December 2, 2015

The toss debate: aiding spin v home advantage

Interviews by David Hopps and George Dobell
County captains Rob Key and Andrew Gale speak for and against getting rid of the mandatory coin toss in the County Championship next season

Will we see as many green pitches as we do if the home side run the risk of being put in first? © PA Photos

Rob Key

former England batsman and Kent captain. A member of the ECB's cricket committee and, having started his first-class career in 1998, one of the most experienced contemporary players

We had to do something. It got to the stage where some teams were risking everything on the toss. There was period at Cheltenham where whoever won the toss won the game. We had a bit of a heatwave last summer, but despite it not raining for a month, we played three Championship games in a row without our spinners - who are two of the best in the country - and we were right to do so. The pitches were so green.

Counties like to talk about doing the right thing for the game, but they also want to get out of Division Two and they end up doing what is best for their side. When I started playing, every county had a good spinner. Nobody would claim that's the case now.

This is not just about encouraging spin. We hope to create conditions that are more like international cricket. Batting has changed massively since I started playing, and opening the batting has never been harder. It's not that the bowlers are better - there are fewer really good overseas and Kolpak bowlers around - but the [batting] conditions are very tough.

When I started, quite a few people would score 1600 or so first-class runs a season, and Mark Ramprakash would score 2000. Now you're doing well if you scrape to 1000. The conditions are changing techniques. We want to encourage pace and skill in fast bowling and by doing that, prepare batsmen for Test cricket. And yes, we want to encourage spin.

"If we see 15 wickets fall to seam bowling on the first day of a game, nobody bats an eye. But if the ball turns on day one, people start to worry"
Rob Key

My original view was that we should have tougher penalties for poor pitches. But that is so hard to police. It just becomes a minefield. But what I still think is that the stigma over spinning pitches has to end. If we see 15 wickets fall to seam bowling on the first day of a game, nobody bats an eye. But if the ball turns on day one, people start to worry. That has to stop.

The cricket committee had a two-day meeting and 90% of it was spent talking about pitches. We went through all the options. We talked about everything you have seen suggested on social media. And in the end everyone there agreed that this was the way to go. The rules governing the use of the heavy roller are remaining the same.

We want to stop counties producing pitches that just suit their seamers. We want to take that luxury away from them and instead get them to produce pitches that result in a more even battle between bat and ball and require pace and spin bowlers as well as seamers.

I'm not surprised by the negative reactions. They are the same reactions I had when I first heard the suggestion. But it was not a decision taken lightly, and I'd just say to people: let's try it and see what happens. Our original suggestion to the ECB board was to try this for a year in Division Two. It was their idea to try it in Division One as well.

We're not suddenly going to see five more spinners. We can't expect a miracle cure. But we might see a situation where, instead of spinners bowling 20% of overs in the Championship, they might bowl 30%.

It's not just the pitches, even the scheduling doesn't favour spinners © Getty Images

Andrew Gale

Captain of Yorkshire, winners of the County Championship for the past two years. Scorer of nearly 8000 first-class runs in a 12-year professional career

I admire that the ECB cricket committee are trying to do something, but there is lots about this decision that troubles me. I thought that the ECB were gaining a reputation for consulting more widely with the counties, but we heard nothing about this. We heard rumours it could happen in Division Two and suddenly it was introduced in the First Division as well.

It's a decision that has come straight after a Test series defeat in the UAE, which has brought the problems to everyone's attention. But we don't want subcontinent-paced wickets in England. That is not what people want to watch. If we had gone to Australia and won this close season, I doubt that this decision would have happened.

Obviously the rule has been brought in to encourage spinners and because of a recognition that the wickets have become too seamer-friendly. The intention is a good one - I know that. But if wickets are that bad, why haven't points been docked? Fifteen-plus wickets have fallen many times on the first day and it has repeatedly been put down to bad batting. I can see Keysie's point about something needing to be done, but why haven't pitch inspectors done their job properly? It comes down to people being strong.

"You only need to dock a couple of points for a pitch that starts excessively damp and it will soon persuade counties that the risk is not worth taking"
Andrew Gale

The problem is much bigger in Division Two. You can understand why some counties do it, because, ultimately, the need is to get out of the division and to win matches during a demanding schedule, which can stretch pace-bowling resources. But there are certain grounds where it happens day after day. You know who they are. You only need to dock a couple of points for a pitch that starts excessively damp and it will soon persuade counties that the risk is not worth taking. Yorkshire had an eight-point deduction for a substandard pitch at Scarborough in 2000, and our director of cricket, Martyn Moxon, has been scarred by it ever since.

I'd guess that 90% of cricket in Division One is played on good wickets. They left the grass on at the Ageas Bowl last season, but it was not damp. You could see they knew their own square and they were just trying to encourage pace and carry. We played another game at Arundel where the pitch was so slow, our second slip had to stand so close he wore a helmet. Spinners might have wheeled away for hours on that one, but it wouldn't necessarily have done much good.

The fact is that the schedule, as it stands, does not encourage spinners. When you play most of your games in early or late season, you aggravate the problem. How can Durham, as the northernmost county, produce spinning pitches at this time of year? The climate is against it. It's very hard to do that at Headingley, and our groundsman, Andy Fogarty, has just won the Groundsman of the Year award. When it is overcast at Headingley and the ball starts playing tricks for the pace bowlers, it doesn't matter how dry the pitch is, it's hard as a captain to throw the ball to Adil Rashid to bowl legspin. When we did play some games in midsummer, at Hove and Lord's, he bowled a lot of overs.

Next season when it is overcast at Headingley, we won't get a 50-50 chance to bowl first. Sport is about using home advantage where you can, to try to build your ground into a fortress. Look at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, with a big playing surface and fast wingers. That is what makes professional sport so good to watch. Winning away from home should be a challenge.

I am a traditionalist. I love Championship cricket. The toss has existed since the beginning of time. Why keep messing with the game? It's too complicated for some people as it is.

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