Pitch imperfect

Pitches should be prepared to provide an even contest between bat and ball and should allow all disciplines in the game to flourish. In all cases, pitches will be judged on how they play, and not whether they are dry or what colour they are etc. – ECB Pitch Regulations, Domestic matches, 2020

When Joe Root takes five Indian wickets for only eight runs with his off-breaks and the Test match is wrapped up within two days, you can understand if there are a few questions asked about the state of the pitch. Such was the case as England let slip their early series lead in 2021, tumbling to a two-day defeat at the hands of Indian spinners on a raging Ahmedabad turner.

For Indian captain Kohli, there was nothing to see here. “No clue why the focus is so much on the ball or the pitch”, he said. “Neither sides’ batsmen were good enough to tackle the pitch in 3rd Test. I maintain it was a case of the skill on display rather than the pitch being a bad one…. I believe there is too much noise about spinning tracks. Our media should present the view that spinning tracks are fine in the subcontinent. The reason behind our success as a team is that we haven’t cribbed about any surface we have played on. We have always tried to improve.”

In Kohli’s protestation one can feel a large dose of a proud captain sensing his team’s victory being diminished, with a sprinkle of protecting the BCCI from the suggestion that this was a case of orders to produce a home team favouring pitch taken too far. However, his comments tapped into a recurring theme that has washed about English domestic cricket for the last thirty years.

The ECB’s atttitude towards the ability of its players to cope with quality spin bowling on helpful pitches has long been ambivalent. The regularity of England batsmen struggling on turning surfaces abroad has led to the odd initative to encorage the use of spinners in the country game – such as the tinkering of the toss law to discourage the production of green-tops – but any benefit gained has been simultaenously undermined by the shunting of many of the County Championship games to the earliest months of the season and a distinct impression that the only time the ECB’s pitch inspectors’ interest is piqued is when the slow bowlers are getting in on the act.

In the recent book ‘The Secret Cricketer’, the eponymous anonymous writer vents a frustration over the apparent hostile atttude towards turning pitches on the County circuit: “So many games are over in two days with 40 wickets taken by seamers and there is radio silence, yet Somerset or Essex are put under the microscope every time the ball turns.”

There appears to be some validity to this argument, though the evidence doesn’t point to an overly officious regime. Since 1989 when points penalties for sub-standard pitches were introduced in the County Championship, only seventeen matches [list here] have been subject to sanction on the quality of the playing surface. Hampshire and Derbyshire have been the worst offenders, up before the beak three times; Kent and Northamptonshire suffering twice; with Essex, Glamorgan, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Yorkshire punished just the once. The tendency to impose punishments appears to cyclical – between 1991 and 1997, only one county suffered a deduction; in 2000 and 2011, three were handed out in each those years.

It does seem that turners are more likely to attract a penalty than seaming tracks. Of the 31 instances where bowlers took five or more wickets in an innings in penalised matches, 16 were spinners; the 51% figure compares to a ballpark of around 20% of County Championship overs usually bowled as spin. It was not all off and leg breaks however, as looking at all wickets taken in those matches, the number falling to spin drops to around 35%. A quick glance through the list of sanctions and a couple of seam-friendly pitch penalties jump out: a first innings’ green-top at Old Trafford in 1994 and a dangerous minefield at Edgbaston that prompted Worcestershire’s Director of Cricket, Steve Rhodes to label it “probably the worst pitch I’ve seen in professional cricket in England.” However, particularly in recent years, it is the spinning pitches that have been more likely to draw sanction, though often due as much to uneven bounce as the degree of turn.

This is a very modern phenomenon. In professional cricket’s earlier days of uncovered pitches, surfaces with spit, turn or uneven bounce were all part of the challenge of cricket. Today if things get too tricky for the batting team, the pitch inspectors are called in.

Yet the sanctions are entirely one way. The regulation demands “an even contest between bat and ball” but punishment is only doled out when the pendulum swings to the latter. When Lancashire racked up 863 in response to Surrey’s 707/9d, the pitch inspectors were seemingly content; as they were when Somerset (850/7d) played out a no-chance-of-a-result draw with Middlesex (600/4d & 209/2).

At times this can make little sense. Certainly an unplayable mess of a surface which sees every batter back in the hutch for single digits and the game over in a day and a bit is in no one’s interest other than the most partisan. However, as a spectactor one would certainly have rather been at Southampton to witness Nottinghamshire run out of overs only four runs short of their target (213 – McKenzie 97 not out – & 171 played 183 and 198/6) than at any four-day match grinding to a draw from halfway through. It is also much more in the interest of the development of a Test side that can struggle in ‘un-English’ conditions.

Perhaps there lies the rub. Flattish surfaces with a bit of nibble, under skies that encourage the Dukes to swing, with spinners getting purchase on days three and four in August and September, are considered quintessential ‘English’ conditions. Others raise an eyebrow. Instead, we should welcome all shades of pitch other than the most impossible and that would help many of the Test batting unit stop scratching their heads when winter comes around.

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