McCullum has become embroiled in a media beat up over the quality, or otherwise of the pitches on show during the England tour. David Saker, bowling coach of England, made a reasonably mild statement about flat pitches being bad for test cricket, and McCullum responded by correctly pointing out that the matches were drawn mostly because so much time was lost to rain. Both games were poised at a point where a result would have been possible, if not likely, had there been more time. (For an argument in favour of reserve days for tests, which I incidentally don’t fully agree with, click here. Its still a great read from a great blog)
A discussion on Radio Sport today looked at the pitches in the context of home advantage, and whether or not groundsmen should produce pitches that will suit the home team, or simply try and prepare the ‘best’ pitch possible. This is slightly beside the point of what McCullum and Saker were trading quotes over, but it does raise an interesting issue. The pitches in this series have been somewhat flat, with batsmen showing application being rewarded with a much easier time of batting. To a degree, this does actually advantage New Zealand as the weaker team. Going into this series as the underdog, a 0-0 result would have been considered a great outcome. It hardly disadvantages England though, given that man for man their batting lineup is far stronger than that of the Black Caps. Flat pitches do obviously make draws more likely, you bat to draw and bowl to win in test cricket.
I can’t see a problem with this. Pitches should always be prepared with the home team being advantaged, and cricket fans should be under no illusions that it happens. The definition of the ‘best’ pitch is very vague, with most only being able to describe it roughly as “something for pace bowlers in the first few days, more spin near the end and possible for hard working batsmen to score runs on.” So, basically, a bit of everything then? Should it also have a bit of live grass, some dead grass, some dry spots, a few cracks to stick a key into and also be completely smooth?
So pitches cannot be all kinds of pitches at once. What sort of pitch should the groundsman then prepare? It stands to reason that the pitch they will be most naturally comfortable with will be the same type of pitch that players from their country are also most comfortable with. There is a reason that India produces good spinners, their batsmen are good at playing spin and touring teams not used to spin often collapse there. (For evidence, see P. Hughes.) The dry conditions are naturally conducive to producing “rank turners” in the immortal words of MS Dhoni.
Touring is tough for a number of reasons. The constant travel, jetlag, strange food, strange hours and being away from family all take their toll. Adjusting to foreign conditions is just another facet of touring that shouldn’t be ignored or taken out of the game. Home advantage ought to mean something in practical terms. The variety of conditions, and the variety of matches that they produce are good for cricket.
Coming from New Zealand, it was fascinating to watch India’s dismantling of Australia relying almost exclusively on spin. The vast majority of tests that I watch will involve most of the overs being sent down to medium fast bowlers, looking to use greenish pitches and atmospheric conditions to swing and cut the ball. The tactics involved in India’s death by spin approach were new to me, and apparently to Australia too. It was worth watching to see something different. To argue that they were somehow unfair is childish. Both teams have to play on the pitch, the fact that one team is better at it is a moot point.
Which brings me back to the pitches on show in the New Zealand vs England series. They have been fairly flat, yes, but that hasn’t stopped both teams from batting poorly and almost losing the game in the process. It also hasn’t taken away from the fact that both teams had to bat well to save their respective matches. Neither draw has been boring, both have had periods of intensely absorbing play. I struggle to see what Saker is going on about, it isn’t the strip of grass that ruins test cricket, crap cricket ruins test cricket. If the pitches are so flat, then clearly both captains need to adjust their tactics to attack more if they want to win. And, well, pray for sunshine, which would have made a far bigger difference to the match outcome.