To a layman’s eyes, victory in cricket boils down to the team who fields better. A trained eye though, would know that this game isn’t that simple after all. Owing to the vivid uncertainty in any sport, a game of cricket doesn’t always end up with the better eleven winning. Don’t believe me? Ask the ‘invincible’ Windies side of 88’ who lost to India in Chennai, courtesy of a rank turner, where Narendra Hirwani picked up 16 wickets on his test debut.
This is one of the many instances in the history of the game, where pitches dictated the outcome of the game. More often than not, it is the home side who garners the pitch’s support, a cricketing concept very familiar with some of India’s opponents. With an increasing amount of games falling apart because of playing conditions, it’s about time we shift attention to the playing surfaces.
All this talk about pitches begs a question, “What is a good pitch?”.In the view of the writer, a good pitch is one which negates the effect of the coin-toss. A flip of the coin dictating the way a game goes about would not do the competitiveness of sport justice. The sad fact though remains “To the victor of the toss, goes the spoils”.
Through all this, ‘doctoring of pitches’ has become a disconcerting trend in cricket. Preparing pitches to suit the hosts has always been a subtle nuance of the game. But when this started going out of hand and altering the balance between the bat and the ball, the line was drawn. The sub-continental sides have been on the other side of this line for a while now, shifting much spotlight of the ICC towards pitches and their curators. In the 2016 concluded Border-Gavaskar Trophy, ICC didn’t leave much unsaid, rating the first game’s pitch a stern ‘poor”, which meant there was excessive tinkering with the pitch, making it an overwhelming rank turner. India has received similar flak for its last test series with SA, and has a long history of lifeless pitches. Although the domestic circuit has seen green juicy pitches instead of the usual dustbowls, it remains to be seen if the international matches would be as accommodative. With test matches ending in three days and pitches breaking down in 10-15 overs, one must ask if the sport encompasses a balance between the batting and fielding sides.
Soil forms the most important ingredient in the preparation of a pitch. Due to climate variations, it would be impossible to standardize the treatment to be given to soils in different parts of the country when preparing the pitch. The use of proper soil and its proper treatment is therefore key. Pitches in different parts of the world have different characteristics. The nature of the pitch plays an important role in the actual game: it may have a significant influence on team selection and other aspects. HPCA Curator Sunil Chauhan sources a particular type of soil from Ludhiana to give it bounce. Cricket Australia is on a hunt for volcanic soil that makes it extremely pace friendly. Our very own Chepauk is a scientific mix of traditional red sand, river soil and brick jelly. The clay content, coarse sand , calcium carbonate, sodium ( especially in coastal pitches) , nitrogen are the other elements that may affect the pitch.
According to ICC guidelines on assessment of a pitch: “ALL PITCHES WILL BE JUDGED SOLELY ON HOW THEY PLAY. THE OBJECTIVE SHALL BE TO PROVIDE A BALANCED CONTEST BETWEEN BAT AND BALL OVER THE COURSE OF THE MATCH, ALLOWING ALL THE INDIVIDUAL SKILLS OF THE GAME TO BE DEMONSTRATED BY THE PLAYERS AT VARIOUS STAGES OF THE MATCH.” The ICC has also vowed to shame the curators of any ground providing doctored and/or poor pitches, in a bid to dent reputation and effect a change in this concerning trend. With ICC Rule 7 giving unambiguous definitions to proper surfaces, the initiative to shame comes as an encouraging trend, with more reprimands in store for future violators.
Ian Chappel, Aussie legend, said, “In my view, the pitch belongs to a curator and not to any captain or player otherwise”. He went on to add, “I’d go one step further and say that as captain, if I’d asked any Australian curator for a certain type of pitch, the answer would have been: “Get stuffed. I’ll prepare the pitch, you play on it.”” In contrast, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy saw pitch controversies aplenty. Curator SB Singh from Ranchi publicly stated that the skipper of the home team would get to handpick the pitch and just as expected, flak followed in great magnitude. Amidst these, there have been bizarre instances of the pitch being burned using fuel, heated using hair dryers and subjected to a lot of other ingenious methods. Curator often go the extra mile, one such tale is that Australian curator turned mayor Clem Jones changed the pitch at midnight while an international test fixture between Australia and West Indies was going on by bribing the security with freebies.
The ICC guidelines are sufficiently descriptive and accurate. They have asked for there to be balance between bat and ball, but it remains to be seen if the penalties for its violation are severe enough at the moment. Its recognition of the problem is a step in the right direction, and initial moves to curb are a breath of fresh air. Hopefully, this escalation in measures will lead to a decline in pitch-induced controversies, and bring back the characteristic competitiveness to the sport. At the end of the day, cricket like any other sport is influenced by externalities and the pitch is a serious factor. Perhaps that is the beauty of cricket itself, an increase in 5% of sodium content and the day may see 10 wickets fall, Cricket you naughty child.