Sam Perry is a freelance sportswriter and co-author of The Grade Cricketer
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When it comes to pitches, ideology, not fact, is often king.
The recent battle royale between India and Australia provided some of the most absorbing cricket we've seen for some time. As with any great drama, beneath the epic clash of tactics, skill and technique sat a circus of sub-plots, circumstance and intrigue which, as unpalatable as some of it seemed, is a naturally occurring phenomenon within the modern sporting theatre.
Central to it all was conjecture over the state of pitches. You could barely draw breath before another hot take bellowed about either the preparation or performance of each pitch, especially early in the series. Whether the product of previous perceived injustice, lazy stereotyping or basic fear, much of it came from Australia. And yet as we commence reflection on the series just gone, the only accurate conclusion we can draw from the relentless brouhaha is that as usual very few of us are adept at predicting the behaviour of wickets.
As the dying embers cede on this series, when you take it as a whole, the pitches played excellently. They just about offered equal opportunity for players of all persuasions to succeed at various points in the series, while simultaneously retaining the unique spirit of Indian conditions. The best players transcended their disadvantages; the weaker players fell prey to them. The wickets, in short, revealed much about both sides. As they should.
But this cynical correspondent doesn't anticipate a sea of magnanimity from the visitors as we now collectively pore over a clash for the ages. That's because cricketing dogma dies hard.
A political exchange from earlier this week may give some clues. Taking place in an entirely different world, veteran American broadcast journalist Ted Koppel delivered a composed, stinging rebuke to Fox News presenter Sean Hannity on live TV. Calmly rising above the din of Hannity's interruptions, Koppel found some clear air. He said "…you are very good at what you do. You have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts." It was a solid point. Of course, the discussion was not about Bengaluru's sporting wicket, but it's difficult to avoid parallels between Koppel's insight and the attitudes of many Australians to foreign conditions. When it comes to pitches, ideology, not fact, is often king.
A few weeks ago I spoke with a former Australian Test player ahead of the series. Amid broad discussion on themes of flexibility, adaptability and foreign conditions, he relayed a story about a game at home at grade level where players arrived before play to find a wicket that had been impacted by some rain.
To his mind, the wicket did indeed contain a little more grass than normal. It would favour bowlers and somewhat diminish the opportunity for batsmen to really dominate. That said, there was nothing about the wicket that rendered it even close to dangerous. He watched as an opposition player - a current first-class player of some note - inspected the pitch and declared audibly and charmingly that it was f***ing terrible.
The player's team-mates, most of them junior in status, stood by murmuring in agreement. At grade level, a first-class player's view is usually sacrosanct. The former international grimaced and shook his head. Not because he was surprised, but because he wasn't. Such attitudes to wickets that aren't fast, hard and white were common amongst his peers, he said, and reveal much about Australia's own deep-seated ideology about the pitches they play on. The offender on this occasion was a batsman, of course.
It stands to reason though, doesn't it? We are, after all, agents of self-interest. The batsman who revels in a green wicket should have his head checked, and the opposite is true for the bowler. Yet in Australia, at least, we are more likely to collectively condemn a green wicket than a flat one, even if the latter offers a rare opportunity for seamers to succeed. It's a phenomenon that echoes at the highest level of the game too. We've all been on the receiving end of pre-game coverage where the camera pans to unveil a glistening white thing, overlayed by an anchor cooing over the "belter" that the groundsmen have prepared with wondrous skill. Flat pitches are beautiful, rank turners are not. Perhaps it's in the symmetry and aesthetics of it all; the flat pitch with the model-esque, blemish-free skin. It's a curious phenomenon, particularly given that the flat wickets usually elicit the rankest cricket of all.
Perhaps it's silly to dream for a day where we applaud the provision of a turning or seaming wicket. Where we applaud it not for its shiny beauty, but for its challenge. Where we avoid castigating conditions that don't immediately advantage our own. Where we embrace pitches that contrast with our own. Throughout this recent series we've seen matches where each of spin, pace and bat have dominated. And yet no particular proficiency was unfairly oppressed for too long - each was afforded opportunity to thrive were the exponent good enough. This is surely the aspiration of any collection of wickets throughout the world: to give due opportunity to all through variety, while allowing the very special amongst each cohort the chance to rise above adverse circumstances to announce themselves as a cut above.