Cricket has come a long way since the first Test match was played between those traditional rivals England and Australia in 1877. Though a lot has changed in the interim 135 years, the basics have not. The game is still played with bat and ball; between two sides of 11 players each. Though the ball still weighs the same (5.5 oz), the bat has gone through ‘technical development’. It is amazing to see how the likes of Victor Trumper, Don Bradman and Jack Hobbs amassed so many runs with the equipment available then. It is left to one’s imagination as to how much they would have achieved with the present day bats. And the game is still played on a pitch which is 22 yards in length and creases that are 8’8” in width. Here, I will talk about the nature and variety of pitches and how it’s affected the game in the global circuit from West Indies to New Zealand.
The pitch is key to the outcome of a match, whether a traditional five-day-long Test or an ODI. It is the object of speculation and debate for TV commentators who take pains to explain to the layman the intricacies of the nature of the wicket. In the old days, pitches were uncovered throughout the match. It was subject to the vagaries of weather. Any prediction as to how a particular wicket would behave was wrought with danger since no one could gauge the progressive damage. It is highly commendable that the previous generation of cricketers achieved what they did under such exacting conditions.
Today, pitches are covered completely, including the bowler’s run-up. Cricket curators the world over have to meet the demands of television, the revenue-raker, to ensure maximum playing time. As one who has watched, played and umpired in the subcontinent and over the rest of the world, I feel the wicket’s character has definitely changed. Brabourne was a batsman’s paradise during the Bombay pentangular matches. Great batsmen like Vijay Merchant and Vijay Hazare thrived in benign conditions and scored prolifically. Subsequently, the wicket was relaid and got a reddish hue, giving equal purchase to batsmen and bowlers. No two wickets are the same. That has a lot to do with soil conditions and the type of preparation it goes through. But wickets should not be under-prepared by giving it less water and rolling, which I feel goes against the ethos of the game. Wankhede has always been slow, with low bounce, and offered help to spinners towards the end of the matches. The Eden Gardens in Calcutta was also a very good wicket favouring the batsmen. Today, though, Eden is devoid of bounce, morphed into a slow turner. I’m told the wicket is affected by the tide of the Hooghly.
In the early 1950s, Chepauk in Chennai used to be a good sporting track. The ground was surrounded by trees and the sea breeze had its impression on the wicket. The construction of the modern-day stadium spoilt the effect, turning it into a dust bowl. Today, the wicket does not possess the same bounce and carry of the olden days. I played on one of the fastest tracks at Chepauk in a series in the late 1970s. It’d rained a lot over the first 10 days of preparation, which led to the curator using only light rollers a few times and once the top surface hardened—the heavy roller. The result: a fast, hard, bouncy track. The effect of rollers on pitch preparation cannot be over-emphasised.
Other venues in India like Delhi and Kanpur have not changed very much. In fact, all they have gotten is slower, flatter, and of low bounce. Delhi also had problems once the wicket was relaid. Other pitches that have been venues for Test matches vary in nature from place to place. In my opinion, the best wicket for Test cricket in India is Mohali, where the fast bowlers can hope to get some purchase early and as the wicket wears on, the spinners come to the fore. Pakistan has always produced flat wickets barring Lahore whose wicket can be lively. Despite the wickets, it is indeed credit-worthy that they have produced some of the finest fast bowlers in the last 40 years. In Sri Lanka, the wickets are no different. Colombo is one of the best, offering assistance to batsmen to start with and helping the spinners later in the game.
Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 30 July 2012
The first time I visited the West Indies, I was astonished to see how the Sabina Park wicket was rolled in Jamaica. It was not parallel, nor horizontal, but zigzag! One could actually see the reflection on the surface. It was hard, true and bouncy, and didn’t deteriorate as much even towards the end. It was probably the fastest wicket in the Windies then. It was subsequently relaid and lost its original pace and bounce. Once, in fact, the surface was so poor that I had to call off a Test match between England and West Indies after one hour. Today, it has improved slightly, but still hasn’t regained its original form. The Queen’s Park Oval, Trinidad, is probably the only wicket where spinners can hope to get custom as the match progresses. With even bounce and slow pace, Guyana has always been a batsman’s dream. Barbados is a fast, hard track, helping the fast bowlers a great deal. These days, Test matches are played all over the West Indian islands. Each with its peculiarities, but none as good as Barbados.
Next to Australia, or probably even better, are the wickets in South Africa. Kingsmead in Durban is a green top and offers good bounce and carry to fast bowlers. The wickets at Pretoria and Johannesburg have always had a good cover of grass. While the fast bowlers enjoy the bounce, good strokemakers revel because the ball comes on to the bat nicely. South Africa is always a good testing ground for batsmen. They have to adapt to succeed.
I can say, with reasonable conviction, that wickets in England haven’t changed substantially over the years. Lord’s, the mecca of cricket, has always produced good Test wickets. Its pronounced slope aids pacemen as also spinners who can drift the ball. The wickets in England—along with the unpredictable weather—test the best of batsmen. The Oval has always been a flat wicket, favouring batsmen. The wicket at Old Trafford helps fast bowlers and medium pacers alike with plenty of seam and movement off the pitch. New Zealand are always a force to reckon with on home soil thanks to the experience gained by playing on their green tops. The conditions are very similar to England in most respects, wind conditions being what they are.
To be able to read pitches, then, is a gift. Not many can claim to do so accurately. Neither entirely an art nor an exact science, it has fooled the best of experts.
Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan was a member of the fabled Spin Quartet and later a respected umpire
I loved S. Venkataraghavan’s scholarly exposition about pitches the world over (Life’s a Pitch, Treat Her Well). The lay fan can hardly comprehend these subtleties, and pieces like these go a long way in educating us.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Thanks,Venkat,for your scholarly exposition about pitches the world over. The lay cricket fan can hardly comprehend these subtleties and articles like these go a long way in educating us.
We look forward to more such erudite essays from legendary cricketers like you.
After reading about the cricket pitches in different countries, one wonders why our super rich Board of Control of Cricket India (BCCI) or the State cricket associations, some of whom are also very rich, cannot make sporting cricket pitches. Our batsmen and bowlers have failed miserably to perform in other countries because of our lifeless pitches which do not test a batsman’s as well a bowler’s all round ability but produce many local heroes. Our lifeless pitches are also the main reason of our inconsistent performance in international events like the world cup.
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