0 Teams should leave preparation of cricket pitch to groundsmen

THE New Year's Test at Newlands has regained its status and sense of occasion in the South African sporting calendar, despite the misery of Monday's weather.

Perhaps it never lost its lustre, but it was certainly compromised by the Springboks-Proteas comedy show which replaced India last year.

The outfield was pristine, the sun shone and the people came in their thousands. The West Indies raised their game and competed and the home side was pushed for the first time, thankfully. The only question concerned the pitch.

Grass is an important commodity in the preparation of a cricket pitch (though they do manage without it in some parts of the subcontinent), and the greener the better as far as South Africa's top-ranked bowling attack is concerned.

It was there in abundance at Newlands but it was brown and barely alive, like a Highveld winter lawn. It served only to hold the cracks together but offered no "grip" for the ball's seam. With atmospheric conditions negating swing movement, the first three days were gun barrel straight frustration for the quick bowlers of both sides.

The term "chief executives pitch" was coined in the 1980s when financial considerations started to compete with cricketing ones before many Tests for the first time.

Before that, the home side's only concern was to create a playing surface to benefit their team. Pitches were shaved bare and spun prodigiously in India (still do, actually) and they were well watered and rolled in England providing bounce and lateral movement.

But chief executives, encouraged by television production companies, vendors, hospitality and catering businesses and, to a lesser degree, ticket sales, were keen to see Tests extend into a fifth day. It meant less watering and more mowing in places like SA, Australia and England.

The days of Test captains and selectors telephoning the groundsman and "ordering" a certain type of pitch were on the wane. In theory the venue and national team should be working towards the same goal - but that's theory. In practise, the cricketers get paid the same whether they work for three days or five. Suite holders, broadcasters and boerewors sellers, on the other hand, are reliant on as much cricket as possible to entertain clients, attract advertising and make a buck or two.

There's no doubt that Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel would have been a great deal more effective on a "juicier" pitch - while the likes of Faf du Plessis, AB De Villiers and Hashim Amla are better technically equipped as batsmen than their West Indian counterparts to cope with a seaming ball. But the "greater" concerns prevailed.

It could have been even flatter. An hour before the start of the match the Proteas prevailed upon the ground staff not to lower the mower blades from 4mm to 3mm, as they had been asked to do by their employers. The intervention was only just in the nick of time.

Perhaps home conditions which are, at best, "neutral" and, at worst, actually beneficial to touring teams are the reason the Test team has lost more series at home in the past eight years than away where they are unbeaten.

The profoundly biased conditions which prevail in India are the reason that the Indians still win more often at home but struggle even to compete on the road.

Ironically, the Australians have actually tried to produce lively, bouncy wickets during the present series against India but drop-in pitches are to order and more often than not lose their "life" soon after being moved from the greenhouse to the square. Mitchell Johnson's wickets against India have cost 35 runs apiece. Enough said.

Easy and quick victories are very pleasing when they come along but they are, by and large, best not sought with deliberately under-prepared pitches.

Something between what the players want and what the administrators would like would do nicely.

In other words, perhaps we should just let the grounds curators do their job.

For the BDlive article click here.

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