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The odds of pitching a balanced game

The odds of pitching a balanced game
The first Test between India and South Africa in Mohali ended inside three days.
©REUTERS / Action Images

Test cricket. Slow. Testing your patience, while players squeeze every ounce of their skill to make it through. Test cricket. Nerve-wracking. Contrary to the general perception that it is boring.

Test cricket. A game for the patient, for those who want to soak in the art of solving one small puzzle at a time in a gigantic jigsaw that wouldn’t fall into place in a few minutes or hours like Twenty20 or One-Day International games but across five days.

But Test cricket churned out two sample games in the last couple of weeks that raise many questions - one in Mohali that ended within three days and another at the WACA, Perth that witnessed four centuries and two massive double centuries.

One was a batsman’s graveyard and the other a bowler’s graveyard. Amidst such games and the persistent exodus to coloured cricket, Test cricket continues to be ruled by two massively important factors – the toss and the pitch. While the former cannot be controlled, the latter is often exploited in the name of home advantage and therein lies the difference.

Test cricket was supposed to be free from the influence of the pitch and toss. The first innings should always be tough to handle with early moisture. The final innings is supposed to be equally tough with the cracks and wear and tear.

However, most teams prepare rank turners (as is the case with sub-continental teams) or green tops depending upon their strengths.

In the last decade barring South Africa, no team has given a good account of themselves away from home. That is largely because their squads, whether they are India, Australia, England or any of the other teams, were made up of players who were adept in certain kinds of conditions and not so consistent in others.

South Africa was the only team that came close to checking all the boxes, with batsmen and bowlers capable of thriving on bouncy surfaces, seamer-friendly surfaces and the slower tracks of the sub-continent.

But in three days in Mohali, the South African batsmen came a cropper showing how teams are becoming more and more accustomed to thriving on home conditions and failing otherwise.

Australia whitewashed India down under, for example, but were whitewashed in India when they toured.

England won in India, amazingly, but lost badly in Australia. Australia, who were dominant at home, lost in England to a reasonably young side that didn’t start as favourites.

Pakistan win consistently in the United Arab Emirates but are not exactly amazing travellers. New Zealand are largely inconsistent in the sub-continent although they did impress in the UAE against Pakistan.

South Africa have lost more at home than they lost away, a strange phenomenon but in four days of Test cricket on this tour, they look like they are in serious jeopardy of breaking that pattern.

he simplest question that needs to be asked is: should pitches be tailor-made to favour home teams or should they be sporty giving bat and ball an equal opportunity?

Home teams usually have the temptation to load a pitch in favour of their team and that often shortens the games or like at the WACA, turns the game into a drab one, when it is too flat letting even the opposition get away once they manage to handle scoreboard pressure.

Maybe teams could enter into an agreement in bilateral series that they will avoid massive home team advantage when the other one tours, ensuring cricket wins at the end of the day.

That would mean Indian teams not seeing a green top away from home and in turn ensuring the ball doesn’t turn square from day one when the other team arrives in India.

It is easier said than done, considering how International Cricket Council ranking points, broadcast figures and audiences depend on how interesting a series is and which team is the favourite.

Although there is nothing wrong in ‘home advantage’, teams should note that at the end of the day Test cricket is best served when the game yields a result on the fifth day or towards the end of the fourth day in the worst case.

A game ending inside three days or turning out to be a run feast only turns away audiences who already find it hard to sit through entire days of Test cricket.

A curator needs to be his own man, not someone ruled by the whims and fancies of the home team coach or skipper and it would definitely help if teams look for balance within themselves than use the pitch as a weapon to amplify their strengths or the opponents’ weaknesses.

Yet, who will break ranks and start the trend of preparing pitches that are sporty but not in excessive favour of the home team?

© Cricket World 2015