a challenge to be risen to every ball. It tends to bring the best out in you.

The much-awaited Argus Review touched on first-class wickets in Australia. It suggested pitches around the nation should offer a good balance between bat and ball, and that they should offer conditions similar to those found at Test level.

But can they be both? Every domestic player licks their lips at the prospect of once a year seeing the world's best having to deal with a green top at the Gabba, and yet for the last few years the Test strip has been more placid than your average Labrador. Interestingly the trend is nationwide. The average first-innings total in Tests played in Australia during the 2000s increased a whopping 60-odd runs compared to the previous decade.

Pitches that are bowler-friendly actually encourage the production of complete cricketers. They train batsmen to play the ball late and adjust to any movement that might exist, and encourage fast bowlers to bowl at full throttle with their wrist behind the ball

The Argus discussion echoed some unfavourable commentary surrounding several states producing "result wickets" in an attempt to make the Shield final. Ultimately, it was argued, this was to the detriment of Australian cricket: runs were too hard to come by and thus not allowing batsmen to practise their craft for the requisite hours, and bowlers were not being prepared for the rigours of Test cricket with easy hauls. There is, however, a contrary opinion: pitches that are bowler-friendly actually encourage the production of complete cricketers. They train batsmen to play the ball late and adjust to any movement that might exist, and encourage fast bowlers to bowl at full throttle with their wrist behind the ball, knowing the rewards could be there.

Last season's winners, the Tasmanian Tigers, for whom I play, demonstrate the point beautifully. The skills acquired from playing on a juicy Bellerive Oval - particularly by the bowlers, who saw the value of pitching the ball up and being relentless in their line - held them in great stead for the flatter offerings away from home, where they still managed to take 20 wickets every game. Mark Cosgrove was the competition's leading run-scorer, and several other batsmen scored heavily at home by relying on patience and decisive footwork. Strong game plans at any level.

There were a few instances when it was taken to the extreme, but in a summer that seemed one endless rain cloud, overhead conditions were perhaps the dominant factor on these occasions. The only valid concern was that spinners were not getting their say, particularly at their traditional playgrounds like the SCG.

Perhaps instead of last season being seen as an aberration, it should act as encouragement for administrators and curators to do the same in Test cricket and put eventful wickets backs on the Test agenda - and in doing so, hopefully making several of the Australian Test grounds the feared graveyards they once were for tourists.

In recent history, for an Australia team containing two of the greatest bowlers of all time, and three batsmen of similar stature, winning was simply a question of supplying a homogenous ground. It was almost like the wickets had to be flat for the visitors to avoid a complete thrashing - the Perth Tests of 1998 and 1999 are cases in point. Perhaps some spice in the wickets will be the edge the current team needs. There is no doubt the players would adapt to perform. Most importantly though, it is perhaps what the spectators and Test cricket, increasingly under fire, need too.

Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania