Blame it on the pitches

Well done... Anderson and Panesar celebrate after helping England to a draw in the first Test against Australia at Cardiff.-AP

It is fairly clear from the Cardiff Test that the traditional form of the game has its place and any tinkering will result in the deterioration of its quality.

The Ashes is underway in England and it is rather ironical that the ICC adheres to tradition even while it is contemplating ways and means to restructure the format of Test cricket. The Ashes features five Tests between the arch rivals in an era where the crowds are supposedly not flocking to the stadium!

As usual, the hype was there, and though the first Test started off in a none-too-exciting fashion, the tantalising finish was worth all the pre-series build-up. Australia had to get off the field utterly disappointed, as Panesar and Anderson fought hard to save the Test for England. The takeout from the Test is that the traditional form of cricket still remains the most preferred format amongst cricketers and a gripping draw will not elicit any complaints of ennui from the public either. As such, it is not the duration of the game that is keeping the public away from Test cricket; it is the lacklustre quality of pitches, which produces ‘batathons’, that are the culprits.

The England team was incidentally fighting for survival at Cardiff, and probably had their batsmen contributed the first Test may well have culminated in a boring draw. It was just about the right time for Test cricket to get some fillip and the last wicket stand between Panesar and Anderson provided it.

The recent hoopla over the proposed reduction of time in Test cricket needs to be reviewed, and the administrators have to realise that it is their lack of foresight that has made Test cricket a drab game in the eyes of the public. The fancy notion of “standardisation” of pitches across the world resulted in the wickets being made flat as that was just the only possibility if the standardisation were to be achieved. The idea had some merit in that it helped prevent Test matches being played on sub-standard pitches. But by and large, the curators across the world play it safe by providing belters more often than not. Imagine a rank turner in Perth or a super fast pitch in Kanpur? Besides, the boundaries have been reduced in Australia to “standardise” the playing conditions and though it can be argued that the size of the boundary is the same for both the sides, most of the changes made tilted the balance more in favour of the batsmen.

It all started with the restrictions imposed on the number of bouncers per over and once the fast bowlers were denied the opportunities to use their main weapon frequently, the real charm of testing a batsman’s courage, skill and temperament waned. The impact that fast bowlers can have on the batsmen and on the result of a match was underlined by the success of the four-pronged England attack when they won the Ashes a few years ago.

Of course, the number of bouncers was restricted even then, but the pitches encouraged the fast bowlers to pound in hard. In comparison, the one at Sophia Garden in Cardiff was a dodo and the current England bowlers were made to suffer as the Aussies rattled up a huge score.

The current England attack is by no means pedestrian and the ECB will do well to provide pitches that have a fair bit of carry and bounce. While the crowds love to see the batsmen ruling the roost in limited overs format, to see it happen in Tests over a period of days can be tiresome. For instance, a Test series in Australia provides an opportunity for the spectators across the world to see matches played on tracks that have a distinctive characteristic. Unfortunately, that is not the case in other countries, however best they try to provide pitches with different qualities.

The reduction of time in Test cricket is likely to result in yet another hassle — the free time that it brings in the overall scenario will provide the administrators the chance to increase the number of ODI’s or T20 matches. It is fairly clear from the first Test in Cardiff that the traditional form of the game has its place and any tinkering will result in the deterioration of its quality.

I am positive that Panesar and Anderson will cherish their match-saving effort as much as they would a few five-wicket hauls in one-day cricket. Similarly, all other cricketers will cherish a performance under adverse conditions even when the numerical value is on the lesser side. Sunil Gavaskar, for instance, had mentioned that his half-century on a cold morning in Manchester was one of his best efforts and that comes from a man who has churned out huge scores against the fearsome foursome from the Caribbean Islands!

Talking of Gavaskar, may God bless him with many more years and help him in doing in life what he was good at doing out there in the middle — achieving the three-figure mark.

Going back to Test cricket, the ICC cannot be preserving tradition in a selective manner by scheduling a five-Test series only for the Ashes. It should ensure that Test cricket, which has been bigger than anything else as a tradition, is preserved as well.