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Michael Jeh

Which was a better Test: Hobart or Rajkot?

The first produced a series win, the second a draw. Only one kept both seamers and spinners in play

Michael Jeh
Michael Jeh
In Hobart and Christchurch, the spinners weren't invited to the party at all  •  Cricket Australia/Getty Images

In Hobart and Christchurch, the spinners weren't invited to the party at all  •  Cricket Australia/Getty Images

For a disciple of Test cricket, the last few days have been heaven on the big screen. Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott nipping the ball about in Hobart, the New Zealand and Pakistani fast bowlers doing likewise in Christchurch,while over in India, Haseeb Hameed's and Alastair Cook's brilliant defensive techniques provided a magnificent contrast to their dazzling, wristy strokeplay.
It would be true to say that the last fortnight has provided as much breadth and variety as a Test purist could hope for in terms of pitches, techniques and skills.
The unique beauty of Test cricket is that a tense draw can be as riveting as an outright result. So long as at least one team is trying to win the match, a pitch that produces a draw is not necessarily a poor one. And a pitch that produces a fourth- or fifth-day result is arguably better than one on which a game finishes on the third day.
Let's look at the two most recent Tests in Asia and the two in Australia and New Zealand as examples. Which of these pitches, on a statistical basis, provided more balance between bat and ball and between different bowling styles?
The Hobart Test was effectively a two-day affair, allowing for the washout on the second day and some rain interruptions on the third. Fewer than 194 overs were bowled, and 572 runs were scored, with one century. Of the 30 wickets that fell, 29 went to fast bowlers, zero to spinners (there was one run-out). So of all the wickets claimed by bowlers, 100% of them were taken by one type of bowling (fast).
In Christchurch, another Test that finished before the halfway point (if you count the washout on the first day), New Zealand won easily against Pakistan, who looked incapable of batting in seam-friendly conditions with extra bounce. A total of 612 runs were scored; no centuries. Of the 32 wickets that fell, seam bowlers claimed 31. The only wicket that fell to a spinner (part-timer Azhar Ali) was at the very end of the game, with victory just one run away. So that's close to 100% in favour of seam.
In the first Test in Rajkot against England, India were under some pressure to save the match on the last day before it petered out in the final minutes. A total of 1457 runs were scored, with six centuries. More revealingly, the split between seam bowlers (seven) and spinners (22) suggested the pitch conditions were more balanced.
In Visakhapatnam, 1072 runs were scored, with two centuries. Fourteen wickets to fast bowlers and 25 to the slow men. Again, a significantly more balanced snapshot than the matches in Australia and New Zealand.
Even if you go back to Australia's recent tour of Sri Lanka or New Zealand's tour of India, the numbers look more balanced than the ones from Hobart and Christchurch.
In Sri Lanka, the three Tests finished on day five, day three and day five respectively. Fast bowlers took 36 wickets and spinners 80 through the series.
In India, the Tests against New Zealand lasted five, four and four days respectively. The seam-spin split was 37-62. In both India and Sri Lanka, the fast bowlers took approximately 33% of the total wickets that fell in the series. That's significantly more balanced than heavily pace-favouring Hobart and Christchurch.
Imagine the raised eyebrows if the spin v fast stats in the Tests played in Asia had been as heavily skewed in favour of spinners as they were for seamers in the Antipodes.
There's no question that weather conditions played their part in Hobart and Christchurch, but the same could also be said about the impact of weather on Asian pitches. Don't forget that in Hobart 15 wickets fell for 256 runs on the first day. This was the best pitch the groundsman could serve up for Bellerive Oval's marquee event of the summer. Christchurch was similar - 13 wickets for 237 runs on the first day of actual play. That can sometimes happen on any pitch that offers too much to the bowlers anywhere in the world.
The success of Mitchell Starc in Sri Lanka and of England's seamers in India proves that fast bowlers can do well on Asian pitches, contrary to some of the mutterings from Starc about how much better it was to be back at the WACA. His figures in Perth and Hobart were less flattering than the ones he got in Sri Lanka! At least his style of bowling was "allowed" to succeed on the Asian pitches, whereas it can hardly be claimed that the same tolerance was shown towards spinners in Hobart and Christchurch.
Sure, Australia's, New Zealand's and England's batsmen may be less comfortable against better spin bowlers, so it is only natural that the Asian spinners will be more successful against them. And it is worth pointing out that the Asian fast bowlers took more wickets in Asia than the spinners did in Hobart or Christchurch. More to the point, the Hobart and Christchurch Tests did not last long enough to allow the spinners to come into the game.
It ultimately boils down to the strengths, weaknesses and unique characteristics of each team in different conditions. It should be no surprise that most teams are more skilful in conditions that they are familiar with, but the "doctored" pitch accusation should not be thrown around carelessly.
Watching Pakistan bat on that second morning against New Zealand was as fascinating as watching England trying to survive in the fourth innings in Visakhapatnam - fascinating contrasts in technique, temperament and skill. I watched every ball of both those innings and it reminded me why I love this format above all else. One run per over in Visakhapatnam was as exciting as David Warner or Quinton De Kock teeing off.
It's not always the case that the home team is guaranteed to win because the odds have been unfairly stacked against the visitors. Australia were all over Sri Lanka at times before they squandered winning positions; England had much the better of the Rajkot Test and might have won if Cook had been more adventurous with his declaration.
For all those who argue that the toss can sometimes decide a Test match, look no further than Perth, Hobart and Christchurch. There's talk of the toss being hyper-crucial in Adelaide too, so there goes the theory that it's only in Asia that the game is done and dusted before the first ball is bowled. The numbers don't lie.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane