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The whole 22 yards

December 10, 2007

The backdrop shows a cloudless sky, the tree-tops rustled by a gentle breeze. The camera pans across the twenty two yard strip shown in contrast by the lush outfield. The surface, a smooth expanse of brown showing the odd dead wisp of grass rolled into the surface. The ex-cricketer-turned-cricketer then speaks into the camera, to those waiting in the studio and goes on to say how it is “an excellent pitch full of runs”. And that, in a nutshell is one of the oldest half-truths in the game of cricket.

Sports like golf and tennis are influenced by the surface, to an extent, but one would be hard-pressed to find another sport that depends as much on the surface and the elements, as cricket. It is therefore critical, to get our definition of a ‘good’ pitch right. Having said that, it is logical that the right definition would depend on the perspective.

 

Perspective

Ideal Pitch

Characteristic

#1 Batsman Strip of concrete Predictable with no variation in bounce and pace; Minimal lateral movement
#2 Fast Bowler Lush cover of grass Grass provides bounce, moisture lets the seam grip – thus lateral movement
#3 Spin Bowler Tightly-packed drying mud Some pace and lots of turn; variation in amount of turn and bounce due to crumbling top

The ‘perfect’ viewer’s pitch then would start as #2, flatten to #1 and finally go to #3.

Given that the nature of pitches is a function of the weather and soil in a region, pitches in England will always be markedly different from those in the subcontinent. This gives rise to the concept of ‘the home advantage’ where the experience of having grown up playing on those pitches gives the home team the edge against visitors. So, one might argue that just like how teams visiting the hard bouncy surfaces of Australia get blown away, so should Indian pitches be turning paradises that restore the balance.

The response of Indian curators has been to starve our pitches of water while constantly rolling them to flatten them to dry pancakes. The dusty surface absorbs most of the pace of the ball, coming off much slower than the pace exerted by the bowler at the time of delivery and so it does not have the characteristics of any of the categories in the above table. This has two distinct impacts: 1. The ball does not come on to the bat, having batsmen apply all the force, making shot-making difficult and 2. While spinners get purchase on such wickets, it is slow, much like a U-turn executed by an Airbus A380. The result is cricket where neither batsmen nor bowlers hold sway, only, the former have the advantage of being able to stay at the wicket, albeit, in a near comatose state. Hence the on-going India-Pakistan series and while Delhi yielded a result on account of some bad batting by one team, the other test match has seen yawn-inducing cricket with batsman digging themselves in session after session.

Good cricket needs a good pitch, and while it might be impossible to produce a pitch that is not in favour of one the categories of players, some ‘life’ (water, sunshine, not too much rolling) in the pitch will certainly go a long away towards making test cricket a spectator sport.

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