'Pitches need to produce good cricket' - Angus Fraser on boosting England's Test fortunes

Middlesex director of cricket warns against short-term gain of producing surfaces helpful to spin or seam

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Dom Bess celebrates a wicket, Somerset v Nottinghamshire, County Championship, 2nd day, July 8, 2019

Dom Bess learned his trade on turning pitches at Taunton  •  Getty Images

Angus Fraser, Middlesex's director of cricket, has insisted that a uniform spread of good cricket wickets remains the best way to develop Test-class cricketers, in spite of the difficulties that England encountered in spinning conditions on their tour of India this winter, where they succumbed to three heavy defeats at Chennai and Ahmedabad.
After dominating the first Test at Chennai in the most batsman-friendly conditions of the series, England had few answers to India's spin duo of R Ashwin and Axar Patel for the remainder of the campaign, as the pair finished with 59 wickets between them across the four Tests.
Nor could England find a batsman able to thrive on those later surfaces to the same extent as either Rohit Sharma or Rishabh Pant. Each scored a century, in the second and fourth Test respectively, to put both contests out of reach, as England in reply managed a highest total of 205 in seven innings.
In particular, the conditions that England faced in the final two Tests at Ahmedabad, where they slumped to defeats in two and three days respectively, drew comparisons with the situations that many sides face when visiting Taunton in the County Championship - or "Ciderabad", as it is colloquially known, due to the dominance of spin at the venue.
But Fraser, who once described the pitch for Middlesex's relegation-sealing defeat at Taunton in 2017 as "dreadful", believes that it is the disciplines learned by batsmen and bowlers alike on good surfaces that lay the foundations for success in tougher circumstances.
"All pitches need to produce good cricket, that's the starting point," he said. "Batsmen need to bat on surfaces that they can trust, so that they can play their shots and they're not fearful that there's a ball coming around the corner with their name on it, and therefore think, well, I'll be aggressive and try and make it pay until that ball comes along,
"And bowlers have got to bowl with discipline. They've got to learn to be accurate, as well as spin the ball or bowl with pace, and they're going to learn those skills by playing on good surfaces."
Earlier this month, the ECB agreed to increase the number of points available for a draw in the County Championship from five to eight, in response to an appeal from Joe Root, England's captain, for counties to be incentivised to make their games last longer.
And Fraser said that he welcomed that change, particularly in light of the retention of the three-group format for this year's County Championship.
"A result of [two-]divisional cricket is the fact that people are willing to roll the dice. If we've got seven home games, if we can win four and lose three, it's better than winning two and drawing four and losing one, or whatever it might be. And I don't think that mentality produces decent cricketers.
"The conversation we have with Karl [McDermott], our groundsman, is a very short one - just produce the best pitch you can. I want Lord's to be a good surface, not one where it's all over in two-and-a-bit days and where 180 is a decent score.
"You can't get funky with pitches. We've turned up at some grounds, historically, and there's saucer-shaped areas outside off stump on the spinners length that look completely different from the rest of the pitch.
"To me that's a very short-term look at things. If we're trying to produce decent cricketers, we want to play on good surfaces and we want to encourage groundsmen to produce those, rather than compromise by asking them to produce something completely in favour of the home side."
Fraser did acknowledge that the existence of pitches such as Taunton's could provide players with an insight into the sort of extreme conditions that were encountered in Ahmedabad this winter, and he commended the club on producing both of England's current first-choice spinners, Dom Bess and Jack Leach.
However, he reiterated his view that such an approach was merely a short-cut, rather than a solution, to England's problem of producing enough Test-class spin bowlers to compete in overseas conditions, and cited Bess' struggles this winter as an example of the lack of grounding he has been offered, despite his opportunities to play.
"We get on well with Somerset despite the odd spat," Fraser said. "As a county we fully respect what they've achieved.
"When I first came to the Middlesex position, it was to achieve what Somerset are doing, and compete all competitions on a regular basis. But if you look at the Somerset experiment, how many Somerset batsmen are in the England squad?
"The real positive for Somerset is, yes, they're providing England with two of their spinners, including Dom Bess, whom I picked as an England selector. But, not that I've spoken to the coach, but Bess got dropped because they were worried about his discipline. And the fact that he bowled too many bad balls.
"The Indian spinners were able to exploit those pitches, but I'm sure they play on a lot of flat pitches that don't offer the spinners a lot of help too, so that they have to bowl with the discipline that's required.
"The Somerset surface angle is one that is often mentioned when you look at an Ahmedabad situation, but has it has it provided England with the cricketers that have allowed us to go to India to win a series?
"I'm not having a go at the situation there, I'm just looking at it logically, in the same way that playing on a green seamer at Lord's might give a false account of a fast bowler. If it's been an overcast summer, such a player is then likely to get exposed at Test level, because they're playing on flatter pitches against better batsman."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket