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Dileep Premachandran

Uniformity is for automatons

Defining a good pitch is about as easy as defining beauty. Yet, the ICC appear determined to go down the Elle-Cosmopolitan route and establish standards for that which cannot really be defined



Wear and tear on a wicket is all part of the game, so why try to standardise it? © Getty Images
Defining a good pitch is about as easy as defining beauty. Yet, the ICC appear determined to go down the Elle-Cosmopolitan route and establish standards for that which cannot really be defined. In future, the match referee will be asked to assess each pitch and outfield after a game, a task similar to that of judges at Miss World.
Under the new guidelines, a pitch can fall into any one of six categories, from `very good' to `poor' and `unfit'. That judgment will be made after various parameters, including bounce, seam movement and turn, are assessed. All of which brings us back to the fundamental question: what is a good pitch? Invariably, a batsman's paradise that produces an avalanche of runs escapes condemnation, while a surface on which the bowlers dominate - like Mumbai in 2004 - attracts the worst kind of censure.
The Antigua pitch on which Brian Lara made 400, and the Faisalabad surface that facilitated a run-fest between India and Pakistan last January both deserved to be dynamited for the one-sided nature of the contest between bat and ball, whereas Mumbai, for all its faults, produced a gripping game that went right to the wire. The first kind of pitch kills Test cricket, the second brings out its many charms and keeps the crowds enthralled, yet gets slated for not lasting the distance.
The ICC's aim seems noble enough - no one wants to see a surface where batsmen could be seriously injured - but appears destined to be loaded against bowlers, in what is already a batsman's game. TV companies may lose revenue from three and four-day Tests, but they're invariably better to watch for Joe Public than some snooze-fest where mediocre batsmen help themselves to centuries. Bowler-friendly pitches generally offer much more of a spectacle, and a welcome respite in these times when pretty much every flat-track bully seems to be averaging close to 50 or beyond - an absolute travesty when you look at the career figures of legends like Victor Trumper and Gordon Greenidge.
Some of the most celebrated innings in cricket lore came on pitches of dubious quality. The old-timers in Dhaka still speak with awe of Neil Harvey's 96 on coir matting against Fazal Mahmood in his prime, while those of my generation will never ever forget Sunil Gavaskar's magnum opus on a spiteful pitch at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. In more recent times, we've watched Rahul Dravid construct a magnificent 148 at Headingley and Kamran Akmal script a series-winning effort at Karachi, both in conditions perfect for seam bowling. And on pitches that were expected to favour India's spin duo, Damien Martyn batted with composure and panache on his way to two centuries and a 97 as Australia overcame a 35-year drought in India.
According to the ICC guidelines, a good pitch will have "good carry, limited seam movement and consistent bounce throughout, little or no turn on the first two days but natural wear sufficient to be responsive to spin later in the game". Fine in essence, but what of a match like the Chennai one which would have had an engrossing finish but for rain? What of Pakistan triumphing over the odds at Bangalore despite Gavaskar's brilliance, on a pitch where Maninder Singh picked up seven on the opening day? Or the opening day of the 2005 Ashes, where 17 wickets fell and yet everyone went home feeling they'd seen one of the greatest day's cricket in history?
By general consensus, there are three distinct benchmarks for batting greatness - ability to cope with the bounce in Australia, the nous to tackle the seaming delivery in England, and the skill to ward off spin on the subcontinent. A pitch that turns square on the opening day, or one that offers extravagant seam movement - Headingley has produced more than its fair share of thrilling Tests - is not necessarily a bad thing ... except, of course, for the TV companies and advertisers.
The whole process is also far too dependent on the whims of the match official. Clive Lloyd, never the biggest fan of spin bowling in his playing days, rubbished the pitch at the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad last year, despite the fact that it produced five eventful days of bat-and-ball parity. India won largely due to a magnificent innings from VVS Laxman, another case of quality coming to the fore in testing conditions.
In any case, the quest for uniformity of any kind is for automatons, not human beings. You'll struggle to find too many football pitches that are the same width, just as you'll find that the distance needed to slug a home run varies depending on whether you're at Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field. The differences, and the ability to surmount them, are the very soul of sport. Tamper with that, for TV or anyone else, and we might as well be watching the sham that is made-for-idiot-box wrestling.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo