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Comment

What is a bad pitch?

The track at Newlands, and the cricket it produced, was like something from the 1800s, leading to mayhem in the middle and exaggeration in the analysis

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
05-Jan-2024
Character study: scoring two runs on one day and an epic hundred the next - cricket tests you, sometimes with the conditions  •  Halden Krog/Associated Press

Character study: scoring two runs on one day and an epic hundred the next - cricket tests you, sometimes with the conditions  •  Halden Krog/Associated Press

What is a bad pitch? One that favours batters so heavily that it results in a five-day draw? Or one that favours bowlers of a particular type and finishes in 107 overs?
What is bad batting? Is it technical - as in poor footwork, playing around the front pad, going hard at the ball - or is it poor shot selection?
What is good bowling? Hitting "the right areas" on pitches where the ball moves laterally or, worse still, bounces unevenly? Or swinging/spinning the ball on pitches that offer little help to such skills?
Neither Barry Richards, a wonderfully gifted batter from an age long past, nor Dean Elgar, one from the modern era and less gifted but no less committed, were prepared to call out the same Newlands pitch that a very great South African golfer, whose love of cricket goes back to a childhood hitting as many cricket balls as golf balls, called "shocking".
Rohit Sharma said he didn't mind playing on such seam-friendly surfaces so long as pitches in India were were not marked down for being spin-friendly. In fact, Rohit almost admitted to enjoying the challenge. Virat Kohli fairly revelled in the contest at both Supersport Park and Newlands, reckoning that he batted about as well as he can do. Elgar at the former and Aiden Markram at the latter played the innings of their lives.
Cricket is a multifaceted game. One day is rarely, if ever, the same as the last or the next. Cricket takes all sorts, sizes and shapes, and will frustrate as often as it will fulfil. It follows no rules, only the laws by which it is regulated, and the consequence is that in games that are not limited by the overs each side receives, there is no telling what will happen or how long it will last. I helped friends with tickets for the third day at Newlands but they didn't get close to seeing a ball bowled live. "What the hell sort of a wicket was that???" WhatsApped one of them. A belter for Markram, I replied.
Cricket is the most artistic of all games. It is frequently difficult and frustrating but even the most prosaic of players can give pleasure with a mighty strike, an unlikely wicket or a brilliant catch. It has mainly instinctive skills and yet relies on method for excellence. Batting pleases the eye because it is a thing of straight lines that is subject to angles and dimensions. This feels like an accident but it is in the interpretation.
We might, in hindsight, call these psychological pitches; ones that required the right mindset both in preparation and at the moment of performance. For a batter to fear the worst was to invite failure; for a bowler to assume the best was to invite hubris
Above all, batting is fragile. One minute you have it, the next it is gone. A single ball will undo hours, days, weeks of preparation. For sure, batting - cricket indeed - is not to be trusted. Ask Elgar and ask Marco Jansen about bowling. At the halfway stage of the World Cup, he had the ball on a string before he was blasted all around Eden Gardens and he suddenly couldn't land it on the cut bit. During these two Test matches against India he has resorted to bowling round the wicket and trying to stick to a fullish line outside the off stump. For conviction, he has explored limitation. Only late in the denouement yesterday, when there was nothing but crumbs left to play for, did he let go and watch the red ball fly again. In short, the fear of failure was nowhere to be seen and almost by magic, his rhythm returned.
Cricket is a game played out on the edge of nerves. It examines character, explores personality and exposes vulnerabilities. A man - Markram, say - scores nothing one day and a hundred the next. This is wicked, it is unkind, but it is tempting and it is exhilarating. Raise your bat once and you will ache to do so again.
The art of cricket is a beautiful journey and a beautiful result. This beauty holds its place in our heart even at a time when all roads point to change. It is why there is an immense responsibility as we search to modernise a game that has its roots in the past. After all, it is the roots that define it.
My view is that this was a poor pitch because it was too heavily weighted in favour of fast bowling. The key to the game is a fair pitch that gives every player hope. It looked odd, as if the plate-like cracks had been glued together by a different make and colour of grass from the one elsewhere on the surface. From these, and from the indentations created when the ball pitched, came the sideways movement, uneven pace and unpredictable bounce. I would mark it down for this but I would not condemn.
The pitch in Centurion was no sinecure either. India, a side rammed with exceptional batters, were bowled for 131 in the third innings and lost the match by a mile. A lot of the cricket played in both matches was ordinary and sometimes worse. A lot of the rest that was played was very good, even thrilling. The matches swung in quality like few I have seen, and yet, in the main, the best players commanded the best results. We might, in hindsight, call these psychological pitches; ones that required the right mindset both in preparation and at the moment of performance. For a batter to fear the worst was to invite failure; for a bowler to assume the best was to invite hubris.
In truth, incredible things happened that had everyone talking - 55 all out and six wickets without a run being scored the most notable - and still we could celebrate fine batting and the craftwork in seam and swing bowling. Athletic catches were taken in the slips and the crowd rose to its feet on numerous occasions to raucously celebrate the many striking events they were fortunate to witness with their own eyes. Indeed, had you put aside just two days to watch Test cricket and these were them, you'd think it was quite some show. After all, few modern batters boast techniques as good as Kohli and KL Rahul, or strokeplay as eye-catching as Rohit and Markram. Few modern fast bowlers come close to Kagiso Rabada and Jasprit Bumrah.
It's just that it all happened so quickly. It was like when it all began in the late 1800s and the pitches were usually not much good and always uncovered and the bats were planks and techniques were being worked out at origin and bowlers fizzed the ball from their fingers with little pace but plenty of cut and they homed in a length so difficult to play that WG Grace averaged 32 with the bat and Sydney Barnes 16 with the ball. There you go! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
So I'm inclined to call this a one-off. I don't think it was a South African plot to have such surfaces, only that the coach might have requested a little grass to give encouragement to the quicks. Given the track the grass lay upon, this led to mayhem. Such extremes - and especially those on the scoreboard - lead to exaggeration in the analysis.
I'm moved to say that cricket can be anything, and yes, in general we want better pitches for a longer Test match game and a greater range of skills to show their face. But we also want the players to react to the challenges of nature and nurture with equal relish and to accept, without rancour, that nothing is perfect and nor will it be. Only that cricket lives on at Test level for the very reason that days like these past five in South Africa surprise, amaze and amuse us. And that best of all, cricket is the talk of the town.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator