3 The pitches dilemma

The frustration felt by the Dolphins concerning the preparation of seamer-friendly pitches by particular franchises is understandable.

Last season, for example, the Eagles prepared a number of these pitches in Bloemfontein that helped them to win the SuperSport Series.

But while their bowlers flapped their wings and soared, their batsmen plummeted to earth with Morne van Wyk, to take one example, falling out of favour at a national level.

This season, the Eagles were bowled out for 28 at St George's Park on one occasion, while last weekend's match at Buffalo Park between the Titans and the Warriors was a fast-bowlers' paradise.

The Dolphins, by contrast, have been playing on good cricket wickets, particularly at Kingsmead, where bowlers have to work hard for their wickets. Having drawn their first three matches, they now find themselves a little off the pace in the first-class competition, and there have been some grumbles as a result.

The debate about teams preparing pitches to suit their own strengths is hardly a new one. Only last season, for example, the captain of Kent, Robert Key, was nailed by the England and Wales Cricket Board after he described the pitch inspectors as a bunch of "muppets" after they failed to take action over an allegedly substandard surface prepared at Chester-le-Street by Durham, in which wickets fell like ninepins (and Kent lost). Incidentally, Durham, under the captaincy of Dale Benkenstein, went on to win the championship.

But how do we distinguish between a "snakepit" and a "sporty wicket", or a pitch that is difficult and one that is palpably unfair and bad for cricket?

First of all, Cricket SA's administrative conditions do make provision for determining bad pitches. The first move has to come from the umpires, who must issue a report stating that a pitch is substandard. The definition of substandard involves "inconsistent bounce, broken surface, dangerous to batsmen and excessive grass cover".

Once the report is with Cricket SA, it is the body's responsibility to arrange for a pitch inspector to check it and take reports from the match referee, captains, groundsman and chief executive of the franchise concerned.

Penalties include points deductions or a fine not exceeding R10 000. A drastic option would result in the exclusion of the ground from the following season's roster of international matches. A cautionary note adds: "The pitch inspector will not be consulted should a pitch show slight favour to either batsman or bowler."

Clearly, it will not always be easy to find one's way through the thicket of subjective opinions to find the truth.

CSA's general manager of cricket affairs, Brian Basson, observed that each of the franchise's groundsmen was paid by the union and not CSA.

"Obviously, if they owe their position to the union, they will tend to follow instructions so as not to compromise their position," he said.

One solution to this problem is for CSA to pay the groundsmen, and Basson said he had put this forward on a number of occasions. "Perhaps one day we'll get there, but so far nobody has taken this option seriously," he said.

One has to ask: why?

A final point: the Eagles' total of 28 all out was adjudged to be a case of "very poor batting" by the match referee concerned, while the Buffalo Park fiasco was down to a genuine miscalculation by the groundsman, who didn't prepare the pitch early enough. In neither case, according to Basson, was there a case for ruling that the pitches were substandard.

Source:-www.iol.co.za

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