Test cricket, you will have noticed, is assailed on all sides. Commerce, other sports, post-industrial society, the BCCI, ticket prices, the overcroweded international schedule, the allure of T20, archaic match regulations, the absence of ‘context’ for fixtures – are all sapping its life-force. With so many enemies or predators circling the sport, it is particularly disappointing that mortal wounds may be inflicted by something at the dead centre of the Test match game.
Over the last 18 months, Test match pitches in England (Trent Bridge, Lord’s and Cardiff), UAE (Abu Dhabi), the West Indies (Grenada, Antigua) and Bangladesh (Chittagong) have been denounced as being capable of killing the sport. Their deadly property? That they (the pitches) are themselves lifeless. It is feared that the absence of vitality in the 22 yards at the core of the game may seep into the whole multi-national, 130 year old sport, killing first its bowlers, then its fans.
Dead pitches absorb the velocity applied to the ball by fast bowlers and stun the spin imparted by slow bowlers. They provide no grip for the seam for medium pacers. Wicket-keepers have to cope with balls bouncing before reaching them and watch edges drift to the ground metres in front of them. And, unlike most dead things, pitches of this nature don’t decay, even when stretched out under four or more days of hot sun.
Batsmen rack up scores but innings are not fluent and easy on the eye. Front foot shots have to be played with unusual caution and bottom hand is needed to make up for the lack in the ball’s kinetic energy.
The groundsmen responsible for these dead pitches are not undercover assassins set on the destruction of the five day game. They are horticulturists working with tired, heavily used organic matter, from which moisture drains quickly.
Dead pitches may not be a bigger feature of cricket than in the past. Wisden commented on England’s 1981/82 tour of India:
Yet the major factor was the deadness of the pitches. Even Madras had become a perfect batting surface by tea on the first day, while at Bangalore (second Test), New Delhi (third) and Kanpur (sixth), the conditions were loaded so heavily in favour of the bat that a first innings was still in progress on the final day.
But in those days, before T20, before the general dread of Test match cricket’s demise, dead pitches were not considered fatal.
I have a solution; something that could counter the threat of lifelessness. I must warn you, though that it is dangerous, possibly reckless.
Commentators call the area highlighted in the picture at the head of this piece ‘the danger zone’. The Laws (42.11(b)) call it the protected area:
An area of the pitch, to be referred to as ‘the protected area’, is defined as that area contained within a rectangle bounded at each end by imaginary lines parallel to the popping creases and 5 ft/1.52 m front of each, and on the sides by imaginary lines, one each side of the imaginary line joining the centres of the two middle stumps, each parallel to it and 1 ft/30.48 cm from it.
Further, in Law 42.12 (a)
A bowler will contravene this Law if he runs on to the protected area, either after delivering the ball or, if he fails to release the ball, after the completion of his delivery swing and delivery stride.
The solution to dead pitches could be found in the introduction of a playing regulation that suspends Law 42.12 (a). Bowlers would no longer be prohibited from following through into the red danger zone (although any damage to the protected area by activity other than the bowlers’ normal follow through, would remain unfair play – Shahid Afridi, take note).
Two advantages would come to bowlers. 1) It would be easier to bowl close to the stumps, giving bowlers a wider range of angles from which to deliver the ball – even making it possible for a right arm over the wicket bowler to angle the ball, very slightly, away from a right-handed batsman. 2) More controversially, during the course of the match, the bowlers’ feet following delivery would rough up the pitch within the protected area. This would provide target areas to bowlers from the other end, in line with and just outside the line of the stumps, where the pitch was scuffed and so likely to take spin.
Fielding teams would have to assess the tactical benefits of taking advantage of this suspension of the usual law. There would be a delayed benefit of scuffing the pitch and so a risk that the actions of one team’s bowlers would benefit the other side. There is a risk that in bringing some life to a dead pitch, it might place too high a premium on batting first.
So with a single amendment to the Playing Regulations, over-ruling one of the Laws of the Game, a potential foe of Test cricket could be negated. Simple to legislate – perhaps – but more difficult to apply in an actual match. That’s an issue I will return to in a future post about Test match pitches.
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