Monday, 14 July 2014

The pitch wins out

Monday, 14 July 2014

It was, quite frankly, a bizarre game of cricket. We saw two tenth wicket partnerships worth over a hundred runs, batting collapses and fine centuries on either sides, and finally a wicket for England's captain. There were stages when it all got just a bit surreal.

The one constant was the pitch, which offered next to nothing for the bowlers. There were some brief periods where the ball swung and it offered some turn, but for the most part it was just slow and low. Whether this was a decision from above, a 'chief executive's pitch' that we often hear about, or whether it was due to the drainage systems installed in English pitches in recent years as others suggested; it just wasn't a good pitch for a game of cricket at the highest level. You want to see pitches that offer carry, chances that go to the keeper and the slips rather than always seeing the ball bouncing before them. Matt Prior had to stand much further forward just for the ball to reach him - eventually even standing up to the stumps –  but at the same time it shortened his reaction times and made chances more difficult to take. Really what makes a good match is a contest between bat and ball, a pitch that offers something for both batsmen and bowlers. And especially for England, so far this summer playing four seamers, they need pitches that offer their bowlers some spice.

Another factor that's going to come into play this summer, and especially if pitches like these ones continue, is rotation. In India's first innings all the seamers bowled over thirty overs, in the second innings twenty more. With the whole five test series taking place within the space of a mere 42 days (the next match on Thursday), there will be tired bodies along the way and  to prevent injuries changes to the side will be a must. It's particularly a problem for England now without a front-line spinner to absorb many of the day's overs as well as taking regular wickets. Moeen Ali is decent but far from the finished product - in any case batting being his stronger suit – and was expensive and so unable to build pressure. Simon Kerrigan has been added to the squad for the match at Lord's and so could feature – he had a debut to forget at the end of last summer but the selectors remain keen and Peter Moores, his previous coach at Lancashire, will remain in his corner. The balance of the side is another point to consider when it comes to rotation – would Kerrigan come in for Ali despite his battling century against Sri Lanka, seeing Stokes return to number six; would he give Plunkett a rest to save him for a (traditionally, at least) more bouncy pitch at Old Trafford; or replace Broad, currently managing a knee injury? With test centurions down to number nine in this game, there is room for adjustment if needed.

Though the match was a draw, and with only three innings quite a dull one at that, it did provide its share of enjoyable moments. I wrote about England's problems against tailenders in my last post, and it was a problem shared by India. Joe Root and James Anderson scored a world record tenth wicket partnership of 198, after a swashbuckling innings of 47 by Broad, which really saved the game for England and meant that by the fifth day they were the only team that could realistically have some hope of winning. Anderson's score of 81 was one of the most popular moments of the match, first helping Root reach his century, then giving England the first innings lead, then breaking national and eventual world records; both him and everyone else in a mix of joy and disbelief. It also showed to England that it's a lot easier to enjoy these things when it's not the opposition causing the damage. Then as the match drew to its close, time running down until the sides could shake hands and call it a draw, we saw a rather extraordinary sight. Cook and Ballance got their chance to have a bowl; Ballance walking up like a young Shane Warne and Cook bowling all sorts, even taking a wicket with a bowling impression of Bob Willis. It could even be optimistically described as a moment of captaincy genius, certainly putting smiles on his team's faces after a tough day in the field and doing its bit for team morale.

Both sides got themselves in good positions in this match but I think as a whole England got the better of it, able to put India under pressure on the final day after having looked down the barrel, 159 runs behind at 298/8, when batting. To give credit to Cook, I don't think he had a bad game in terms of captaincy, even if his batting continues to put him under pressure. There were some aspects that he could have done better – putting a third man in would have saved a lot of runs – but he did experiment with the field to some success and couldn't have done much more in the conditions. Both Dhoni and Cook looked powerless as the tenth wickets made hay. But it has to be said that, in this first match of the five test series, the only winner was the pitch.

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