Sporting wickets, need of the hour

With the advent of Twenty20, the need for pitches which pose challenging queries to batsmen and bowlers is as crucial for the 50-over game, as it is for the longer version. The heart of the game lies in the spirit of competition. It is now time to salvage both with sporting wickets. By Arun Venugopal.

Meaningful grins are exchanged as they gear up to raid the bowling crease. For Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, the succulent SuperSport Park wicket at Centurion offers a veritable spread. With a rapacious appetite, the duo hunts down the Indians before polishing them off like Potjiekos and Malva pudding. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Indian Ocean, their pace bowling brethren down under are celebrating the rebirth of ‘trampoline bounce' on their beloved WACA in Perth. Mitchell Johnson and his mates are ecstatic having made short work of the English.

It is not hard to fathom why these men are over the moon. After all, lively wickets have become as rare as hen's teeth. Bowlers toiling all day on unhelpful pitches is a common sight. While they are not rewarded with wickets, they manage to earn blisters and spasms along the way.

There has always been a healthy suspicion about the subcontinent's nexus with dead surfaces. But what is startling is the replication of such tracks in almost every part of the world now. The curse of flat wickets now haunts even minefields like Perth and Barbados. Sample the fourth Test between England and West Indies in 2009. The well manicured Kensington Oval turf ensured that bowlers were pulverised — emotionally and physically, in that order.

Even the famous subcontinental dustbowls, a faithful accomplice of spin bowling, are out of character. In February 2009, Pakistan welcomed Sri Lanka with a Karachi deck which yielded 940 runs for the loss of six batsmen in three days. A far from ideal start to a series which was eventually marred by the grisly terror attacks on Lankan cricketers. It's taken for granted that docile pitches like these are a consequence of one-day cricket and more recently, Twenty20.

Placid wickets initially seemed to be a pre-requisite for limited overs cricket. The idea was to maximise revenue by orchestrating run feasts. Curators were promptly instructed to prepare batting beauties. Tickets would be sold out, there would be more eyeballs to steal and in the process the balance heavily skewed towards batsmen. Broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers saw their coffers overflow while cricket associations were happy so long as the gate collections swelled. This is certainly not the way the game should be marketed.

Sure enough, this myopic gimmick ensured that even tracks for Test cricket were as dead as dodos. Like most bad habits, flat decks have been hard to kick out. The consequence has been boring draws which have cut a swath through the collective psyche of cricket lovers. This, in turn, has contributed substantially to the waning interest levels towards the five-day game. Subsequently there has been a dip in revenue creating an alarm about the viability of Test matches.

The upsurge in batting and bowling averages has also been evident. While such flattering numbers may at times give batters a sense of false security, bowlers face a bitter-sweet situation. With the odds heavily stacked against them, evaporating morale and deflated egos are obvious after-effects. But this hostile environment has presented bowlers an opportunity to build their resistance — a classic ‘survival of the fittest' scenario. The wrong un, reverse swing and similar artistic conspiracies have sought to eliminate the implications of a pitch.

Richie Benaud once said, “If you get 10 wickets and 300 runs in a day, it's a good day's cricket”. But the definition of a good pitch has changed dramatically in recent times. When a player talks of a ‘good wicket', he is almost by default referring to a featherbed surface laden with runs.

The art of making a pitch is probably one of the most unsung aspects of the game. A nuanced understanding of its nitty gritty is a key aspect towards studying more serious ailments. The ICC pitches manager Andy Atkinson said in an interview to cricinfo that good tracks are the products of a good root structure and consistent short grass cover on the pitch. But curators are often forced to manufacture wickets which last the entire duration of a Test match. The use of heavy rollers has killed even the slightest indentation on the surface. ‘Bald' pitches which don't break even after five days are the net result. Despite the need for some amount of grass on the wicket, they are shaven off.

The fear of games ending on Day three or four is a major factor. But a greater danger is that of a game not reaching its climax even after “eight or nine days” as the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni remarked after a barren encounter against New Zealand in the Hyderabad Test recently.

Such a practice has badly affected the domestic structure in countries like India. For instance, in the Ranji Trophy, teams show greater intent on gaining the first innings lead rather than looking to force a result. Cricketing bodies can do well to take a cue from the English county championships where the contests are even thanks to some proactive efforts. Pitches are made to sweat overnight under the hover covers, resulting in assistance for the bowlers.

The ICC has also put in place a system to penalise venues which are guilty of churning out pitches that are ‘poor' or ‘unfit'. Just as how wickets which are regarded as dangerous (like the diabolical Wankhede wicket in 2004 and the crumbling Antigua turf in 2009) often come under the hammer, cricket's apex body needs to up the ante on lifeless tracks as well. Instituting annual awards to reward curators for the best pitches would provide them the much needed recognition, besides driving home the importance of credibility.

With the advent of Twenty20, the need for pitches which pose challenging queries to batsmen and bowlers is as crucial for the 50-over game, as it is for the longer version. The heart of the game lies in the spirit of competition. It is now time to salvage both with sporting wickets.