The sixth instalment in our new series where we have cricket conversations with keen students of the game, from all around the world. The topic this time questions the element of pitch doctoring in Test cricket.
Varun Baliga, a software professional based in Bangalore, and an avid lover of the game, is all for home pitches being doctored. He discusses this with Soham Sarkhel of Impact Index who believes the longevity of Test cricket might suffer in the process.
: For starters, I do not think the term ‘home advantage’ is the equivalent of ‘doctored’ – I believe every cricket playing country has the right to produce the pitches it is generally known for. For example: India/Sri Lanka/Pakistan for turners, England/New Zealand for seam and swing, South Africa /Australia for seam and true bounce, and so on. Besides, I do not understand why the pitch is blamed every time a team collapses. I believe that most pitches favour the home team because they are accustomed to playing there.
:Before proceeding with my defence, I would like to state that – personally – I have been a big advocate of doctoring so that the home team is at an advantage. After all, the goal is to win Test matches. And as you observed, it makes for a unique global viewing too – as the nature of the pitch differs by geography. Recently, however, as I was rummaging through some stats, a slightly disturbing fact caught my attention: since the 1870s (a decade in which only three Tests were played), this has been the worst decade (from 1st January 2010 to 1st July 2016) for away teams in terms of win/loss ratio in Test cricket history.
In other words, it can be said that this decade has been the worst for away teams in Test history. Consequently, I revisited my stance and started thinking whether – for the benefit of Test cricket – it made sense to either have a central pitch committee or offer visiting teams an alternate way of coping with the conditions. After all, with the already plummeting Test viewership, it is disappointing when series turn into ‘no contests’ even before they start!
: When India crashed to a home defeat against England in 2012, doctored pitches couldn’t have been an excuse. The Poms exploited the conditions better. Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen showed what it took to cure people of the so called ‘Doctored Pitch’ fever. It only proves home advantage does not always guarantee success.
: The plan backfired on the Indians as Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann outdid their counterparts, but the fact of the matter remains – pitches were prepared to heavily assist spin bowling. Batsmen from both sides had a hefty task in front of them and it has, since, become a trend in Test matches played in India. The average runs scored per batsman in India since that England series (November 2012) has been the lowest amongst all the countries in the world. Quite shocking!
Cook’s and Pietersen’s performances stood out because of how tricky it was to bat – especially in the second Test in Mumbai. The pitch was turning square right from the first session of play. In other words, it was made to perform that way but the visitors managed to take advantage of it – similar to how India turned around the Lord’s Test in England in 2015 after being presented with a green carpet.
It therefore begs the question – can’t there be a ‘middle ground’ between batsman and bowler. A balance between bat and ball.
As I mused earlier, perhaps, a central pitch committee might be a solution. Allowing the visiting team to have the first call (and doing away with the toss) could be another.
: Interesting point, Soham. In fact, I read an article which suggested the visiting team should be allowed to take the call, i.e. to bowl first or opt for the toss should they decide to bat. However, I believe the concept of doing away with the toss would work only if the visitors possess a set of players to work with for the conditions offered to them.
For example, take the recent series that Australia played in Sri Lanka. If the toss were done away with and Australia decided to bowl, did they still have accomplished batsmen to face someone of Rangana Herath’s stature, on a crumbling surface, in the fourth innings? Else, it takes us back to the inevitable.
: I happened to read the very same article and that particular rule has been implemented in County cricket. Conditions in England suit swing bowling first up, and so the visiting team gets a chance to either bowl or to opt for the toss. In the sub-continent though, batting first provides the advantage to attack a team in the fourth innings. So, I suggest that there should be no toss at all and the visiting captain should instead choose to either bat or bowl first.
Had this been implemented, I have no doubt that Australia would have elected to bat first in each of the three Tests (against Sri Lanka) and even if they didn’t have a spinner of Herath’s calibre, they would still have had more of a chance.
: I would like to make an honorary mention of Pakistan – they have not played in home conditions for about eight years now and have adopted UAE as their new home. I never saw them sully or crib about a raging turner when Herath blew them away in Sri Lanka as they had an ace spinner themselves (Saeed Ajmal then and Yasir Shah now). Point being, if a visiting team has the resources, they can conquer the conditions.
: Pakistan have been quite superb for some time. They would make use of a seaming track and a turning track in equal measure as they have the ability to exploit both conditions. Pakistan could be the ideal Test team in world cricket – a team unfazed by different conditions but even if they achieve that status, their kind would still be a rarity in Test cricket.
: Let us consider the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad in England, or Tim Southee and Trent Boult in New Zealand – in spite of having favourable conditions, they still have the knack to put their skills into use on a consistent basis. The records set by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene on their home turf are also no less. Our tendency to discount home performances is based on the idea that the rest of the cricketing world judges its teams and players by their all-weather abilities on sporting pitches. The point I am trying to make is that even if a team has home advantage, they still have to do the basics right.
: Not once am I even mentioning that home records should be discounted just because they occur in familiar conditions. That is a wrong way to see and read cricket. You are quite right about that. However, don’t you feel that if the taboo over home conditions can be lifted by a simple rule such as ‘no toss’, the performances from home team players will gain more prominence in the public eye?
What exactly is a ‘sporting wicket’ then? Who defines how the ‘sporting wickets’ should behave? Do we leave it to the curators or the board? Or do we form a committee for the same purpose?
: The Anglo-Australian definition of a ‘sporting wicket’ is that it is one where the ball nibbles around in the first four sessions before aiding the batsmen in the next five and then turning in the last six. That, however, is in a utopian world. The natural climatic conditions should determine the nature of a track to an extent.
We all know what a cloud cover in England can do to a pitch considered suitable for batting. Similarly, the varying degrees of sunshine in India can determine the spinning nature of the track. None of us are experts on how to make a pitch but what I know for sure is that the ball should neither be spinning nor jagging square in the first session. While it should, in due course, but certainly not from the get go.
For all the efforts toward doctoring a pitch, the art of curating it is getting lost somewhere. There is no scope of experimentation left for the curators.
In an ideal world, I would have hoped for a common, centralised committee formed by the ICC where the pitch curators in each region – Asia, Oceania, America, Europe, and Africa – are trained and overlooked by a chief curator. Given BCCI’s clout though, I fear that it might not be as ‘centralised’ as it ought to be which then leads me to think that giving visitors the option to bat/bowl first might be better. It would level the playing field to an extent.
: Why is it that when English/Australian/South African/Kiwi batsmen get spun out, the blame goes to the pitch for being a raging turner, while the technique of the sub-continental batsmen is questioned when they get swung out overseas?
: Your point about the unequal coverage given to batsmen of different nations playing in overseas conditions is valid. I think the reasons are more sociological than plain cricket. That being said, I am also absolutely clear that a completely green track is just as culpable as a dirt-bowl – the chance of a fair contest between the bat and the ball is substantially reduced.
: My personal belief is that home advantage is something which should not be tampered with as it is the ultimate test of skill, technique and adaptability for the visiting team. The advantage should always belong to the home team, it makes for an interesting narrative.
: I absolutely believe that home advantage should play its part. If there’s none, what is the achievement in winning an away Test series then? That said, all I yearn for is a fairer contest between bat and ball. It has become increasingly mundane to predict Test series results.
As of now, it is easy to predict that Ashwin is due almost 80-100 wickets in the 13-match home Test stretch – unhealthy for a format struggling to stay alive.
On that note however, the recent series between Pakistan and England was an eye-opener as it exhibited some of the best pitches on offer in world cricket. These were good examples of balanced tracks, in accordance with English conditions.
: Battles like James Anderson vs Virat Kohli in England, R Ashwin vs Steven Smith in India, Josh Hazlewood vs Kane Williamson in Australia lend gravitas to a series. Eventually, pitches should be a canvas for artists to display their supreme skills against each other – not a platform to embarrass others in lopsided contests.
Illustrations: Vasim Maner