June 13, 2013

What's up with the conditions in England?

It's early summer - isn't the ball supposed to dart around corners?

Swing in the air and seam movement off the surface on damp green pitches are the first things that cross your mind when you think of cricket in England. As a batsman, you prepare to allow the ball to come to you instead of reaching out for it, unlike how one happily does while playing in the subcontinent. You tell yourself to not only play late in England but also in the second line, accounting for lateral movement off the surface.

The movement in the air and off the pitch makes even the most innocuous-looking medium-pacers a tough proposition, especially for batsmen from the subcontinent. While you may pick the line from the hand of the bowler, playing through the line is easier said than done.

The English summer can be divided into two halves - the pitches are greener and damper in the first half and get a little drier, and hence somewhat flatter, in the second half. The Champions Trophy, being played in the first half, the one that has been unusually wet and cold this season, promised to revive old memories. Pace bowlers were expected to rule the roost, spinners were supposed to be marginalised, and batsmen were to play defensive.

None of that has happened. 
The opening encounter between India and South Africa in Cardiff was a high-scoring affair, and it offered a preview of what was to follow. The ball has not moved in the air or off the surface, and batsmen have made merry. The fact that the ball hasn't deviated has allowed batsmen to play through the line and also on the up. They haven't needed to get their feet to the pitch of the ball or even to wait for the ball to come to them, for contact has been guaranteed if you gauge the length accurately.

The only thing the Indian batsmen have needed to be careful about has been the bounce: even the flattest pitches in England offer more than the ones on the subcontinent. But bounce can be a batsman's ally if it's not complemented by movement, which has been the case so far. Most of the other matches may have not been 300-plus run affairs, but that has had more to with the quality of bowling and batting than the pitches.

Only six opening batsmen in 14 completed innings in this Champions Trophy have been dismissed caught by the wicketkeeper off a fast bowler. It further validates the theory that the pitches haven't offered much assistance to the faster men - despite two new balls being used in every innings. Spinners, on the other hand, have made a significant contribution in this tournament. They have not only taken 32 wickets in the first eight matches, they have also kept the batsmen on a tight leash, for their economy rate is significantly better than that of the quick men (4.12, against 4.93 for quick bowlers).

It's understandable that fast bowlers have taken more wickets (65), for they have bowled many more overs than the spinners have (more than 382 overs to the spinners' 229). The fact that spinners have played a consequential role shows that the pitches have had something to offer them. The new ODI rule of allowing only four fielders outside the 30- yard circle was expected to marginalise spinners, yet they has played a prominent role.

The big question doing the rounds in England is about why there has been such a drastic change in the nature of pitches, especially when it has nothing to do with the weather. For the Champions Trophy the ICC might have requested the curators to prepare slightly batting-friendly pitches, but what explains the flat pitches dished out for the ODI series between England and New Zealand?

I've been informed that there has there has been a conscious decision by the ECB to reassess their approach in ODI cricket. There has been a strong feeling, among the people who matter, that England are lagging behind in the 50-overs format because they play much of their cricket on bowler-friendly pitches in England, and so struggle to post or chase down big scores when they tour overseas. Even if their batsmen have the wherewithal to score quickly, they simply don't seem to have the knack of pacing their innings to do so.

In order to address their batting problems, they have stopped watering the pitches at home as much as they would do otherwise. The pitches in this Champions Trophy have borne a very brown and dry look. If you increase the temperature by 20 degrees, you could mistake the conditions for Wankhede or Lahore. England's attempt to join the bandwagon has tilted the balance quite a bit.

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

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2013, 17:38 GMT

    I partially agree with Aakash about how the lower scoring games being due to quality of batting/bowling. The weakest teams in the tournament (Australia and Pakistan) have struggled to get the ball off the square. Probably the Kookaburra ball is responsible for lack of swing. As cricket lovers, most of us love to see a good tussle between bat and ball, not games where 330 is a par score. Bring back some swing, please!

  • Clifford on June 14, 2013, 12:39 GMT

    And this isn't helpful for teams like the WI who had the bring idea to take only one front line spinner (Narine) when we have other quality guys at home tearing it up against Sri Lanka A (Nikita Miller) or cooling their heels (Shane Shillingford).

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2013, 8:31 GMT

    Unlike what Chopra claims, it's been an unusually dry and hot beginning to the summer

  • VENKATACHALAM on June 14, 2013, 7:29 GMT

    Akash, these are called Television pitches and are par for ICC tournaments.

  • Amit on June 14, 2013, 7:21 GMT

    Wasn't there a report / rumour suggesting they are using a Kookaburra ball instead of a Dukes ball for this tournament? The point obviously being the former is less conducive to swing than the later?

    Regardless, the scores are up at all levels of cricket and the quicks have become canon fodder. Not many wickets for the quicks... not many teams knocked over either.

    I hope the weather or the groundsman addresses this slightly... England is the last swing haven left.

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2013, 5:01 GMT

    yeah nice article ac..and english team really want to improve their batting on this helpfull track and in ashes it will help them too coz they are fear of aussie swing bowlers likes starc jhonson faulkner..etc...thats is main reason also to make such type of tracks.

  • GAURAV on June 14, 2013, 4:31 GMT

    You got to be able to to do well in all conditions. If few teams are only dependent on swing and seam, they don't deserve to win!

  • Sriram on June 14, 2013, 1:05 GMT

    Good article on why the ECB has produced flatter pitches. But, this still does not explain the lack of swing in the air, given the conditions. Also they are using 2 new balls, so swing should last twice as long as the previous years. I am not a scientist, but I dont believe that swing can be controlled by ECB!!!!

  • Prasanth on June 14, 2013, 1:00 GMT

    It seems like the view that English ODIs are always ball dominated affairs is as stereotypical as the thought that subcontinental ODIs are bat dominated. S Rajesh, the statsmaster has done a very perceptive article on the same - http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/639383.html

    Since 2005, a country wise analysis shows that economy rates have been lowest in UAE, WI, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. England ranks up right up with India in terms of avg eco rate.