Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tim Felce - England Cricket Team Ashes 2015
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tim Felce

Pitch debates mask batting deficiencies

In a moment of test match history, England succumbed to a defeat in the shortest test match since the 1930s. The extraordinary test at Ahmedabad saw England score less than 200 runs over the course of two innings before India won by 10 wickets. In the immediate aftermath, questions flared around all topics from rotation policy to the third umpire processes. 

In the second test of this series at Chennai, the pitch came under much scrutiny with the ball exploding through the surface from the very first over. It is worth keeping in mind that the cultivation of surfaces in cricket is as much an art as a science, and that few people outside of the select elite groundsmen really know what goes into preparing a pitch. 

However, I think it is fair enough to think that, should both sides play capably, a pitch should accommodate them through the five days. By this standard the much-scrutinised pitch at Chennai seemed adequate, with India making scores of 329 and 286 and taking victory on the fourth day. This stands up less to scrutiny when one remembers how poorly England bowled, especially during periods when Rohit Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin were easing to centuries. 

While the Chennai game was elongated through a combination of terrific batting and lax bowling, at Ahmedabad there was no such luck. Both first innings were eerily similar, with Zak Crawley and Rohit Sharma scoring 53 and 66 respectively to set their teams on a good start before fantastical collapses. Particularly notable was the Indian collapse on the second morning where Joe Root took the most economical five-for ever in test cricket by a spinner (5-8). Joe Root is a fine part-timer, but on an Indian pitch against Indian batsmen it seemed beyond belief that they could not see off Root. 

It is perfectly acceptable for India to produce a pitch that favours their team

Many batsmen were undone by the straight ball that doesn’t spin, from some quarters this was seen as poor batsmanship, but this doesn’t seem fair. The straight ball was so effective due to the variable bounce and turn of the pitch, which proved difficult to play as the pink ball seemed to gather pace off the wicket. This left all but the most adventurous batsmen essentially playing French cricket off the back foot. 

Debates about pitches can often descend (as they did after this test) into banal arguments with one side contesting that the pitch is unfit for test cricket, while the other points out that India preparing a spinning pitch is no different to a cracking WACA or green top at Lords. There should be more nuance in how we discuss this. It is perfectly acceptable for India to produce a pitch that favours their team, part of the beauty of test cricket is the variety of conditions the very great players are challenged to master. Yet there does reach a point by which a pitch is not conducive to good cricket being played, when a game descends into a shootout. 

When pitches are so over- or underprepared batting becomes an exercise in futility

The ideal in cricket is skill being adequately rewarded on the scoreboard, be that good bowling, batting, or fielding. When pitches are so over- or underprepared batting becomes an exercise in futility and skill, in either batting or bowling, becomes an irrelevance. Of course this is an impossible boundary to police, some of the best moments in test cricket are when players rise above the pitch. Take Jimmy Anderson’s much-relayed over in the first test, where he produced such exquisite powers of reverse swing that it could have been Adelaide or Edgbaston and there would have been no difference. 

England did not lose the game because of the pitch though

The point here being that this pitch was not necessarily unacceptable, but it is fair when a match has ended within six sessions to ask questions of the pitch. England did not lose the game because of the pitch though, that was largely down to their batting. Had the bowling attacks been switched around, even Ashwin and Axar would not have defended a target as low as 49. The pitch also did not leave England two wickets down for no runs in the second innings, with Bairstow registering an ignominious pair for the match. 

The last team to win a test series in India (England in 2012) did so on the back of excellent batting. Cook and Pietersen carried England to victory in the second and third tests while in the pivotal fourth the so-called ‘engine room’ middle-order batted out the draw. England have not lost this series yet, and if they can find some more runs around Joe Root a drawn series is well within their grasp.

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