Cricket: Spicy pitches prove scary for tourists seeking edge

Derek Pringle, in Bridgetown, explains how the West Indies have gambled successfully in preparing the local turf
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The Independent Online
IN CRICKET, nothing is more raked over, analysed, verbally dissected and generally worried about than the 22 yards of prepared turf known as the pitch. But whether they are fast or slow, bouncy or low, help spin or seam, pitches are a glorious uncertainty over which only the very best tend to have regular dominion.

Which is why the West Indies have risked playing England on helpful pitches, backing players such as Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh to outperform England's key players, a ploy that has seen them go 2-1 up in the series with two Tests to play.

One of the great myths about the Caribbean is that the pitches are fast and bouncy. In fact apart from Barbados - venue for the fifth Test tomorrow - the opposite is true, and most tend to be sluggish, the ball bouncing less evenly as the game wears on.

This tendency, especially after their bowlers' poor showing in Pakistan, left the West Indies with a dilemma. With two ageing but accurate fast bowlers, and a largely unblooded crop of young quicks, there was no point in having the slow, bland pitches that brought three draws against India last year.

Instead, knowing that Ambrose is still one of the best bowlers in the world when there is something for him in the pitch and that Walsh is not far behind, the surfaces have been under prepared. Although in the case of the first match in Trinidad, this was more from force of circumstance - after the first Test was abandoned - than by design.

Playing on spicy pitches has been a bold ploy and one that could so easily have backfired had England won the first - as they indeed should have done - as well as the second Test in Port of Spain. As it was, both teams left with a win apiece, with Ambrose and Angus Fraser, both written off in the months before the tour, reborn as match-winners.

In Guyana, however, the West Indies got the conditions just right. In Trinidad, the grass on the pitches had produced both lateral as well as vertical movement. But while this assisted Fraser as much as Ambrose and Walsh, the cracks and broken top of the Bourda pitch helped mainly the West Indies pair.

It is a variation at which local tall fast bowlers, with their extra height and pace, excel far more than their English counterparts, who cannot drive the batsmen on to the back foot often enough to gain advantage. Even when conditions are dusty, the home bowlers are far more effective than spinners, who, despite the occasional turning wicket, have rarely excelled in the Caribbean.

But if the pitches have not looked much worse than previous tours, a fact borne out by Fraser, now on his third tour, the balls, with their big, rope-like seams (a throwback to the 1989 ball that caused a furore when it was used in county cricket), have perhaps accentuated the variations present in the surface.

So far the batting, apart from Lara's glorious 93 in the last Test, has been anything but free-flowing. But if the popular conception of cricket is that people want to see batsman score runs, the purists will have been delighted at the gritty tussles between bat and ball so far seen in the series.

For those who would rather see runs than results, however, the pitches have been nothing short of bowlers' paradises. Unsurprisingly, it is a view that does not hold much truck with bowlers, and speaking about the strip England had just played Barbados on - a game that barely went into a third innings - a watching Fraser said: "People tell me that it's a good pitch. Well if it is, it has produced a dull game."

But if that sounds like the hard-done-by rantings of a cantankerous old warhorse, it is probably shared by England's batsmen, who know that although their personal averages would benefit from better conditions, England's chances of winning the series will not.

The trouble is, now that they have got their noses in front, the West Indies are bound to risk less on the pitches than they have done over the last few games. It is an irony that will not escape the openers, Stuart Williams and Sherwin Campbell. They were both dropped by the West Indies for the Barbados Test, a venue that will probably provide the best batting pitch of the series.

Yet if those selected in their place, the Barbadian Philo Wallace and Guyanese Clayton Lambert, are perhaps fortunate to have missed batting on the earlier pitches, cream still has a habit of rising to the top. Like it or not, the best batsmen on either side have all played significant innings, with Lara and Alec Stewart outstanding.

But if many would cherish seeing Stewart repeat his feat of four years ago when he scored a century in each innings, England's real chance lies in taking 20 West Indian wickets. If the Kensington Oval track is as good as local opinion suggests, that may be rather trickier than in previous Tests in the series.