All in the pitch

2009-02-20 00:00

No sooner does West Indies cricket do something to cheer up its supporters than it commits the sort of gaffes that lend confirmation to the view that its decline is terminal. The failure to produce a playable surface is one thing, but to assure everyone that there was little wrong with the outfield at the Sir Vivian Richards ground in Antigua is another and graver offence.

Before the match started the English media were unanimous that the match would be played under beach cricket conditions. Why this was not also apparent to the local authorities and the match referee is a question that needs to be answered if this sort of farce is not to re-occur.

Had it not been for a desire to placate the Barmy Army who had travelled thousands of miles it is probable that the match would have been played on another island later in the tour. As it was the Test got under way a few days later on a hastily prepared pitch at the quaint Recreation Ground where Brian Lara once scored 400 against England.

Winning the toss under such circumstances was a godsend, but Chris Gayle made a mess of his bounty by inviting England to bat on what looked a perfectly good pitch that could only deteriorate given the brief period of its preparation.

Whether it was hubris or stupidity that caused him to make such a calamitous decision we shall never know, but his decision let a demoralised England team off the hook and condemned the Windies to almost two days in the field and probable defeat.

Let us hope that the resumption of hostilities against the Australians is free of such incompetence on the part of the South African captain and ground authorities. I visited the Wanderers earlier this season and was dismayed by what I saw, but I am happy to report that all is now well with the country’s premier cricket venue.

The outfield, although not at its very best, looks in good condition and the preparation of the pitch has gone according to plan.

The exceptionally wet start of February has given way to warm sunshine, thus giving Chris Scott, the experienced Wanderers curator, no problems. Unless another spell of continuous wet weather intervenes, the first Test should be played on a fast bouncy pitch containing an even spread of grass.

It should be the kind of pitch that fills the dreams of fast bowlers; in other words one that suits the South African attack.

Before the summer began I felt that South Africa’s best chance of a win would be at the Wanderers. Having confounded my expectations Down Under, it would now be disappointing if the Proteas did not win the first Test and win it with some ease.

Makhaya Ntini has always bowled well at the “Bull Ring”, but when the ball swings there, as it usually does, Dale Steyn can be lethal.

Any edges induced by his pacy outswing will carry comfortably to the slips where he will be assisted by the finest cordon of catchers in world cricket.

This will be Morne Morkel’s first Test in Johannesburg and he will have to resist the temptation to bang the ball in short.

Fast bowlers love watching their deliveries fly through to the keeper, but it is the well pitched up ball that takes wickets at the Wanderers.

If Morkel gets it right, however, he should give the Aussie batsmen a torrid time and not allow them to relax between spells from Ntini and Steyn.

Another feature of batting at the Wanderers is that those batsmen with poor techniques do not last long against good fast bowling. The ball is on to them so quickly that they do not have time to adjust if it moves just a fraction.

On the other hand, the better batsmen with good defences can hang round long enough to settle in, whereupon they find full value for their strokes whenever the bowlers stray from a good line and length. In short, the Wanderers’ pitch promotes good cricket.

Of course pitches do not always play according to expectations.

In 1997, the Aussies handed an almighty hammering to SA in a match at the Wanderers that the home side expected to win.

What no one, apart from Bob Woolmer, realised was that Andy Atkinson, the new curator, had no idea how to produce a fast bouncy pitch.

He would spend hour after hour sitting atop the heavy roller unaware that he was rolling the life out of the pitch. Just the very sight of poor Andy, whom he knew from their days in England, would drive Woolmer into a state of despair and in this case Atkinson produced a pitch that could have been ordered by Shane Warne.

South Africa batted poorly in the first innings to make 302 and then watched the Aussies make 628 on a typical Atkinson featherbed. For the first time at the Wanderers not a single wicket was taken in a day’s play during which Steve Waugh and Gregg Blewitt made the bulk of their 385 run partnership.

Warne and Michael Bevan then bowled South Africa out for 130 on a pitch that offered considerable turn on the fourth and fifth days.

No such thing ought to happen this coming week. South Africa is stronger than it was in 1997, the Aussies are much weaker and Andy Atkinson is employed as a consultant to the ICC.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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