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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chris on March 30, 2013, 5:15 GMT

    I completely agree with you Aakash, and it is unfortunate to see that most of the commenters here seem to disagree. The idea that any pitch that produces results is a good pitch is a gross oversimplification of what makes cricket such a beautiful game. A good pitch is one that is good for batting and pace bowling early on in the Test, then deteriorates slowly and allows spin to become the dominant form of bowling in the last two days. A pitch that is unpredictable and favours spinners right from the start of the Test and only becomes more so as the game progresses, forcing batsmen to bat very defensively against the spinners and making pace bowlers virtually useless for the entire Test, is simply a bad pitch and inevitably results in boring cricket. Also, to anyone from the subcontinent who disagrees with Aakash please answer this question - if Indian pitches are good pitches that promote entertaining cricket, then why are the majority of Ranji Trophy matches very high scoring draws?

  • Venkat on March 29, 2013, 0:57 GMT

    A rank turner or an unpredictable pitch like the last Delhi wicket is not a good choice at home for India. The chances of losing increase. Average spinners can become dangerous on a rank turner. Unpredictable pitches can fail good batsmen even if their technique and temperament are good. Those wickets also take some of the fun out of batting. I did not enjoy the Delhi test as much as the first three.

  • Gower on March 28, 2013, 19:59 GMT

    If it were luck, Australia would have won the Delhi test after losing the first three. That 3-0 became 4-0 (EVEN after Australia won the toss) ought to have been sufficiently telling about the role Luck had to play in this. The utter ease with which Pujara and Siddle batted showed us that the challenge was different, not impossible. By the way, how in the world do you design a pitch that finishes in exactly 5 days. Not less, not more, and meets every single criteria of all the armchair pundits: that is, should have no uneven bounce, should have even turn (between 25-30 degs) etc etc. It's absurd!!

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2013, 15:13 GMT

    Delhi was without a shadow of doubt a difficult wicket to bat on, but there were players who saw through it and scored runs nevertheless.In my opinion that is what is good cricket-overcoming the challenges.You are bound to come up against difficult conditions,both as a bowler and a bat, playing across venues in the modern era, but it's mostly your skills, and the mental place that you are in that will help you rise above the challenges.Siddle was the highest run getter for Australia in Delhi-this might have a lot to do with his skills,but one can't rule out the factor of he being in a positive frame of mind after the impressive return to bowling form in Mohali.Siddle was able to subdue the spite of the track,and so were Kohli and Pujara, and one can't doubt their skills and temperament(Kohli's a touch).Good players should be able to adapt themselves to different conditions.

  • vas on March 28, 2013, 14:22 GMT

    Whatever all your opinions are, India will always produce spin friendly pitches. Spin bowling is India's strength and Indian batsmen are very good at playing spin bowling. If you expect anything else, you are not logical. Only thing to avoid is minefield of a pitch with too uneven bounce where all batsmen need luck to survive and batting is dangerous.

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2013, 12:14 GMT

    Bring on the horror pitches I say...makes for fantastic viewing...luck or perhaps fate will always play its part...thats life...who wants to watch sehwag make a run-a-ball 300 in a test match...just pointless!

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2013, 10:53 GMT

    Cricket is a game of luck? This is quite myopic especially coming from a former test player. I believe we need wickets such as the Kotla in cricket because batsman cant always adopt the same technique. Thats what test cricket is all about, "a test" of technique and mental endurance. Cheteshwar Pujara had a torrid time in the middle but he stuck it out and batted magnificently. Murali Vijay did the same in the first innings. Ravindra Jadeja had a fine cameo that was brilliant with great timing. Once we say cricket is about luck it takes away the fact that one needs to concentrate and to have a solid technique. @ Match Referee: spin is hard to master contrary to what you believe. If you are referring to Ravindra Jadeja as a part timer then you are mistaken mate

  • Nithin on March 28, 2013, 9:55 GMT

    Spot on Aakash, can't agree more. A good pitch should have something for both bowlers and batters(not sure why many don't think so). The recent delhi one was total disgrace, a test match between two decent teams don't get over in two days unless one party played really badly or the pitch was a shocker. I would be inclined to think it is the latter. On these tracks both Ajmal and Jadeja can easily get a fiver and ppl might start to think Jadeja is in the same class Ajmal(i hope he gets into that league soon). Also for batsman surviving on these tracks is almost impossible irrespective of the technique and application he shows since an unplayable delivery is always round the corner. Good turning tracks is fine but should offer consistent bounce atleast for the first few days and shouldn't be a dust bowl from day one.

  • mo on March 28, 2013, 9:39 GMT

    aakash, it is rare for me to be entirely on the opposite side with my viewpoint but i'm totally with arunrajaram here! for decades, i've gotten tired of watching test matches being played either on batsman-friendly pitches (which offer little lateral movement) or on fast-and-seaming pitches... but rarely have i watched test matches played on pitches which offer assistance to quality spin bowling!!!

    i agree with you to the limited extent that *inconsistent* bounce is no good! but in light of all the poohpoohing of the IND pitches as "dustbowls" and the like by smirking oz fans- despite compelling evidence that IND batters could handle these conditions very well, posting 400-plus scores, thereby suggesting the inferiority in talent of both the oz batters and their spinners - your article seems to suggest agreement with the point of view that turning pitches (with good, consistent bounce) are intrinsically bad for test cricket!!! the latter is a point with which i couldn't disagree more!

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2013, 7:25 GMT

    Some pitches bounce,some spin, some seam and some don't. All of these different wickets are fine as long as that it is the natural state of the wicket. When i heard that currators were defying explicit instructions from Dhoni to fix the wickets during the English tour then that was alarming. Only when wickets hit the extremes of heavily favouring batters or bowlers, only then, should outside parties interfere with a currators work. Other then that everyone should but out!