For goodness sake, pitch it up
The best news of the day at Lord's came out of Trent Bridge. The ICC has judged the Nottingham pitch for the first Test as poor. The penalty maybe anything up to $15,000. The message is that a bad pitch is a pitch that makes for bad cricket. Previously, it was a surface that misbehaved in favour of the bowler. Wisely, it is now as likely to be a surface that offers too great a favour to batsmen.
You cannot help but feel for Steve Birks, the head groundsman at Trent Bridge. He is a decent man who has a history of producing excellent pitches. Privately he admitted he may have over-prepared this one but, equally, he knows that there is a fine line between a surface that makes for interesting cricket over five days and a dullard. The ICC deserves praise for such decisive action. It is just a pity that the good folk of Nottingham have become scapegoats.
In general, pitches have changed bowling. The mixture of Surrey loam and Ongar clay that was first made famous by Harry Brind at Surrey has led to a uniformity that is not good for game. When Allan Border played for Essex in the 1980's he especially enjoyed the variety of pitches he experienced around the country. The other day Essex and Hampshire played a cracking Championship match at Colchester. The ball spun. Hampshire opened the fourth innings of the match with a spinner, Danny Briggs, and had their other spinner, Liam Dawson into the attack after 3 overs. It took a classy knock from Ravi Bopara - a natural against spin - to dig Essex out of a hole and finesse an unlikely win.
Uniform pitches are a potential problem all over the world. Drop-ins are the vogue in Australia and, unsurprisingly, they all play much the same. It is crucial to Test cricket that the indigenous qualities of surfaces in their various climates and conditions are allowed to flourish. Groundsmen should be encouraged to prepare a good cricket pitch, and by that we mean one that gives equal opportunity to bat and ball, not a pitch specific to a five-day match.
Which brings us to Lord's, where a mighty gamble was taken by leaving it so green on Thursday morning. Had England bowled well that day, India would not have made 150. As it is, the match is stretching out nicely and the two, admittedly average, teams are in a dog-fight.
How is it that Bhuvneshwar Kumar captured six wickets and outbowled his celebrated opponents in the first innings? Simple, he bowled full and straight and moved the ball a little. England bowled too short, and not very straight. Modern pitches, along with an excessive amount of short form cricket, have pushed back the perception of length. If you overpitch, forward pressing batsmen, armed with their magnificent pieces of willow, smash the damn thing back down the ground. Ajinkya Rahane eased a good full length ball from James Anderson into the pavilion on Thursday.
If you look back to footage of Bob Massie taking 16 wickets against England in 1972, or to Ian Botham taking 14 against Pakistan in 1978 - both at Lord's - you will see how full they pitched the ball and how confused the batsmen became by the late swing. Anderson has that skill, Stuart Broad as well, but neither seem able to use it at will. It as if the zeitgeist is set in favour of dominant batsmen and submissive bowlers. Perhaps, this why England's best two bowlers snarl away, dissatisfied with their lot.
Years ago, England had a raft of bowlers who would have enjoyed the conditions on Thursday. Geoff Arnold was probably the best of them but there were many others. Typically English conditions meant movement in the air and plenty of zip off the seam. Indeed, you could travel the county circuit today and see chaps like David Masters, Jack Brooks, Tom Smith, Tim Murtagh et al cause havoc on such a juicy surface. But the odd thing is, if you were given the choice of any bowlers in England to exploit it, you would not go for the journeymen, you would go for Broad and Anderson.
I love the story of Fred Trueman arriving at Headingley in 1992 to see Neil Mallender running down the hill in an England shirt. Mallender had been chosen as specialist for the seam bowling conditions prevalent at Headingley and it transpired to be his first of two Tests. Fred looked out from the Test Match Special commentary box and surveyed the scene before turning to John Agnew and saying: "Who's blond lad comin' down the hill Aggers lad?" "That's Neil Mallender from Northamptonshire Fred" replied Agnew, "the in-form bowler in the County Championship." "A lot of great fast bowlers have coom down that hill Aggers lad...and he's not effin one of them!"
Which brings us to today at Lord's. The pitch has morphed into something more usual. Not flat, but dry and just a little uneven. It made for interesting cricket and England played very well. First up, the batsmen remaining from the mini collapse on Friday evening gave it a whack. A lead was established and then the bowlers set about tightening the noose by operating with good discipline on off stump lines, mainly back of a length. It was a hard game to call. India inched in front with disciplined play of their own. Then Joe Root held a brilliant catch from a cut stroke by Shikhar Dhawan - thus a shortish delivery by Ben Stokes - but both M Vijay and Cheteshawar Pujara held the hounds at bay. Until Liam Plunkett came to bowl.
Here is the rub. Plunkett bowled fast, as he does for Yorkshire, and he bowled nice and full, as he does for Yorkshire. Pujara edged, Matt Prior caught. Next ball, Virat Kholi shouldered arms and heard the death rattle. This truly beautiful ball hit the top of off stump.
Plunkett bowled for ages, seven overs in a row. He hit 87/88 mph most of the time. He wasted very few deliveries. There were endless shouts and appeals and near misses. The crowd got behind him, feeling the threat felt by the batsmen. Blood could be smelt. Vijay defended wonderfully well, using slick footwork to position his feet perfectly, riding the awkward bounce and leaving well alone when need be. Suddenly the cricket rose above the average. Everyone could see it. Nobody left their seats. Test match cricket was alive!
Why? Because of length. If I had to pick a cricketer to bowl for my life over the first three days here at Lord's, it would be Glenn McGrath (though Richard Hadlee and Curtly Ambrose are in the mix!) McGrath has the simplest mantra for his art. "Hit the top of off stump with the odd bouncer" he says. Listen up lads. Two days to go and there is everything to play for.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK