March 27, 2013

Poor pitches make a mockery of the game

When cricket becomes a lottery because of the playing surface, it's not fair on the players or the viewers

What makes Test cricket compelling? To some extent it is the fact that it showcases traits like technique and temperament, which are hard to acquire and more fascinating still to watch. Yet these two crucial aspects of Test cricket do not alone make for a good contest. The quality of the playing XI and the pitch for a match are crucial. If a game is between two equally matched sides, it is likely to make for riveting viewing; matches between mismatched sides held over five days can be disappointingly boring. And in the former case, the pitch is paramount, for when two equally matched do battle, those 22 yards are of great import; if the pitch isn't fair to all participants, the match will most likely be reduced to a farce.

The recent Test match between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in Galle turned out to be a run fest. However much we like underdogs holding their own and challenging the top sides, in this case we couldn't much appreciate Bangladesh's efforts to draw the Test, simply because of the flat batting conditions. It was a highway in the garb of a cricket pitch and the outcome didn't reflect the quality or the effort put in by bowlers from both sides. It, quite rightly, received flak.

At a time when Test cricket is fighting for survival, producing such pitches is blasphemous. If the pitch in Galle was at one end of the spectrum, the pitch on which the Delhi Test was played last week is at the other end. While the pitch in Delhi did produce a result (the match got over in three days), it wasn't fair on all the participants. The pitch on day one looked more like a day-three one; it played tricks from the very first session. While there's nothing wrong in preparing pitches that challenge the batsmen, the pitch at the Kotla skewed the balance unfairly in favour of the bowlers. It was no longer about the skills of the bowler getting the better of the batsman, but about the conditions forcing the batsmen into making mistakes. In the over in which Ishant Sharma hit Phil Hughes on the head, the variation in bounce from almost identical spots on the pitch was close to 50cm, at similar speeds, which is a little too much to deal with.

Cricket is a game based on assumptions by the players, which in turn are based on the experience of playing on different surfaces. When a new batsman goes in to bat, he tries to gauge the pace and bounce of the pitch to formulate his approach. If the pitch has less bounce, he will try to go forward to everything except the ones dug in really short. He will also make a mental note to shelve the horizontal bat shots and play with a straight bat for as long as possible. It is the same for the bowlers, for they adjust their length according to the pace and bounce and their lines according to the lateral movement off the surface. If there's little bounce, a bowler will drag his length back a bit, and if there's not much sideways movement, he will likely look to keep it as straight as possible.

You might have superior skills and the experience to deal with tough conditions, but it counts for precious little if the ball rears from a good length, finds the edge and goes to the waiting short-leg fielder

If the bounce or pace are too inconsistent, the skills to tackle it become moot. When one ball stays alarmingly low and the other bounces more than anticipated from the same spot, run-scoring becomes a lot about luck. You might have superior skills and the experience to deal with tough conditions, but it counts for precious little if the ball rears from a good length, finds the edge and goes to the waiting short-leg fielder. If you're lucky, the ball that rolls along the surface will miss the off stump, and if you aren't, it will crash into your pads. The ball that misbehaved might not get your wicket, but that invariably sets you up for a dismissal on the deliveries to follow: once the ball behaves in an unpredictable way, it's only human to be a little circumspect and expect similar the next time. That makes you, the batsman, a sitting duck. On such pitches even the bowler isn't sure about how the ball is going to behave after it pitches: it might turn and bounce or it might stay low and go straight. It goes without saying that if the bowler doesn't know for sure, you can't blame the batsman for not knowing.

Cricket is largely dominated by luck, for even if you've been the best bowler all through the day, you may end up with the fewest wickets to show for it. As a batsman, you may have prepared thoroughly for a match, but a good ball or a bad decision might finish your innings abruptly. To add to that, if the conditions further enhance the importance of luck in succeeding, it ceases to be a fair contest. A good pitch should challenge and reward the deployment of skills, but if a pitch is far too inconsistent right from the start of a match, it becomes a bit of a lottery. Also, such pitches inflate the figures of otherwise inferior bowlers. Just as highways don't reflect a batsman's true quality, such pitches don't make for a correct appraisal of a bowler either.

The pitches that we saw on India's tour to New Zealand in 2002-03 had so much lateral movement that it was literally impossible to put bat to ball, irrespective of your technical prowess. I'm tempted to put last week's pitch at the Kotla in the same bracket. Such pitches will always produce a result, which is assumed to be the best way for viewers to get their money's worth, but I'm not sure if that's fair play to the 22 players involved.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here