By Derek Pringle
Challenging but not dangerous… or a stinker on which the Test match should have been abandoned – two differing views of the Wanderers pitch upon which India won the third Test against South Africa recently by 63 runs.
Unsurprisingly, the first assessment comes from India’s Ajinkya Rahane, who made 9 and 48 batting in the middle-order, while the second comes from Dean Elgar, South Africa’s opening batsmen, who made 4 and 86 not out, carrying his bat as his team slumped to defeat.
From the bowlers, no complaints, but then who would look a gift horse in the mouth? In this case a pitch that was seaming off grass on the first two days, leaping from a good length throughout, but also keeping low from the cracks that opened up as the match progressed beyond tea on the fourth day. Well played, Deano.
The balance between bat and ball is never an easy one for groundsmen to get right, especially in this era of big shots, sketchy techniques and attenuated attention spans. The Wanderers clearly presented a challenge for batsmen, but with the scores going 187, 194, 247 and 177 it hardly seems a stinker, with due respect to those who played in the game.
Without harking back to the era of uncovered pitches, where the elements brought a delicious air of unpredictability to matches, there have been pitches upon which first-class cricket has been played which have proved far more difficult upon which to score runs or even to survive.
I played 295 first-class games for Essex in my career and the one against Kent, at Folkestone in 1980, was probably the toughest in terms of the pitches played on. Scheduled during mid-August, when pitches tend to be at their driest, this one went through the top from the off. Keith Fletcher, Essex’s captain, knew the pitch was crusty and would prove tricky, so opted to bat first. It was the right move, though it didn’t look like it after Essex had been dismissed for 130 in 49.1 overs, the peerless Derek Underwood having taken six for 71. Only five of our batsmen reached double figures, Stuart Turner top-scoring with an unconventional 35.
Kent’s response was to make just 88, with David Acfield, our off-spinner, taking six for 37. Acfield and I bowled the majority of the 43 overs it took to dismantle Kent, which may surprise many given we also had John Lever and Ray East in the team. But Fletcher had worked out that in order to impose maximum discomfort on Kent, he needed a tall bowler to hit the pitch from a steep angle and a quick-through-the-air spinner who would not allow batsmen to use their feet and get down the pitch. I only took one wicket, but it might have been more had the ball not misbehaved so alarmingly.
With the pitch worsening, Underwood took another six in our second innings as we were bundled out for 76, Ken McEwan making 30 of them. That left Kent needing 119 to win, a total that proved well beyond them as they crumbled to 68 all out. Afterwards, Fletcher was asked why Essex had been able to win such a match.
“Well,” he said, “we have more clouting louts in our team,” an oblique reference to the unconventional but effective cross-bat slogging from him and Turner that had provided 45 per cent of Essex’s runs.
The worst Test pitch I saw was at Sabina Park on England’s 1997/98 tour of the West Indies. Covering the series as a journalist, I sat in disbelief as the match was abandoned before lunch on the first day.
Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica, had a fearsome reputation for providing a hard, quick and shiny surface for fast bowlers, especially West Indies’ own fearsome quartets. They reckoned you could see your reflection in the Sabina pitches of yore, a combination of the soil used and the way the groundsman used to spin the roller while the pitch was wet to achieve the required sheen.
Four years earlier it had indeed been shiny and grassless, so much so that I asked the groundsman, Charles Joseph, in jest, where he kept the lawnmower? He appreciated the joke, saying: “The only thing I cut round here is my hair.” He was not a Rasta.
On this occasion, the surface had been relaid with an American soil expert recommending the use of marine deposits. England won the toss and batted but were 17-3 inside the first hour. Worse, the batsmen had been struck on the body or gloves seven times in the first ten overs by Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose from a good length, a blow count that persuaded the umpires to take the players off the field.
With the ball bursting the surface of the pitch, extensive discussions were held over the next 90 minutes after which the game was abandoned – the first time in Test cricket’s 122-year history that a match had been called off for reasons of a sub-standard pitch.
It was a shocker that gave the batsmen little chance of survival, let alone the opportunity to play shots they were in control of. Yet, what of those surfaces too intransigent to take many wickets on? They may not be bad for the bruise count, but they are bad for the game, something Faisalabad proved when England played the second Test against Pakistan there in November 2005.
I’m not sure the toss was important as the pitch did not change over five days, but Pakistan won it. They made 462 in their first innings to which England replied with 446. Apart from a gas canister exploding in the stand and Shahid Afridi trying to illegally scuff up the pitch with his spikes while everyone was distracted, exciting moments were at a minimum. Pakistan were only halfway through their second innings when the last day began and while the scorecard suggests this ended up an exciting match, with England six down at the close, a draw was the only result most could envisage from day three on
The pitch was like concrete and unyielding to spike, roller or even Afridi’s dirty dancing. I mention this only because India, then under Greg Chappell’s guidance as coach, played a Test at the same venue in January 2006, 62 days after England had played their match there. According to Chappell, the pitch Michael Vaughan’s team had played on had not been touched but could still have sustained a five-day match all that time later.
As it was, India played on the strip next to it, scoring 603 in reply to Pakistan’s 588, before the home side killed the game off with 490 for eight in their second innings. But which is the worst for cricket, that one, or the viperish deck at the Wanderers? I know which one I’d rather have watched and played on, though I don’t expect many batsmen would agree.