Do England fans think ‘turn’ and ‘deterioration’ are the same thing?

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India just made 600 runs on what was in some quarters portrayed as being an UNPLAYABLE AND DISGRACEFUL DUST PIT OF SHAME. “It makes batting a lottery,” they said. If that were the case, India must have bought a hell of a lot of tickets.

There was a lot of predictable anger about the pitch in Chennai. That in itself is not very interesting. The immediacy with which those complaints arose is, however.

Touring teams often moan about pitches. As we reported in the first series of the Ridiculous Ashes, Australia went so far as to lodge a formal complaint in 1997 because they were of the belief that pitches were being fixed in England’s favour. They were leading 2-1 at the time and decided to make their feelings known immediately after securing an innings victory.

Complaining about other countries’ pitches is just a thing that people do.

England fans say one of two things for a Test played in India.

  1. They say the pitch is too flat and it’ll obviously be a draw. Then the pitch deteriorates and the ball turns plenty and it isn’t a draw
  2. They say the pitch offers spinners too much turn too early and it’s an absolute disgrace

That second one often comes alongside an assertion about what pitches are “supposed” to do – which is invariably just something they’ve made up themselves.

What’s the problem with the ball turning?

Sideways movement

If you want the ball’s movement to be perfectly even, true and non-threatening, you’re presumably also against cloud cover and that ball having a seam.

Quite obviously, sideways movement is not the issue. So what is it?

It’s the idea that the turn will become ever more pronounced and that the match will somehow descend into farce.

On the morning of day one in Chennai, there was a feeling that the pitch was already ‘breaking up’ and that by day three it would be unplayable. But that didn’t really prove to be the case. It wasn’t an easy pitch by any means, but it was still manageable enough that India’s number eight could make a hundred on day three.

That is not a bad pitch.

There are two main issues with a pitch breaking up. The main issue is that it could become seriously uneven and therefore dangerous. The second is that the bounce could become a bit random and that this could mean luck playing a far bigger role in determining the outcome of any given delivery.

Neither of those things really became a particularly big concern in Chennai. The pitch continued to offer plenty for the spinners, but it didn’t really ever become freakishly unpredictable. It held up okay.

Turn v deterioration

For partly cultural, but largely climatic reasons, most British pitches aren’t very ‘grippy’. They only really offer spin when they deteriorate. A by-product of this is that UK cricket fans tend to see ‘turn’ and ‘deterioration’ as one and the same thing.

“If the ball is spinning,” they reason, “the pitch must be crumbling to pieces.”

Visible turn on day one therefore hits them alongside a parallel assumption that the match will become a joke before too long.

But it is entirely possible for a ball to spin and for the pitch to not yet be in pieces. It is possible to see a puff of dust and for it to be just a puff of dust and not the immediate creation of a crevasse.

Early turn is therefore just a starting point – and quite often a fairer one.

Because marked deterioration of a pitch is a far bigger threat to the ‘fairness’ of a match than constant turn throughout the game. When a pitch gets significantly harder to bat on, it puts the team batting second at more of a disadvantage. (It is also worth pointing out that cricket is a fundamentally unfair game anyway and that overcoming both the opposition and any unfairness you’re presented with is actually half of the point.)

To wrap all of this up, while early spin can sometimes be the precursor to chaos, it is also possible for a ball to turn on the first day and for the pitch to stay pretty much in one piece for the rest of the match.

‘Turn’ and ‘deterioration’ are not the same thing.

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  1. Fair point Mr King.

    Of course, it was an even worse pitch than most think – it actually managed to fit both of your criteria.

    When England were batting, it looked like a cruel and unplayable surface; when India were batting, it was a concrete strip that totally devalued the contest between bat and ball, and one on which it is perfectly reasonable that India’s number 8 should get a hundred.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say India were the better team.

    1. It’s unfair that the home team should engineer an advantage for itself by picking better players.

  2. What really gets my goat about the test match just concluded is not only that India was vastly better than England at the actual cricket; India vastly surpassed England in ridiculousness too. In particular Kohli did.

    If there were to be such a thing as The Ridiculous “Anthony de Mello”…and heaven knows you don’t do requests KC but there should be…Virat Kohli almost certainly won the second test’s ridiculousness single handed.

    Firstly there was the refusal to believe that he could be clean bowled on the first morning, as reported at length on this website. Supreme ridiculousness.

    But also there was a second bout of first class ridiculousness from Kohli late on Day Three, by which time India’s win had been all-but secured. Surrounding Joe Root just before stumps, the Indian players screamed like Banshees imploring the umpire to give Root out. The umpire was unmoved. There was then a lengthy debate amongst the India players…I’m not sure whether they were proposing to review for a catch, for LBW or for whatever might be going. Kohli reviewed. No edge (narrowly) and impact “umpires call” for outside the line of off stump. Looked very close but that’s what umpires call is. Not out, review retained. Kohli remonstrated with the standing umpire for some time, I think in English, as I’m pretty sure I read on Kohli’s angry lips, “how could you give that not out?”

    Top of the world rankings for ridiculousness by a country mile at the moment, in my view.

    Virat Kohli.

    1. Top for arrogance as well if you ask me. Both of those ‘ridiculous’ incidents show that pretty clearly.

      1. I apologise for my mistake and will correct it.
        Kohli is 2nd in the world for arrogance after David Warner.

      2. Warner is weird, because he’s absolutely lovely when he’s not busy sledging or trying to strangle Quinton de Kock or punching people in the face for wearing a wig on their chin.

    2. ‘Ridiculous’ is a kind way of putting it. Kohli seems to be living under the assumption that the ‘aggressive’ mindset should extend to all spheres and has taken it upon himself to act in this ridiculous fashion. As I said in the other piece as well, someone should pull him aside and let him know that behaving this way doesn’t make him a strong captain, it only makes him a piece of shit.

  3. I am glad there are articles like these around, KC. I read Agnew’s piece and found it, well, frankly quite irritating. Who decided that the perfect pitch must be one which assists the fast bowler on the first two days, gives a little to the batsmen, and then helps spinners toward the end? I realize this is now regarded as the gold standard, but it is as arbitrary as any other measure! As you correctly point out, the only thing that should be of concern is if the pitch is dangerous or not. So if a visiting team is not able to counter the gabba bounce and the test ends in four days, should the Brisbane groundsmen be ashamed of the pitch they produced? This argument is ridiculous and even good commentators don’t seem to understand the irony in calling only one kind of pitch bad.

    In the words of a great president of America, “Sad!”.

    1. It’s such nonsense. Set aside the fact that people have just made up this definition of what pitches are supposed to be, what they’ve decided on isn’t even balanced. The team batting first gets the better of the spinning conditions and the team batting second gets the better of the seaming conditions.

      We think that’s fine, but the idea that kind of pitch is some sort of benchmark is silly. Test cricket is great because it exposes players to all sorts of different conditions, but it’s not necessarily better to have them all feature within the same game.

      1. The side batting first can still come back on a green pitch though (they can chase down a score in the 4th innings if the wicket gets flatter). On the other hand, it’s really difficult for the side batting second to come back on a spinning pitch, because the pitch is only going to get worse.

      2. *Sorry I meant they can set up a big score in the 3rd innings by overcoming the lead and then bowl the opposition out in the 4th innings.

    2. Absolutely can’t agree that “the only thing that should be of concern is if the pitch is dangerous or not” – though I also found Agnew’s piece irritating and I do agree that “something for the seamers then something for the spinners later” isn’t the only way to make a “good” pitch or match.

      I think spectators like the idea of a pitch contributing to a “fair” contest, and dislike it when a pitch is seen as “unfair”. With respect to home advantage and preparing a pitch that suits your own attack, people’s opinions will differ on how far you can take that before it’s unacceptable – and criticisms on those grounds always run the risk of away-team supporters sounding rather chauvinistic about how “the way we prepare our pitches and balance our bowling attacks is the correct one, the way you are preparing yours is the wrong one”.

      But there are other “fairness” critiques which have a bit more going for them. Does the pitch prevent a match returning a “fair result”, one that rewards a team for good play and punishes it for poor play? Bore-draw pitches make it hard for a superior side to press for a win, and pitches that deteriorate too quickly can make winning the toss a bigger factor in which team wins than the quality of their play.

      Spectators also like to see, on a ball by ball level, “fair contest” between batter and bowler. How much assistance a spinner or seamer “should” get is subjective and set in part by domestic expectations. But we can all sympathise when a batsman is out to an unplayable ball which was the result of pitch randomness not bowler skill. And we can sympathise if we’re still awake and paying attention when bowlers get ground down by a pitch that isn’t doing anything.

      There are also considerations other than safety and fairness. There’s a valid commercial consideration when a pitch which ensures a Test doesn’t get to the last day, or even the penultimate one, is costing the home board money. And a match that’s still competitive going into the last day is far more exciting for spectators – though if the teams are mismatched, that isn’t the pitch’s fault, while a match that drags into the final day with a draw inevitable is one of the things that most turns people off about Test or first-class cricket, and pitches that contribute to this are literally “so good they’re awful”.

      What makes Agnew’s comments on the pitch so irritating is partly that he focuses on the fairness issue with a kind of moral indignation, but frames it largely in terms of pretty specifically English expectations of what a pitch “should” do. If you do focus on fairness, and that’s by no means the only metric, it’s hard to argue that the overall result was unfair, and both batsmen and bowlers did get chances to shine. There was certainly entertainment to be had even if the result was never in doubt. The other thing that’s irritating is Agnew made the call far too early, which I think His Maj gets right in the piece above. It wasn’t really unplayable by day three, and the deterioration of the pitch was apparently much less than pundits were predicting. Having to make the call from thousands of miles away probably didn’t help. At any rate, a good rule of thumb for criticising Test pitches is “don’t especially praise or criticise the pitch until the end of the match”, since only then can you see how well it actually lasts and to what extent it influences the result. And save the strongest criticism for pitches you’ve had the chance to get an up-close look at.

      1. Bail-out: Any reasonable person would agree that high scoring draws are dull. But I don’t see any reason why it’s imperative for every test match to go into the final day or the final hour of the final day. Sure, it’s wonderful if it happens and we tend to remember those matches well. But this is by no means a yardstick to judge things by (commercial advantages notwithstanding), and it’s certainly not the groundsman’s job to make sure the test lasts five days. I see his job as one that ensures there is some competition between bat and ball (and we do agree that dictating how this competition plays out over the course of five days is a little silly). The onus is on the players to produce a well fought match. Regarding wickets and skill: yes, we do sympathize with the batsman when he gets a delivery which did something it ought not to do, but this seems to become an issue only when things favour spinners. How many times have we all witnessed a delivery on a wicket with even bounce suddenly shooting down low and catching the batsman in front? We shrug this off saying the fellow was unlucky. As we should. Shit happens, and it is the sum total of all such shit-happenings that makes the drama worth watching, wouldn’t you agree?

      2. People definitely grouch too much about there being “too much in the pitch for the spinners” compared to how often they say the same for the pacemen, but personally I don’t enjoy watching a batsman dismissed by a delivery unplayable because it kept unexpectedly low. I feel like I’ve been cheated out of a contest as a spectator, but also of any gauge as to how good bowler/batter really are. I’ll also admit that some of the most entertaining Tests have been low-scoring four-day (even three-day) affairs where ball dominated bat, but the two sides were well-matched. I just prefer it when that’s due to the balance of both sides favouring the bowlers, rather than because good batsmen are being dismissed more by the vagaries of the pitch than the quality of the delivery. Having said that, the Trumper-esque ability to bat on a treacherous pitch is an interesting skill in its own right, and some bowlers are better than others at exploiting the conditions.

        I think in first-class or Test cricket, where the scheduled length of the match might be 3, 4, 5, or even 6 days, if the groundsman produces a pitch which gives us a “live” match as late as the final day (or would have done so had there been two teams well-matched against each other and well-balanced between bat and ball – it isn’t the groundsman’s job to compensate for a mismatch) then in many important respects the groundsman has done a “good” job. Even if there are other ways a match can play out that can be equally entertaining.

        And the role of luck and randomness in spectator enjoyment is an interesting question. If there isn’t uncertainty, a lot of the interest slips away. Foregone conclusions are boring. Cricket has a lot of sources of randomness to liven things up – the toss, the weather and the pitch are external factors, while the trajectory of a miscued shot or whether a 50-50 catch gets fumbled are outside players’ conscious control. Mistakes from batters (or bowers) arrive essentially at random, though the quality of the player (and their opposition) influences the probability of them occurring. When India were all out for 36, it was largely a matter of “bad luck” in that a surprisingly large proportion of wicket-taking moments actually resulted in a wicket being taken, and yet this bad luck still felt “fair” because the wickets could ultimately be attributed to the Indian batting and the Australian bowling/fielding. That score would be less interesting, and carry less meaning, if it were largely due to balls misbehaving from a dodgy pitch. But those external factors are all part of the rich tapestry of the game (perhaps only in Formula 1 are weather monitors watched more closely!) and a pitch offering no surprises whatsoever doesn’t allow us to see the best batsmen fully tested. Perhaps there’s an optimal blend of player-produced fortune and external (including pitch-induced) blind luck.

        It’s a tough balancing act for a groundsman to curate a pitch that adds some spice to a contest without either pre-determining the result or reducing it to a lottery. They deserve more love and appreciation for the times they pull it off, and to be cut more slack if they try something that doesn’t quite come off. If the players don’t produce – and England’s didn’t here – then a fair assessment of the pitch is very difficult.

  4. Is this Moeen thing going to be the point where England’s tour went horribly wrong?
    It hasn’t been terrible so far. Beat India handily in the first test and weren’t completely abject in the second (no double figure all outs). But surely dressing room morale isn’t going to improve with these off field shenanigans

      1. It is good. George is fair.

        This will happen a lot this year. Necessary scheduled rest for players will happen only when it’s actually convenient. It’s only February in what is a preposterously packed year and already players are being pressured – by the chief selector – to reject breaks that were promised to them.

  5. FWIW, I found the pitch acceptable. But I didn’t think it was a good look for Indian cricket, it smacked of pettiness and immaturity. A little bit like our captain, esp. on the ‘pitch’ (Seemingly decent guy off it).

    1. OTOH, I also think the wicket was a reaction towards securing a WTC final spot. All of this interest – these comments, reactions, discussions – looks like the WTC has done its job.

  6. As an Indian fan who’s trying to stay away from parochialism — I think the problem with this pitch was that it was the kind where once you get a little bit ahead, there’s no earthly way for the opposition to come back into the game. It makes the first hour of play way too crucial (whichever the way the coin falls). This pitch wasn’t as dependent on the toss as much on the first hour of play.

    Whereas in the first Test, if Pujara/Pant had batted longer, India could have gotten 450, and the game could have gone much close than it did. There’s no way anything remotely like that could have happened in the 2nd Test. The pitch made comebacks like that impossible.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very happy that India won and it’s 1-1. India were best equipped to win the first hour regardless of batting/bowling, and fair play to them that the pitch was prepared that way. Being 1-0 down — why wouldn’t you do that? They’d be absolutely mad not to do so, given a home series and WTC is at stake. Ranji teams do the same thing when they absolutely want a result, and the WTC is essentially like Ranji/County Championship for Test cricket. Which is great — we need some context for the long game, otherwise it’ll just be “Ashes-BG Trophy-Pataudi-Anthony de Mello” until the game dies.

    I just overall have a problem with these kinds of wickets where the game essentially just goes one way. People are trying to make a comparison with overly green pitches, and while on the surface (no pun intended), that argument is compelling, it actually falls apart on further examination. A green wicket usually gets *better* to bat on; you can get bowled out for 80 on the first day and still make a comeback — like England v Ireland at Lord’s.

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