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.
Pitches play an intriguing and vital part in any match, Test or ODI. Not even the experts can claim to read them with any great accuracy. It is both fine art and inexact science.
Australian wickets vary vastly from one another. During my playing days, Perth was arguably the fastest and bounciest wicket in the world. Thommo and Lillee loved to bowl on that wicket—to torment the batsmen. Perth slowed down a lot in the 1990s and early 2000s, but has refound its pace and bounce. The amount of grass left on the track has a lot to do with seam and pace. I remember an instance where the ball pitched and took off in such a manner that it cleared the boundary on the full. Melbourne, on the other hand, has always been an enigma. Due to variable weather conditions on any given day, it is difficult to predict exactly how the wicket would behave. The best wicket in Australia is probably Adelaide, always very consistent. Sydney has not changed very much over the years either. Generally, Australian wickets played true, testing both the technical competence of the batsmen and the ability of the bowlers to extract enough out of them.
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