Cricket: Perils of calling the pitch

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PUTTING THE other side into bat is often a dangerous occupation. Alec Stewart had the world on his back when he put South Africa in at the start of the recent fourth Test match at Trent Bridge.

Arjuna Ranatunga also raised a massive collection of eyebrows when he asked England to bat first at the Oval.

At Trent Bridge, the pitch had a distinctly green tinge which proved deceptive, and Stewart was roundly condemned for surrendering an important advantage to his opponents.

By the time the match had finished, and England had won by eight wickets with a bit of help from the umpires, many people had "reconsidered".

Of course, when Stewart made his decision, his opposite number, Hansie Cronje, let it be known that he would have batted himself had he won the toss. Good psychological stuff, and we shall never know if he was telling the truth. When South African wickets refused to fall in bulk on the first day, Stewart was accused of putting them in because of what he feared Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock might have done to England's batting.

Ranatunga may have misread the Oval pitch on Tuesday morning; it was greener than it had been the day before. The Sri Lankan captain may have allowed himself to become obsessed with the thought that the groundsmen would have been instructed not to produce a pitch which would suit Sri Lanka's main strength, their spin bowling. Perhaps he momentarily lost his objectivity.

Ranatunga may also have been apprehensive of the way in which the England seam bowlers would have used the conditions. But, perhaps, many of these decisions are based on no more than a hunch; a feeling that this is the day to do it.

It was not a bowling morning at the Oval but Ranatunga's reputation as a captain is considerable, and he will probably keep his own counsel when asked why he did it. When England were 81 for 3, it did not look like a bad decision either.

Ranatunga must have thought long and hard before asking England to bat, as it definitely went against one important piece of logic. Sri Lanka's main bowling strength is spin; they were playing on a pitch which has favoured the spinners this year; Sri Lanka's best chance therefore was to bowl in the fourth innings. Ranatunga's decision from there on handed the advantage to England.

From this, one can see that there are many reasons which can play a part in persuading a captain to put the other side in. But they are all a matter of opinion and highly debatable, which explains why, at this level of the game, it is a ploy which is unreliable and not often used.

At Trent Bridge, Stewart had the luck - or maybe the foresight - to get it right. After one day at the Oval it does not look as if Ranatunga has. But the whole process of putting the other side in is one of the more absorbing imponderables of the game.