Side Entry: Made-to-order pitches are a cautionary tale

Simnikiwe Xabanisa.
Simnikiwe Xabanisa.

Johannesburg - It’s not often that a cricket pitch roundly condemned as lifeless becomes one of the dominant personalities during a test match, but the square at SuperSport Park did just that during the second Test between South Africa and India a few days ago.

By all accounts, the best that could be said about the pitch at Centurion was that it was, as a colleague once memorably observed, about as flat as Kate Moss’ chest – and brown.

Pitch came in for comment

Yet, throughout the Test, it elbowed for prominence against such magnificent acts as Lungi Ngidi’s barnstorming debut; the pitched battle between master batsmen Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers; the over-the-top antics of Kohli and Hardik Pandya; those catches by Morné Morkel and De Villiers and Faf du Plessis’s cerebral brand of captaincy.

To be sure, the pitch is, at the very least, one of the personalities in attendance. But it’s usually a silent partner and not mentioned at every opportunity by players, pundits and punters alike, as was the case with curator Bryan Bloy’s first Test match baby.

That we now even know Bloy’s name speaks volumes about how often his pitch came in for comment, most of it criticism. And by the time the whole episode came to a happy end for the series-winning Proteas, there were a few things to ponder about our attitudes to pitches and the ideals of Test cricket.

In the old days, a good wicket was one that provided a good contest between bat and ball, and lasted all the way to day five of the match. Now, captains are ordering microwave dinner pitches that speed up a game so much that it can be finished in four days – even with a whole day lost to rain.

Grind it out

Wherever Bloy is drowning his sorrows, he won’t be labouring under the misapprehension that his wicket – which started out slower than expected, surprisingly took spin on day one and capped it off with uneven bounce – was the best square he’s so far prepared.

If anything, apparently his plans of delivering to order were thwarted by a heat wave ahead of the game. But, despite that, runs were as difficult to get as wickets were to take.

Simply put, there was contest between bat and ball, and the players were asked to grind it out as well as think outside the box in how they adapted to the “foreign” conditions. South Africa did that best and India – despite apparently being gifted a “subcontinent” wicket by the errant groundsman – didn’t.

It was a game and result that underlined debutant Ngidi’s real quality as a bowler, Kohli and De Villiers as two of the best batsmen around, Dean Elgar’s battling qualities and an encouraging adaptability by the Proteas.

Yet all we wanted to do was harp on about the pitch, which is actually a loser’s mentality because the conditions are the same for both teams. Also, it does little to validate our claim to be fans of Test cricket.

Lack of stomach

The purists love prattling on about Test cricket being called that because it is a test of character. But in an age where averaging 50 with the bat is the same as averaging the old benchmark of 40, everyone has a meltdown the moment they don’t get a perfect wicket to boost their precious averages and numbers of five-fors taken.

It is understandable that the Proteas and the cricket public want conditions that will help their team, especially after the disgraceful pitches produced by India the last time South Africa toured there.

But the folly of conditions tailored to your strengths is that you are lulled into a false sense of achievement. The result is that, when the conditions demand that a team apply itself, you get the lack of stomach for a fight the Indians have shown in the first two Tests the moment the going got tough.

Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa

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