Cricket: Batting is the long-term casualty of pitch battles

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The Independent Online
SOONER or later, but probably sooner, the poor quality of English pitches will seriously affect the quality of English batting. All over the country batsmen seem to be expected to go out to ply their trade on surfaces conducive to many things, but not to confident strokeplay.

There have been several examples in the past week. It is the beginning of July, the height of the season, yet matches have been seriously shortened, sides have been bowled out for few runs in next to no time. It is not all down to bad batting but that is what it will create.

Unfortunately, there was also evidence of it in the First Test match. The pitch at Edgbaston was not, in truth, the sort on which Test matches ideally ought to be played. From the start and throughout the contest bowlers were granted huge movement. Batsmen could never feel in simply because they knew they were likely to get out.

The atmospheric conditions were a huge factor, especially on the second day when the ball swung late round corners. But there was also generous movement off the pitch and some uneven bounce, though I realise that it is obviously a significant mitigating point that preparation has been badly hampered by rotten weather which led to the near-abandonment of two Championship matches before the Test.

I feel desperately sorry for the public who come to big matches not simply to see a procession of wickets. Bad batting, I hear you say, but indifferent pitches cannot help good batting. I reckon to have a sound technique, I like to think of myself as a batsman, but batting at Edgbaston was a chancy business - at least it was until Alex Tudor got to grips with it yesterday.

You only had to look at the scorecards to see which way it had gone until then. Adam Parore scored 73 for New Zealand but the other high scorers on both sides were bowlers. Andrew Caddick and Simon Doull, adopted a policy of having a go if it was near enough to have a go at. They had recourse to no other plan, for no other plan seemed worth it, but then the ball was softer and the bowlers more tired.

My first innings took up 27 balls and 40 minutes and in that time I received nothing to hit. Now, it might be asked why did I not have a go at something. Well, I am a batsman whose instincts are to play properly for the side. As a side you have to get on with it, knowing that wickets are likely to fall with the ball darting about so much.

The Edgbaston pitch, not the first one there to have presented a severe examination of the batting art in recent years, is, I am afraid, symptomatic of so many around the country at present. For too many years there have been too many wickets much too helpful to seam bowling. It strikes me that many counties could be pushing it close to the limit, which would not be good for the game. There are penalties in place for sub-standard pitches but they have not often been handed out.

This is not to advocate an edict for bland surfaces on which bowlers are mere cannon fodder and batsmen are utterly dominant. There has to be some encouragement for bowling, but batsmen have to be allowed freedom of expression within the confines of orthodoxy. What is the point of a game in which runs can only be scored by chancing your arm? This is park cricket.

It has been said that moderate surfaces should actually encourage batsmen of sound technique. They do not. They undermine it. Technique alone cannot help you to survive. Staying in is a matter of a chance, so what, therefore, is the use of learning and honing the ability to bat properly?

Time for a word, I suspect, on some more positive aspects from Birmingham: the old boys recalled and the new boys. First, the former. Phil Tufnell is obviously a national hero. He receives a standing ovation when he comes out to bat. That is wonderful stuff and he seized his comeback chance beautifully.

So did Andrew Caddick. Conditions, as I think I mentioned, were in his favour but he used them impeccably, especially in New Zealand's second innings. Tuffers and Caddy are two, probably the big two actually, who have been perceived in the past as difficult characters. Well, Nasser Hussain wants them in his team. Perhaps he understands them more.

Nasser was immediately impressive as captain and so were the other new boys in their roles. Aftab Habib might not have made many first innings runs but I enjoyed batting with him. He was cool and phlegmatic about it all, good signs in his debut Test. All being well, we live in days where he will not have to worry too much about his place in the immediate future.

The other debutant was Chris Read. He looked immediately at home. He has good hands, swift feet and moves with brisk assurance. I remember in a pre-season match he caught me when I got a top edge and he dived forward to silly point. I thought then he had the makings of a good keeper and that view has been reinforced. His eight victims alone are testament to that. Read could play many, many more Tests - all being well, on good pitches.