Battle on two fronts

Good cricket pitches should begin life as firm and fast surfaces, with the ball coming on to the bat with the quick, even bounce which encourages free-scoring strokeplay.

The spin of a coin or bat has played an important role in the game of cricket ever since the 18th century. In those days, not only did it decide which team should bat first on neutral grounds but also permitted the side winning the toss to select the 22 yards of turf — within 30 yards of the centre of the ground — on which to play the game. This was a tremendous advantage since in the days of underarm bowling it enabled the winners of the toss to choose a pitch suited to their side's batsmen and bowlers.

This meant that experienced and canny bowlers such as `Lumpy' Stevens enjoyed the edge of knowing their way around most of the undulations in all the pitches of early English clubs. It was written of `Lumpy' that "he was a great length bowler, had a passion for shooters and always sought to choose his ground so that he might pitch on a downward slope: for `Honest Lumpy' did allow, he ne'er could pitch, but o'er a brow."

The early eventful games of the ICC 2006 Champions Trophy suggest that the unpredictable behaviour of pitches still plays a major role in the outcome of ODIs. The lateness of this year's Indian monsoons has resulted in the under preparation of playing surfaces and slow, low wickets which threaten to reduce the competition to something of a damp squib. From its very inception the 50-over game favoured the batsman: pitches are usually placid batsmen's paradises; field placements are restricted to abort run-saving, defensive tactics; key bowlers are limited to 10 overs — even when they are taking wickets; the use of short-pitched deliveries is stringently rationed; and bowlers are penalised for a wide when they stray marginally down the leg-side — albeit that such a ball might be exploiting a batsman's weakness. From a bowler's point of view, the major injustice in these arrangements is that the games are habitually played on lifeless surfaces.

Not so this year! The late monsoon rains have kept the heavy rollers off the centre-wicket plots on Indian grounds, rendering it impossible for groundsmen to manufacture the flat moribund pitches characteristic of sub-continental ovals. The resultant low-bouncing, bowler-favourable wickets sent shivers of financial deprivation through the ranks of ICC administrators: sponsors, marketers and telecasters — all fearing that bowler-dominated games would curtail television programming, reduce advertisers' exposure and attenuate the game's revenues. The mere fleeting thought of financial loss produced the knee-jerk reaction of attempting to glue Mumbai's Brabourne Stadium's wicket together with a coating of five litres of diluted polyvinyl acetate adhesive! Obviously we have come a long way from the days of `Lumpy' Stevens when cricket was just an even competition between bat and ball, with the unknown factor of a dicey pitch thrown in for good measure. It raises the suggestion in my mind that if it is justifiable to stick the pitch together by artificial means, why not play the game on a completely synthetic wicket?

Ideally, good cricket pitches should begin life as firm and fast surfaces, with the ball coming on to the bat with the quick, even bounce which encourages free-scoring strokeplay. The bowler gains heart from the ball's bounce and its pace and movement through the air and off the wicket. As the pitch wears and grows older, it affords the bowler spin and cut off the wicket — a phenomenon, it should be noted, which rarely has time to develop in the brief span of the One-Day format.

This year, however, it has been a different story. The inadequate preparation of the ICC Champions' pitches has eventuated in under-cooked wickets of variable bounce and pace and sub-300 totals in all but one game — and that was against the "minnow" team Bangladesh. The mighty West Indian team which once boasted the great names of Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge and Gary Sobers, was humbled for 80 on an up-and-down pitch at the Brabourne Stadium by Sri Lanka, no less! Odder still was the fact that the West Indies then hauled themselves up by their boot-straps to go on to beat tournament favourites, Australia, by 10 runs!

The variable bounce and movement off the pitches at Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Mumbai in the early phases of the competition made it as certain as death or taxes that, at some stage of a batman's innings, he would have to defend against a `gozundar": a ball which seems to `go under' his bat and come up the other side! Or he would have to counter a deflection on to his stumps. Both have been common methods of dismissal in the ICC Champions tournament! Shot making on such wickets is out of the question; the ball does not come on to the bat enough for it to be dispatched for runs by mere timing, leaning into the shot and stroking through the line of the ball with a full, free swing of the blade. Each and every shot has to be punched out using the strength of the batsman's forearms. Batting in such conditions is no longer an aesthetic art of grace and elegance. Rather it is a battle between the bowler's persistent search for the spots on the pitch which will produce the low, seaming movement of the ball — and the batsman's patient attendance on the right ball to hit for runs: two wars of attrition.

What I find incongruous about the current pitch dilemma in India is that in an age when man can send satellites through millions of kilometres of space to explore the surface of Mars and land astronauts on the moon, we still cannot grow — or perhaps afford to grow — a few concrete 25-metre by three-metre trays of turf wickets, each endowed with similar degrees of bounce, pace and texture and ready to drop into cricket plots in cases of emergency, such as those which now exist in Mumbai and Jaipur.

The game's entertainment value generates millions of rupees at the gates or via the television lens. Surely the ICC can spend a little of that cash on the `drop-in' pitches which have proved so effective on Australian multi-purpose grounds, spoilt for summer sport by the depredations of weather or winter games.

When the final assessment is made of the 2006 Champions Trophy, a few searching questions have to be answered. Paramount amongst them will be: "Was the competition, with all of its attendant logistical problems, worth the salt? Did it provide more than a minimal competitive entertainment value when played on variable pitches which made nonsense of international team ratings? Did it not give some bowlers an inflated appreciation of their own prowess? And did it not reduce the science of batting, in some instances, to little more than buying a ticket in the National Lottery?"