I know of no other ball game than cricket which depends so much on the surface on which it is played. Many sport surfaces nowadays are all-weather, man-made, synthetic and therefore, to all intents and purposes, uniform. The games that are played on grass and therefore subject to weather conditions – I’m thinking here football, rugby, (lawn) tennis – are not significantly affected during the short hours of play and if they are, it’s the same for both sides, as the cliché goes. Golf might be considered an exception but that is such a strange, complex occupation I shall put it to one side and leave it to the experts to explain.
Perhaps that is the origin of the toss. Pitches varied so much in character that it seemed only fair to toss a coin to decide who was going to do what, to get the game underway. Before the toss of course is the time-honoured rigmarole of predicting how the pitch will play. More claptrap is voiced during these discussions than tales of derring-do in the bar after a day’s ski-ing. Reading a pitch is an inexact science. I would go further and say it is nor a science at all. In fact it’s an art – performance art. Remember Geoff Boycott’s car keys? Guesswork in other words. “The pitch is wet/dry/soft/hard/green/dusty….so in view of that, I think we’ll ,er…bat first!” Thus goes the thought process of captains up and down the country, especially if two of his players haven’t yet turned up.
Don’t listen to the groundsman either. Like Caesar’s generals, they advise as they judge their listeners wish to hear. “I’ve prepared for you an absolute belter!” our groundsman at university told us before every game. And I remember one curmudgeonly old sod on the county circuit replying to any question about the nature of his wicket, “22 yards long. Same as last year.” So, bat first. Unless you have compelling reasons not to. And then it usually goes spectacularly wrong.
People who don’t really understand the game are at a loss to grasp the significance of the pitch factor. Why on earth don’t you play on a synthetic surface that plays firm and true, never varies day to day, therefore providing predictable, fair and even conditions upon which the best players can showcase their skills? Luck would be removed; the more uncertainty you introduce, the more you dumb down. I mean you wouldn’t want Roger Federer to play Rafael Nadal on a cabbage patch, would you?
I contend however the opposite. I believe the glorious uncertainty of the pitch is one of cricket’s enduring fascinations. Just look at the recent Test match between England and India at Edgbaston in which the home side prevailed by just 31 runs. The game ebbed and flowed in dramatic fashion until the very last ball, holding a packed Birmingham crowd enthralled. Edge of the seat stuff. The reason the game was such a cracker owed much to the pitch. It was not a bland surface on which batsmen could fill their boots. It offered assistance – not an inordinate amount but just enough – to the bowlers so it became a supreme test of skill, patience and technique to survive and prosper. All of which put Kohli’s performance (149 and 51, with the next highest Indian score being 31) into perspective. It was a shame that the best player on either side ended up on the losing side. But hey, that’s cricket for you.
The game’s administrators don’t seem to get this, as they seem not to get a lot of things. They are predominantly driven by the profit motive. I bet they are the only ones bemoaning events at Edgbaston. The game was over in three and a bit days. Think of all that lost revenue. Bring in that groundsman of theirs at Warwickshire and let him explain to us why he didn’t prepare a pitch guaranteed to last five days.
Fewer and fewer cricketers now can claim to have played on uncovered wickets in the first-class game (the practice of leaving the pitch open to the elements once play has started fell out of favour in the 1970s). As a batter, I dreaded the rain. As a bowler, I welcomed the dark clouds rolling in. Rain never came to help the batsman, as the old saw went. And never was that that truer than when I had to face Derek Underwood on a damp wicket at Tunbridge Wells. I couldn’t lay a bat on him. “Never mind,” Alan Knott said to me between balls, “He’s made a lot better batsmen than you look foolish.” Too right. The conditions exploited by a master of his craft had provided a test of my technique and mettle and I had been found wanting. But to watch Barry Richards, a master craftsman himself, take up the challenge was an object lesson in how to play the bowler and the conditions. It was riveting. Barry would probably have got bored and hit it up in the air had we been playing on a road. He loved a challenge. Underwood on a wet wicket. What was more challenging than that?
The best games are played on pitches that offer something to the bowlers, when nobody feels fully comfortable and ‘in’, when the odd ball behaves differently, when wickets can fall in clusters and when big scores are genuinely earned. ‘Vive la difference’, as they say in France, where of course they do not play the game. If they did, they would assuredly celebrate la difference of pitches as they do the terroirs of their vineyards.