Dodgy pitches: Time to intervene, CSA!

Mangaung Oval (Gallo Images)
Mangaung Oval (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Too much controversy in too short a time.

Another unsuitable, seemingly ill-prepared pitch for a home match involving the Proteas was sadly the key hallmark of Wednesday’s low-scoring, ODI series-clinching triumph by 120 runs over neighbours Zimbabwe at Mangaung Oval.

There is a developing hallmark of just too lottery-like surfaces being laid on in South Africa, both for international and domestic franchise purposes - to the detriment of player development, especially among batsmen, and often enough spectator satisfaction too.

The game-two Bloemfontein track, more traditionally a very decent one for stroke-play, went quite a long way to explaining why the Proteas lurched at one point to 101 for seven against their unfancied opponents after electing to bat first (thanks largely to an unexpected, hardly risk-averse maiden half-century in the format by No 9 Dale Steyn, they recovered to 198 all out).

It was already showing signs of a palpable up-and-down characteristic in the daylight, but the greater drama set in under lights, in the frigid temperature, when a snorting Steyn and Lungi Ngidi let rip on it.

The Phalaborwa Express, often cranking up his speed to the mid-140s, discovered seriously disconcerting lift off a decent length which had more than one hapless Zimbabwean batsman hopping around or wincing from stinging blows to the gloves.

As the “contest” between bat and ball became increasingly uneven and injury-threatening, umpires Adrian Holdstock and Chris Gaffaney – both former first-class cricketers -- were seen to get together between overs, usually a tell-tale sign of discontent over conditions.

It will be interesting to learn match referee Jeff Crowe’s rating of the surface once he has completed his processes.

As whispers broke out among observers that an abandonment might just be in the offing, the Proteas could be said to have been indebted to Imran Tahir for ensuring an uninterrupted passage to victory.

You cannot generally accuse a leg-spinner of dangerous bowling, of course, and he duly bagged career second-best figures of six for 24 – including a hat-trick, fourth instance by a Proteas player – to help rout Zimbabwe for 78 in just 24 overs.

There was some abject batting at times by both teams, make no mistake … but the sub-standard pitch for a limited-overs match simply made for a double whammy on that front.

Acting SA captain JP Duminy tried to be as diplomatic as possible in his post-match television interview, but his reservations were also only thinly suppressed: “It wasn’t ideal, not the kind of pitch we’ve come to know in Bloemfontein.

“The surfaces across the two games have been a bit challenging ... I hope Paarl (the series-closing venue on Saturday) is one where a few runs can be scored.”

Although Wednesday’s pitch was worse, the Diamond Oval at Kimberley on Sunday had also featured a track with some surprise rearing-up off a good length; it is another which in the past has been renowned for reliability as a batting deck.

What guarantee, too, of a belatedly worthy track at Boland Park? It has had its share of unwanted publicity pitch-wise in the past, including an infamous instance in December 1994 when a tour match between Boland and New Zealand was abandoned early on day two due to lethal, unpredictable bounce.

But Mangaung Oval was also in the spotlight as recently as March last year, when a Momentum One-Day Cup qualifier between the Knights and Warriors was abandoned due to a dangerous pitch after 28 overs, with the visitors on 88 for three - umpire Holdstock had also been standing in that match.

During the headline tour of our shores by India last season, the dead-rubber third Test at the Wanderers (eventually won by the visitors to close the final gap to 2-1) was widely felt to have come within a whisker of abandonment at various stages, as batsmen from both sides were peppered by spitefully rising deliveries off lengths unacceptably close to the willow.

The Bullring strip was later handed an ICC punishment of three demerit points, narrowly avoiding the top-tier penalty which would have seen it stripped of international competition for a year.

Apart from the understandable, widespread concerns over limb-threatening South African pitch preparation in recent months, there is also some discontent about certain grounds producing surfaces that, if not actually dangerous, effectively play into opposition hands.

When the Indian tour of 2017/18 moved onto the limited-overs portion, India’s “mystery spinners” Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav had a field day on repeatedly turning, gripping pitches that were most unlike pacier, truer ones the country has been renowned for.

I think it is virtually beyond doubt that we have a mounting problem; a swelling catalogue of undesirable strips.

CSA need to act urgently, probing not just the surfaces on offer at a handful of the country’s major venues – are certain tables tired, and overdue for relaying? – but also the suitability of some of the personnel involved in preparing and maintaining them.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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