New Zealand v England: Alastair Cook learns dangers of drop-in pitches and seeking a quick fix

Hosts reach 250 for the loss of just one wicket
  • @stephenbrenkley

On a searingly hot day in Adelaide in January, 1959, England asked Australia to bat. By its end the score stood at 200 for one after a long haul of eight ball overs and it is only possible to imagine what Fred Trueman, Trevor Bailey and the cerebral Frank Tyson had to say about the decision of their captain, Peter May. The much more taciturn Brian Statham might have joined in too.

But England were desperate then, 2-0 down at the start of the Fourth Test and needing to win two matches to retain the Ashes. In the event they lost both and the series 4-0, going down at Adelaide by ten wickets after suffering the extra ignominy of following on.

These modern tourists were desperate as well, tied at 0-0 in a series that many fancied would be a cakewalk for them. They had to do something and the early morning grass on a drop-in pitch, plus the opinions of absolutely everybody who saw the surface at close quarters, clinched it for Alastair Cook.

A little under eight hours later, New Zealand were 250 for one and England had had their worst opening day in the field after asking their opponents to bat since May’s gamble 53 years ago. It did not make Cook wrong necessarily but it was hard to see that it was right, and he will have learned that drop in pitches may be different to judge.

This one is barely six inches deep and the usual considerations cannot apply. Pitch reading in any case is a long-discredited science and those who see grass should know that it is often greener on the other side of the fence.

The one wicket to fall in Adelaide was Jim Burke, caught by Colin Cowdrey off Bailey for 66 with the score at 171. England had much greater cause for optimism yesterday when they made the breakthrough on the stroke of lunch. Hamish Rutherford, who had been a model of probity until then, selecting his shots with aggressive intelligence, twice had a swipe outside the off stump. The second time he was unfortunate enough to make contact.

There was to be no other success for England and Peter Fulton went on to make a maiden Test hundred seven years after his Test debut. Fulton, coincidentally, played his first match at Eden Park on the most recent occasion that New Zealand played a Test on the ground.

It was a different shape then, the pitch being an angle and the ground when it was used for cricket resembling a baseball diamond. But it is essentially a rugby ground and the drop-in surfaces they now use run across the centre of the pitch.

The straight boundaries are preposterously and need studious guarding from ball one. Before the morning was out Fulton had badly mis-hooked a bouncer from Stuart Broad which spiralled for six. So little contact did he make that on any other ground he would have fallen into the trap and been caught at long leg. On the other hand, it is possible that on any other ground he would have pulled out of the shot, realising a mistake would be unprofitable.

Fulton is 34 and his time as an international cricketer had looked up, he said that he started this season determined simply to enjoy it and see what happened. He was fully aware that he might not have the opportunity again to show that he belonged in international cricket.

His top score had been 75 until yesterday. If he does nothing else in the international arena from now he can reflect for the rest of his life that he had his day in the sun, that he scored a century in Test cricket against one of the best bowling attacks around.

England were neutered for much of the day, alarmed doubtless that the grass on the pitch was a misleading omen. It turned out, as Finn the wicket taker observed to be there for holding the wicket together.

If Finn and the other bowlers were grumpy they showed no sign of it. Although he was not consulted he was fairly certain that the likes of Jimmy Anderson, the leader of the pack, were involved in discussions.

It has become much more fashionable for captains to insert the opposition these days and recent statistics supported Cook yesterday Of the 22 matches in which England have asked the opposition to bat since the start of the millennium, they have won 12 and only lost two. Yet of the 53 matches in which they have batted first they have won 19 and lost 18.

The game has changed, pitches have changed, mindsets have changed. There is not the same fear of batting fourth, although it still exists in some areas such as the sub-continent. England have regularly won batting second lately whether winning the toss or losing it.

But there is no way round it. It was only the second time that Cook had won a toss in his nine Tests as captain and he cannot by any stretch have been expected to be reminded of something rather unpleasant that happened to England 26 years before he was born.