Pitches will always remain cricket's great imponderable. The present one at Trent Bridge is clearly not the object of purity head groundsman Steve Birks would have liked to have served up for this important occasion. In mitigation, the elements have been against him all summer.
There has been extremely little rain in Nottingham, and Birks said that he has emptied "at least a couple of reservoirs" in an attempt to keep the Trent Bridge ground satisfactorily watered. The pitch was extremely dry on Thursday, with a mosaic of cracks that have further opened up as the game has progressed.
When the ball lands on the edge of a crack, its bounce can only be a matter of conjecture. As the match has gone on the pitch has also become increasingly dented as the faster bowlers have pounded the ball into it. This has created an uneven surface that has further randomised the bounce. Having said that, the ball has not behaved anything like as badly as one might have feared.
Modern batsmen tend to get their knickers in a twist whenever the ball deviates from the straight and narrow. Their techniques are severely stretched when the ball moves sideways, off the pitch or in the air. When it takes off at one moment and then creeps along the ground the next, the problems become insoluble.
It makes one wonder how, in the old days, batsmen of the calibre of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe managed not only to survive on Australian "stickies" but also to go on and prosper. During the Third Test at Melbourne in 1928-29, for example, after heavy rain England were left to score 332 to win on one of the most treacherous pitches anyone could remember.
No one expected England to reach 100, and yet Hobbs and Sutcliffe put on 105 for the first wicket. Sutcliffe went on to make 135 and England won by three wickets. Both players had honed their remarkable techniques over the years by playing on uncovered pitches, an opportunity denied to the present generation. It would have been fascinating to watch Hobbs and Sutcliffe against England's bowlers on this third day at Trent Bridge. They would have prospered.
All cricket pitches have their own characteristics. In recent years in England, Lord's, The Oval and Trent Bridge have almost always produced pretty good surfaces. Headingley has had a reputation for being untrustworthy, especially when there is cloud cover.
Edgbaston is another that has kept batsmen on their toes and bowlers straining at the leash, although the signs are that groundsman Steve Rouse is coming to terms with the problems. Old Trafford has been pretty reliable.
It is surely an important part of a cricketer's education to learn how to cope with the different characteristics of the pitches they play on. If the game was always played on flat, characterless pitches it would lose much of its appeal. Low-scoring matches on awkward batting pitches, where every run has to be fought for, can produce wonderfully exciting games, much more so than many high-scoring contests that develop into monotonous marathons.
The groundsman's job is not an easy one, but it is my opinion that cricket needs a few of those awkward pitches which keep everyone on their toes. They add a welcome variety to the game and give it some of its innate character. The greater the variety the players encounter, the better they will become.
Then there are the different conditions that have to be coped with overseas. Each country has its own characteristics. The subcontinent favours spin; the quick bowlers flex their muscles in Australia, South Africa and the West Indies. Yet in the land of spin, the pitch at Madras usually gives seam bowlers plenty to hope for.
The Sydney Cricket Ground and Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain have pitches that bring spinners into their own. They all pose their own problems, and the best players will master them.
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