Darrell Hair, cricket's most controversial match official, could have been given an easier ground at which to make his umpiring comeback. He will officiate in his first international match for 20 months tomorrow when England take on New Zealand in the second Test at Old Trafford.
The venue is noted for its fast, bouncy, spinning pitch which can test the nerve and decision making of the world's best umpires.
Hair's role in Test cricket's only forfeited match – when Pakistan's captain Inzamam-ul-Haq was accused of tampering with the match ball – has neither been forgotten nor forgiven and his performance will be scrutinised over the coming week.
Win-at-all-cost teams would attempt to prey on Hair's apprehension but England and New Zealand have said that they will not single him out. The absence of Stephen Harmison, England's fastest and most hostile bowler, will make the task slightly less stressful but the guile and enthusiastic appealing of Monty Panesar will try his nerve.
Old Trafford is Panesar's favourite ground as the pitch suits his bowling. In two Test appearances here he has taken 18 wickets. Panesar is yet to be disciplined for his constant and, at times, over the top appealing and is sure to ask regular questions of Hair when he bowls at his end.
"Hair is a respected umpire and it is good to see him back in international cricket," Panesar said. "His return is not much of a talking point for us and I don't think it will be. I don't feel there is a danger of me overstepping the line and I am not going to hold back. Nobody had a word with me about my appealing at Lord's. Lbw decisions, when the bat and pad are close together, can be difficult to judge and, at times, it is difficult to see whether it has hit the pad or bat first. I respect that and I respect the umpire's decision but if I think it has hit pad first I will go up.
"My appealing is caused by my excitement about the game and if I could control my excitement, my love for the game, my passion, I could control my appealing."
The pitch may offer the bowlers encouragement, but the Dukes balls being used in the series are a cause for concern. Both teams were disappointed with the way the balls played at Lord's, complaining that they went soft too early in each innings. A soft ball inhibits both bowler and batsman and it often produces dull, uneventful periods of play. Bowlers want to bowl with a hard ball because it bounces more and loses less pace when it hits the pitch. Such a reaction allows the bowler to force issues. Batsmen like a hard ball because it pings off the bat and they get full value for the strokes they play.
The behaviour of the ball could explain why England struggled to score quickly on the fourth day of the first Test when the game was crying out for someone to grab the initiative. In situations like this the ball is often thrown to a spinner but they do not enjoy bowling with a sponge.
The quality of balls being produced by Dukes has been a concern to the England and Wales Cricket Board for some time. In 2007 there were complaints and the match balls were changed in County Championship games on numerous occasions because the seam had split or they were soft and out of shape.
In an experiment to see whether there is an alternative ball in the market the ECB is trialling a Tiflex ball during this year's University matches against counties and in half of the county second XI championship matches.Reuse content