Law 6.1 of Laws of Cricket, 2017 code, defines pitch as an area 22 yards in length and 10 feet wide and bound on either ends by the bowling crease and on sides by imaginary lines passing parallel to and 5 feet from the line joining the centre of the middle stumps. Law 6.3 states that ground authority in charge of the conduct of the match shall be responsible for selection and preparation of the pitch before the match, while the umpires shall control its use and maintenance during the match. Law 9 lays down the clauses relating to rolling and mowing of the pitch, where also it is stipulated that ground authority would be in charge of these activities prior to the commencement of the match.
The gist of these laws are that selection and preparation of the pitch for any match is the responsibility of the ground authority who conducts the game. Since matches in cricket involve contests between home team and visiting side, it is the norm for the former to prepare pitch to suit their strength. This has been so from the time cricket started being played competitively and would remain so, except in the case of tournaments, which provide a neutral setting for all participating sides except the hosts. Thus, home advantage has been one of the established norms of cricket at all levels and has been accepted so by all the participants of this sport.
Pitch and its preparation were in the news of late at many levels. When India toured New Zealand recently, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) released on Twitter pictures of the pitch and adjoining areas before the start of both Tests. While the post on the day prior to the first Test at Wellington, merely stated that this was what the pitch looked like, the caption for the tweet “Spot the pitch”, prior to the second Test at Christchurch, was more brazen. The message being conveyed was that New Zealand had prepared “green tops”, to help their seam and swing bowlers. However, the performance of Indian side was so poor that blaming the pitches alone for the dismal show would have appeared preposterous, besides being insanely irrational.
On seeing the posts put up by the BCCI on Twitter, one remembered an incident cited by former England captain Tony Greig in his autobiography “My Story”. Greig was leading England during their tour of India in 1976-77 and his side had won the first Test at Delhi by a big margin. But, he was tense before the start of the second Test at Kolkata as that venue had traditionally favoured the hosts. Besides he was haunted by memories of the previous tour in 1972-73, where England lost the second and third Tests played at Kolkata and Chennai after winning the first one at Delhi.
When the side reached Kolkata they found that the wicket at Eden Gardens was shorn off all grass. But what shocked them was the action of groundsman in shearing the pitch again on the day before the game was to start. This was to ensure that not only would there be no grass on the surface, but also the weakening of the top layer of the pitch would help it to crumble faster, which would give more bite to the Indian spinners. Grieg was so annoyed by this development that he played what he himself described as the greatest innings of his life, spending more than seven hours at the wicket, despite running a high temperature, to score a patient 103. The Indian batting collapsed in both innings before the hostile fast bowling attack led by Bob Willis, which was supported by left-arm spinner Derek Underwood. The end result was that India lost the Test by 10 wickets.
The final of the Ranji Trophy, the premier first class tournament of the country, took place last week. Saurashtra won the championship, edging out Bengal, by virtue of taking the first innings lead. No sooner than the match had started came a statement from Arun Lal, the coach of Bengal side, criticising the pitch and calling it sub standard. In the end Bengal, batting second, came very close to overtaking Saurashtra's first innings total of 425, ending up only 44 runs short. This would show that the wicket was neither underprepared nor of poor standard, but one that tested the skills of both the batsmen and bowlers. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that Lal’s statement was an overreaction and made more with the intention of accusing the Saurashtra side of unfairly milking the home advantage, than stating a fact.
Here again, one remembers the final of Ranji Trophy that took place in Chennai in 1973, when Tamil Nadu took on reigning champions Mumbai. The groundsman at Chepauk prepared a wicket where ball started turning right from the first hour of the match. This was deliberately done to give a heads up to the Tamil Nadu bowling attack led by spin bowlers S Venkataraghavan and V V Kumar. The fact that Mumbai could not boast of a spinner of the same calibre as these two exponents would have spurred the hosts further in this venture. However, despite Venkat and Kumar bowling brilliantly and restricting Mumbai to low scores, Tamil Nadu lost the match by 123 runs as their batsmen could not tackle the bowling of visitors on the treacherous pitch. Thus, the strategy devised by the hosts to consciously prepare a turner did not pay any dividends for their side.
The essence of the incidents cited above is that while the host side can claim a small advantage on account of their prerogative to prepare pitches, this would not, by any means, ensure them a win. After all, both sides are required to to bat and bowl on the same wicket and the side that plays better cricket in the given conditions would win. The intention of the groundsman should be to prepare a pitch that would offer equal assistance to both the batsmen and bowlers and last for the duration of the match, while providing a result at the end of it. And the visiting side should try to play positive cricket, without being intrigued or constrained on account of unseen devils lurking beneath the surface.
In the final analysis, champion sides are those that overcome the challenges posed by pitch and other factors and emerge successful. One never heard Steve Waugh or Clive Lloyd complain about pitch or weather conditions when the sides led by them toured the sub continent or England. They knew that hazards on account of these factors are an integral part of the game which had to be tackled by elevating the performance levels and not by cribbing about them. These leaders did not allow those under their command to be worried or stressed about conditions over which they had no control; instead they gave the players the confidence that they possessed the calibre and potential to do well in all situations.
The BCCI and Arun Lal would do well to take a leaf out of the performances of champion sides if they are to mould and mentor teams of top calibre. They should not allow the development of the new adage “a bad loser blames pitch and conditions”, in line with the more famous one “a bad workman blames his tools”.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)