The thing about 'turners'

Turners are fair weapons in international cricket; the domestic game, which must privilege development over results, can’t afford a surfeit. There should be a greater range of surfaces at this level, for only then will all-round cricketers, with the facility to succeed anywhere, develop.

Spinners' paradise... South Africa's Dean Elgar is caught by Cheteshwar Pujara off the bowling of Ravichandran Ashwin in the third Test at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Nagpur.The match officials reported the pitch to the ICC.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

New Zealand's Ross Taylor acknowledges the crowd as he walks off the ground after being dismissed for 290 on the fourth day of the second cricket Test against Australia at the WACA in Perth. New Zealand's James Neesham said he would anyday prefer to play on the Nagput pitch than at WACA.   -  REUTERS

The question that has recently been consuming the world of cricket appears straightforward, even academic — what is a good wicket? And so the depths of angst it has stirred is bewildering.

Michael Clarke had us know that it was one so expertly prepared that it helped the quicker bowlers early, eased a bit for the batsmen before natural wear and tear allowed the spinners to come into it. Something for everyone over five days was Clarke’s prescription. Where in the rules does it say that it cannot turn on day one, thundered Ravi Shastri. Elsewhere on Twitter, Matthew Hayden and Michael Vaughan took on the intelligentsia and the troll-brigade after suggesting the Nagpur pitch was less than suitable.

South Africa’s cricketers didn’t complain — no team led by Hashim Amla is equipped to be churlish — but they did give off a sense that never before had they been so challenged by the surface. India’s cricketers found the question overdone. They defended the pitches, with varying degrees of subtlety, but asked that their performances be given at least as much play.

The ICC appeared to have its suspicions, its match officials reporting the Nagpur pitch. But New Zealand’s James Neesham, who spent hard days in the field in Brisbane before witnessing a run fest at that old pace haven, the WACA, felt compelled to say that he’d rather be at the dry, dusty outpost of Jamtha than the dry, dusty outpost that is Perth. And he bowls seam-up!

If we are to make any headway — and not merely belch out so much hot air that a low-flying aircraft is buffeted by turbulence — we must attempt to answer the original question. At its most basic, and its most profound, a good cricket wicket is one that adheres to Test cricket’s fundamental premise: a balance between bat and ball. This balance may be weighted slightly this way or that — invariably those tilted in the bowlers’ favour produce tighter, more layered contests — but it cannot be done away with altogether.

Do turners make the cut then? They do — as long as they are not only under-prepared bowls of dust that reduce all batsmen to mediocrity and inflate all spinners to greatness. A pitch with enough turn and, more importantly, sufficient bounce to encourage the spinner and give a batsman of skill some chance: how does this contravene Test cricket’s premise?

There are, however, a couple of issues with turners. One is a matter of mechanics, the other a question of taste. The first has to do with the complex, inexact craft of pitch preparation. Making a strip with even turn and bounce on the first day — or as close as possible — is a formula yet to be bottled. There has been a measure of success with hard pitches covered with rough, thatched grass; rarer is the firm base with carefully managed, looser top soil: both allow the ball something to both grip and spring off.

 

But by far the more repeatable method is to leave the surface under-done so it disintegrates from the off, crumbling like an over-crisp biscuit.

It has become harder though to judge the menace of turners; the declining standards of defensive batsmanship make some look harder to play on than they are. And not all turners rage the same. Some, for instance, get slower, making batting easier for a bit. These become ball-dependent: as long as the ball is hard, it bites, but the softer and older it gets, the fewer teeth it has. Really, the only sort that can be condemned outright is the unplayable minefield, on which every delivery is liable to detonate.The other issue with turners, as with any one type of surface, is monotony: in a long series, if every pitch has the ball ripping square, things can get dreary.

It’s certainly less tedious than four batting paradises. But if done wholesale, what price variety? And what of the other skills that make up Test cricket? Perhaps the reason India’s cricketers appear so thin-skinned about the matter is because they feel pushed. One can understand India’s frustration at having had to work twice as hard to win matches at home, which was the case a few years ago, with several tracks becoming either flat or slow and low. The subcontinent already wasn’t this exotic land, thanks to ‘A’ tours and the Indian Premier League; the slow-turning ball had grown familiar. One option was to shake things up. Tactically and even strategically, if cranking up the degree of difficulty was the best way to win a Test series, it merited consideration.

Towards the end of his captaincy, M. S. Dhoni certainly saw it that way. It was something of a lottery: if a touring team had better spinners — or, more to the point, spinners better at bowling at an optimal, brisk pace into the rough — and a dogged batsman or two to support a genuine match-winner, like England did, it could backfire. But mostly the percentages were with India. And there is nothing wrong with making the most of home advantage.

The matter then is degree. It’s clear that a turner can stay within the confines of a good cricket wicket, as derived from first principles. The odd unreasonable turner can spike a series — so it isn’t unwelcome. When the bowlers are armed so they are no longer servants to the technological improvements and commercial considerations that have advantaged batsmen, things get interesting. So draw the line at an indiscriminate attack on the balance between bat and ball. The ICC’s idea of where that line is will be known soon; but the fact that Perth didn’t attract sanction showed that pitches loaded in favour of the batsmen escape similar scrutiny.

The other thing to keep in mind is that turners are fair weapons in international cricket; the domestic game, which must privilege development over results, can’t afford a surfeit. There should be a greater range of surfaces at this level, for only then will all-round cricketers, with the facility to succeed anywhere, develop.