Skill quotient

THE trickiest part of filling in football pools, is picking the away-winning sides. And in the past half a dozen years, the Indian Test XI have found it just as hard to win at foreign venues, as I have to put my crosses in the squares which would bring me a fortune. So much so that, during John Wright's tenure of the office as Indian coach, the away victories of Ganguly's side could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Winning on foreign Test fields involves overcoming many obstacles. Firstly there is the visiting team's unfamiliarity with the pitch. For instance, teams who play early season fixtures in Perth against Western Australia usually find themselves late on their strokes on the fast bouncy wicket of the WACA Ground. Moreover, batting against pace bowlers assisted by the prevailing wind — the Fremantle Doctor — creates particular difficulties of persistent outswing for newcomers to cricket in the Black Swan State. Then there is the vociferous and partisan Aussie version of the `Barmy Army', which more than makes up for any deficiencies in what Ponting's men are pleased to call, not "sledging" but "banter!"

Of course modern cricket is much better off than the game in its "middle ages" of the 18th and 19th centuries: the days when winning the toss entitled the lucky captain, not only the choice of innings, but also the option of selecting the stretch of turf on which to pitch the wickets — a location which, you can be sure, would suit his batsmen and bowlers far more than those of his opponents. This pitch advantage has, in the course of time, passed to the home team, since it now falls to the local groundsman to prepare the playing surface for each home game — a moral responsibility which does not preclude him from producing wickets more suited to the home team than to the visiting side.

The Northamptonshire county team of the 1950s regularly fielded an XI, which included three left-arm spinners: Australians George Tribe and Jack Manning plus a homegrown orthodox left-handed tweaker — Micky Allen. It was therefore quite logical that the Wantage Road groundsman, Ron Johnston, made it his duty to cultivate "result" wickets — pitches on which the ball turned from the very first session of play and were suited to the Northants attack. These were surfaces which were scurrified, treated with puddled-in cow dung and rolled into a dusty outward respectability. It was quite a sight to see the expression on the faces of unwary visiting slow bowlers who rubbed their spinning hand into the bowlers' "rough" to gain a better purchase on the ball, and then licked their fingers! Each of our slow bowlers regularly bowled 25 overs a day at Northampton and harvested 100 wickets per season. I, on the other hand, was rarely awarded the luxury of more than half-a-dozen overs at Northampton: an ironic ration for a bowler who at this stage of his career was regarded as the fastest bowler in the world! I suppose I could count myself as more fortunate than many of my new ball partners, who were either all-rounders who batted at number six and bowled a few overs with the new ball — or disillusioned stock medium-pacers who were allocated fewer overs than me!

Away games were different stories. Our opposition regularly prepared green seaming pitches tailor-made for their own bowlers — albeit not too fast since that would give my pace an illogical advantage. On one occasion Northamptonshire fronted up at the Racecourse Ground at Derby, unsure as to whether I had recovered sufficiently from an ankle injury to play in the next day's match. Our batsmen, however, were absolutely certain they would be given a very hostile welcome by Derbyshire's useful and experienced pace duet of Cliff Gladwin and Les Jackson. Much to our astonishment we discovered that two pitches had been prepared for the game: a slow and slightly green wicket to cover the contingency of me playing: and a much faster surface in case I made no appearance and Gladwin and Jackson had the advantage in pace!

Of course the manufacture of such "result" pitches has been condemned by national and international administrators and has brought down punishment on the offenders' heads. It also caused me to reflect on the comparative skill levels of modern and yesteryear's batsmen and their ability — or lack of it — to cope with deliveries, which do something untoward. How well, I wonder, would present-day players perform on the uncovered wickets of the 50s? I well recall the masterly ability of the England opener, Len Hutton, to delay playing late turning or swinging deliveries until the very last moment. Bowling against him in a pre-season Yorkshire practice game at Redcar in the early 50s, many times I was certain that I was through his defences — only to witness a reflex adjustment of the bat face at the last imaginable nanosecond to keep the ball out of his stumps. It was this intuitive skill, which enabled the Yorkshireman to play one of the most remarkable innings in Test history: 62 not out in an England total of 122, on a Woolloongabba "sticky" in 1950. Brisbane locals still speak of that innings in reverential tones!

Ideally, the pitch for a four-day match should, in its opening phases, encourage the faster bowler, with its pace, bounce and movement off the seam. The batsman, too, receives positive feedback from the ball coming on to the bat at a consistent height, pace and line, prompting him to play his strokes. The second day should all be in favour of the bat, with the earlier movement through the air and off the wicket having evaporated. The third phase of the game sees the advantage passing once more to the bowlers with the slower men coming into their own and evincing a modicum of turn: an edge which they seek to exploit with subtle variations of flight and pace. Finally, on to the fourth chapter of the game, with the pitch now deteriorating, the bounce being uneven, the ball moving sideways after pitching and the advantage now firmly in the fingers of the spinners and the accurate medium-pacer. But all is not always for the best in the best of all possible worlds: a truism, which makes for much of the unpredictable charm of cricket.

As the England skipper touring Down Under, Len Hutton once confessed to me that he firmly believed that to defeat an Australian Test side in Australia, an overseas side had to be at least 20% more talented than the home team. By the end of the '54/'55 tour I came to the conclusion that by "more talented" Hutton meant more adaptable, more flexible and better able to modify technique and tactics to the differing conditions which exist in countries other than their own.

Thus England touring teams in Australia have to re-think their approach to the game according to the hot, hard-wicket circumstances, which they expect to encounter in places like Sydney and Melbourne. They have to appreciate that the ball is quicker through the air, giving the batsmen less time to judge a bowler's line, length and movement — and the fieldsmen a shorter viewing time of catches which carry further than expected. Fast deliveries bounce higher, are quicker off the pitch and carry further when edged into the slip cordon. To counter these conditions, batsmen, leopard-like, often change their spots, becoming backfoot rather than frontfoot oriented — in the same way that players encountering the slow, low wickets of India and Pakistan for the first time, quickly learn to commit themselves to the front-foot as a matter of urgent expediency.

The principle that touring sides must adapt to local conditions to be successful applies equally — if not more so — to Test teams visiting England. In the U.K., pace bowlers move the ball more through the air and off the seam than they do in Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand and the West Indies — demanding a far greater attention to straight-batted security, and making Test victories on foreign soil even more elusive.

How much greater were those demands in the pre-50s days of uncovered wickets: an era when a batsman's accomplishment was judged not merely by his prowess as a "flat track bully", but also by his ability to score in conditions favourable to the bowler?

Nowadays, however, sophisticated cover protection against the weather, Super-Soppers, electrically-heated pitches, hovering helicopters etc, etc, conspire to minimise the variable quality of playing surfaces and climate and reduce a home-side's advantage of familiarity with local playing conditions. Air travel too, has also played its part in the familiarisation process — since it enables Test teams to arrive at international venues well in advance of matches and accustom themselves to prevailing local conditions.

Skill and technique, however, remain the best guarantee of success on all types of pitches and in every kind of weather. Witness the classical consistency of Tendulkar and his record 35 Test hundreds by comparison with the exciting but inconsistent fallibility of England's Kevin Pietersen. And which method yields the better pace dividends — the seam upright and middle-stump to middle stump accuracy of McGrath or the more frequently straying inclinations of Harmison? In the spin department, the pin-point turn of Warne and Muralitharan will always constitute a greater threat to bowling records than the nagging methods of Giles — simply because their greater talents compel — nay entice — the striker to play at deliveries which at first glance appear to be innocuously wide of the target area. But whether you are a batsman struggling to make contact on a Perth "green-top" or a spinner seeking to find the edge on a Lahore "turner", the one essential attribute, which a player needs is skill. And the greater the odds against him — the more impossible the challenge — the greater the skill quotient he needs. In this respect, Test cricket has not altered in the past 100 years!