An artificial advantage backfires

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The Independent Online
TONY COZIER

It needed only a cursory glance at the pitch at Edgbaston to know, even before a ball was bowled, that something was not right. Club cricketers would have been shocked to find they had to play on a surface of two distinctly different hues and textures.

It transpired that it was prepared to the specifications of the England manager, and while this may fall short of deliberate doctoring, it is certainly strange interference. Yet, in his strong condemnation of what was provided, Michael Atherton accepted that pitches should be specifically prepared to suit the home team. It sounded very much like an endorsement of doctoring.

It is a philosophy that has been espoused in every Test country. Australia left grass on their hard pitches for Lindwall, Miller and Johnston to exploit when the West Indies depended on the spin of Ramadhin and Valentine in 1951-52. The West Indies did the same at the previously bare Kensington Oval in the Eighties as encouragement for Holding, Garner and Marshall. The Indians have repeatedly served up dust-bowls for their spinners, as England did for Laker and Lock at The Oval in 1957. But it is a dangerous practice which has a habit of backfiring, as England have painfully discovered.

Groundsmen have all sorts of factors to consider without bothering about specific instructions from those with vested interests. Even with the best will in the world, there is always the possibility that fiddling with the preparation can ruin a good Test between two evenly-matched teams - as Edgbaston should have been - and serve as a bad advertisement for the game.

Home advantage, such as it is, should be natural. Indian pitches, for instance, are slow, low turners when fairly presented, and India are well served by spinners and batsmen accustomed to them. But it explains their poor record in Australia, where they find it difficult to acclimatise to pace and bounce.

There was a time when playing in England was also like nowhere else. Uncovered pitches were so well grassed they were virtually indistinguishable from the outfield, and nagging medium-paced seamers like Shackleton, Cartwright and Higgs persecuted flamboyant stroke-makers raised in warmer climes. Fast, short-pitched bowling that was so effective at Edgbaston would have been useless then.

That changed with mandatory covering, and for the past 30 years or so there has been very little difference between Test pitches at Lord's and The Oval and those, say, at The Gabba, or Kensington Oval.

Sir Gary Sobers believes that England lost a definite home advantage as a result, and maybe it is no coincidence that their stock has declined ever since. But they cannot expect to regain it by artificial means. Edgbaston has been proof enough of that.

EDGBASTON SCOREBOARD

(England won toss; third day of five)

ENGLAND - First Innings 147

WEST INDIES - First Innings 300 (S L Campbell 79, R B Richardson 69; D G Cork 4-69)

ENGLAND - Second Innings

*M A Atherton b Walsh 4

(33 min, 21 balls)

R A Smith b Bishop 41

(156 mins, 84 balls, 8 fours)

G A Hick c Hooper b Bishop 3

(3 mins, 2 balls)

G P Thorpe c Murray b Bishop 0

(10 mins, 6 balls)

D G Cork c sub (S C Williams) b Walsh 16

(44 mins, 33 balls, 1 four)

P J Martin lbw b Walsh 0

(9 mins, 5 balls)

J E R Gallian c Murray b Walsh 0

(1 min, 2 balls)

D Gough c Campbell b Walsh 12

(43 mins, 30 balls, 1 six)

R K Illingworth c Hooper b Bishop 0

(12 mins, 8 balls)

A R C Fraser not out 1

(5 mins, 1 ball)

A J Stewart absent hurt

Extras (nb12) 12

Total (163 min, 30 overs) 89

Fall: 1-17 (Atherton), 2-20 (Hick), 3-26 (Thorpe), 4-61 (Cork), 5-62 (Martin), 6-63 (Gallian), 7-88 (Gough), 8-88 (Smith), 9-89 (Illingworth).

Bowling: Walsh 15-2-45-5 (nb5; one spell); Bishop 13-3-29-4 (nb5) (6- 3-8-2, 7-0-21-2); Benjamin 2-0-15-0 (nb2; one spell).

Progress: Second day: 50 79min, 15.4 overs. Close 59 for 3 (Smith 33, Cork 15) 17 overs. Third day: Innings closed 12.18pm.

West Indies won by an innings and 64 runs Umpires: M J Kitchen and I D Robinson.

TV Replay Umpire: J W Holder.

Match Referee: J R Reid.

Man of the Match: S L Campbell.

Adjudicator: M A Holding.

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