Monday, December 20, 2010

Pitching it up: A commentary

Matthew Wood investigates how much the pitch actually makes a difference.

As play during the Third Test match at the WACA ground showed, the character and life of a pitch is essential to the type of cricket that it produces. Long renowned as one of the fastest and bounciest pitches in the world, over the past decade or so the strip in Perth lost a lot of the speed that made it famous. Changes in the type of grass and the drainage system employed meant that suddenly the vicious fast-bowling paradise of yesteryear became an easier proposition for batsmen to take on and score runs.

In similar circumstances, Sydney's strip still holds it's name as a "turner" yet in recent Tests has become more bland as batsmen have increasingly controlled proceedings. The ground still "takes spin", but not to the same extent as during the 1980s where fair-to-middling spinners Bob Holland, Peter Taylor, Peter Sleep and, famously, Allan Border were able to bowl Australia to victory.

First under Dennis Lillee's control and now under fellow Test player Graeme Wood, the WACA has recently sought to rediscover its own pacy nature, sometimes at the expense of a full five days of cricket. The Third Ashes Test ended inside four days, meaning that the WACA itself was deprived of at least one day's attendance money, a sacrifice they seem prepared to make to ensure that the Perth strip maintains its reputation as a pitch that bowlers would like to carry around with them.

But the Perth Test's pacy strip didn't preclude performances; it's just that both batsmen and bowlers had to play well to get results. Hussey's technique was exemplary during his two innings and there's no coincidence that the guy with (probably) England's best technique, Ian Bell, was the pick of their batsmen. The bowlers who got rewards bowled to wont of the pitch and not to how they thought they should bowl.

As cricket increasingly becomes a business and revenue is all-important, making a Test match carry on for the full five days has become paramount to filling the pockets of state cricket associations. That, combined both with drop-in pitches and a subcontinentally-led trend towards One-Day strips favouring batsmen means since the mid-1990s each pitch in Australia has become more bland and, to a certain extent, lost their individuality.

The ideal pitch was always said to produce a result on the afternoon of the fifth day of a Test. That way, it ensured there was something in it early for the quick bowlers and something in it late for the spinners. Perhaps it's time to dismiss the notion that crowds and administrators get their money's worth by how long a match endures. Surely the quality of match ensures value for money, not the quantity?

In proof, The best One-Day match I have attended was in 1992 when the Australians defended 199 against a West Indies side at the tail end of their greatness. The pitch, the players and the situation made for great cricket, not the fact that the match went the distance. The match, in Melbourne, went to fifty overs per side but ended only just after 9.30pm.

Once Cricket Australia acknowledge that we watch cricket for astounding feats and just to kill three, eight or forty hours, then pitches the country over will hopefully begin to regain their own unique natures and we'll again have the greatest variety in the world of pitches. Also, Australia as a team would be so much the stronger because players in domestic competitions will have matured playing on different types of wickets and not the same uniform tracks which encourage a good eye rather than a good technique.

The WACA, an association faced with bankruptcy only a matter of years ago, has made the conscious decision to ensure the pitches they prepare are different and true to the form that's been the case in Perth over forty years of Test cricket. By being prepared to make the choice of identity over profit, they will in time benefit firstly as the Warriors develop a home-ground advantage that no other state can match, and also as fans flock to matches because a pitch that demands perfect technique will produce performances of the highest quality. I'd take three days of magnificent all-around cricket instead of five days of batting on a flat deck any day: we watch sport for the challenge as well as the result and the WACA, by remaining true to what it believes, has invigorated this Ashes series.

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