Quality Control: It's time for better Test pitches
By Kevin Fitzpatrick
The recently completed Australia vs. India test series has been great viewing for those test cricket fans with access to pay TV. It has been an enthralling series in which Australia has performed much better than expected.
It is a great credit to Steve Smith and his team that they learned the lessons from past failures on the sub-continent and changed their approach to playing on slower and spin friendly pitches. There has been a greater focus on defence rather than an aggressive attacking style which some coaches and players have labelled in the recent past as the so-called Australian way of playing.
Apart from a changed more disciplined approach to suit the conditions, other factors must have played a part in the improved Australian performance. I expect India was a bit complacent at the start of the series and expected to repeat the easy series win of 2013 on spin friendly pitches. Winning three out of four tosses clearly helped Australia. Batting first on the sub-continent is generally a significant advantage although India showed in the Ranchi test and also in the recent series against England that good sides can prosper batting second.
Although the test series has been a close contest, (and great viewing) it has once again raised the issue of the host country preparing pitches heavily weighted in favour of the home team. The pitch for the first test in Pune was clearly prepared to suit India. The Indian authorities and team would have expected Australia not to be competitive on a pitch which spun prodigiously from the first day. The plan backfired as Australia had prepared well for such conditions and it also allowed Australia’s spinners to be just as dangerous as the more credentialed Indian spinners. The match referee correctly considered the pitch as poor for test cricket.
The pitches for the subsequent three tests were not as poor as in Pune but were still prepared to help the home team. I expect the poor pitch rating for the first test and the below average rating for the second test had some effect on the preparation of the pitches for the third and fourth tests. In the third test in Ranchi it appeared that the objective was to have a slow, low pitch to blunt the bounce which was perceived to be important for Australia’s pace and spin bowlers. As it turned out, the pitch was too batsman friendly resulting in large first innings’ scores and a drawn test.
Concerns over the quality of test pitches including in particular the doctoring of pitches to suit the home team have been raised increasingly in recent years. In 2015 after the Ashes series in England, Ricky Ponting expressed the view that some of the test pitches were doctored to suit England and suggested that there should no longer be a coin toss at the start of a test match and the visiting team should be given the choice of batting or bowling first.
Former West Indies fast bowler and current commentator Michael Holding agreed with Ponting’s suggestion about removing the coin toss in an article published in Wisden India in August 2015. Holding commented that “ if you want to have consistent pitches in countries, then you have got to adapt the principle that Ricky Ponting suggested — get rid of the toss.”
In his 2016 autobiography Darren Lehmann stated that the biggest challenge to test matches comes ‘from the surfaces on which matches are played. Put simply, those surfaces are either too bland or, conversely, are far too heavily weighted in favour of the home side.” Lehmann went on to suggest that scrapping the toss could help to tackle the issue.
In June 2016 the ICC’s Cricket Committee, chaired by current Indian coach Anil Kumble, discussed a number of issues relating to test cricket including concerns about the quality of test pitches and particularly the common practice of home countries preparing pitches to suit their own teams. However, no recommended solutions were made by the committee.
It’s not surprising that an analysis of test cricket played from the 2005/06 season onwards shows how difficult it has been for visiting teams to win a test series.
If you exclude series involving the relatively weak cricketing countries in this period of time, (namely: Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and the West Indies) the visiting teams have won 23% and lost 56% of series played. Further analysis of test matches played over this period between Asian and non-Asian teams, excluding the above-mentioned three countries, reveals that the visiting team has only won 30 matches out of 185 test matches played.
Should something be done to try to improve the quality of test pitches? I think Darren Lehmann is right in saying that the biggest issue with test cricket is the quality of pitches. If test cricket is to maintain, or perhaps improve, its appeal with the public across the cricketing world we need to see a fair contest between bat and ball which should also result in visiting teams being more competitive and winning a greater portion of tests than certainly has been the case over the years.
The 2005 Ashes are considered by many as the greatest series ever, why?
An even and compelling contest between bat and ball.
Preparing pitches heavily weighted in favour of the home team is not the only issue. As Lehmann noted, bland, or batsmen friendly, pitches is also a concern. In my view too many batsmen friendly pitches have been seen in Australia in recent years. This is particularly evident at the MCG and also in Perth. It hasn’t stopped Australia winning most tests played in Australia (71% from 2005/06) but I think the contest between bat and ball hasn’t been as even as it should be and it has had a detrimental effect on Australia when it has played on less bland pitches either in Australia or overseas. Some batsmen have struggled to adjust to the moving or spinning ball after plundering runs on batsmen friendly pitches in Australia. David Warner is a prime example.
What options are open to try to improve the quality of test pitches? As noted earlier, some well respected former players have suggested scrapping the coin toss and allowing the visiting team the choice of batting or bowling first. I think this proposal has considerable merit. It should encourage the preparation of pitches that provide a more even contest between bat and ball as well as being fairer to both teams. It would also mean that the result of a match is not influenced by the toss of the coin which must be a good thing.
In 2016 England adopted a slightly different approach in county matches in order to encourage the preparation of better pitches. Its rules allow the visiting captain the choice of bowling first but if this is declined the usual coin toss takes place. I haven’t seen any analysis of this change but I’m of the view that eliminating the toss altogether would be a better option.
Another way of improving the quality of test pitches is a more rigorous approach by ICC match referees to pitch reporting. The ICC introduced its pitch and outfield monitoring in 2006. Since then I understand six test pitches have been rated as poor in matches played between the full test playing countries including the recent Pune test in India. Of these, two were rated as poor because the pitches were too flat. But surprisingly this didn’t include the Perth pitch for the Australia vs. New Zealand test in November 2015 which most observers considered to be far too batsmen friendly. In that drawn match Australia made 559 and New Zealand responded with 624.
For true cricket nuffies and legislative nerds here’s a link to said reporting process — http://icc-live.s3.amazonaws.com/cms/media/about_docs/518a72c2e6f2b-Pitch%20Monitoring%20Process.pdf
A greater willingness by match referees to report poor quality pitches together with follow up by the ICC should encourage the preparation of better quality pitches.
In order to prosper, (or even to maintain its relevance) test cricket needs pitches that provide a fair contest between bat and ball. The result of matches should not depend on the winning of the coin toss. Getting rid of the toss and offering the visiting team first choice of either batting or bowling should discourage the practice of the host country preparing pitches heavily weighted in favour of the home team. It won’t mean that visiting teams will necessarily start winning a lot more but it should give them a better chance of winning.
A more rigorous approach by match referees to reporting unsatisfactory pitches including those which are too batsmen friendly should also encourage the preparation of pitches which provide a fair contest between bat and ball.