A few weeks ago I came across a wonderful servant of the game at a book festival in the Hampshire village of West Meon. When he's not advancing his vast knowledge of music, food, and local history, David Allen is the archivist at Hampshire CCC. He is one of the most erudite and charming men I have ever met. We had a long discussion about spin bowling in the parish church, during which I was taken aback by the strength of his feeling, and that of many others in attendance, on the advent of covered pitches.
These, many of those present felt, had rid the game of spice and tipped the centuries-old balance between bat and ball decisively in the direction of the former. That it was motivated by the commercial imperative of getting bums on seats late on days three, four and five was no consolation.
I was reminded of Mr Allen on reading this week that his beloved Hampshire had been docked eight points for a "poor pitch" in their County Championship match against Nottinghamshire at The Rose Bowl. A panel from the ECB, comprising Tony Pigott, Chris Wood and Mike Denness, ruled the pitch offered excessive turn. Spinners took 25 of the 36 wickets, with the newly slender Samit Patel claiming 7 for 68, and the immensely talented Danny Briggs twirling his left arm for 6 for 65.
"The club accepts the judgement of the pitch panel committee in good faith", Hampshire said meekly. What they couldn't say is that their chances of avoiding relegation had been set back because they produced a pitch that spun significantly less on day three than many Test pitches on the subcontinent do on the first morning.
Naturally, I have some sympathy for administrators who have seen their revenues dwindle and are desperate for each fixture to last. But bland pitches produce bland cricket and one of the consequences of punitive action against groundsmen who dare to encourage spin is bound to be fewer results. I therefore have even more sympathy with Ray Illingworth, an off-spinner who spent most of his career playing on uncovered pitches. He wrote in his biography that "they produce better batters and bowlers".
Richie Benaud, whose career was coming to a close as uncovered pitches were phased out in England in the 1960s, blames the move for the near extinction of wrist-spin bowling. He was playing in the Old Trafford Test of 1956, in which Jim Laker took 19 for 90. That wicket was marled, devoid of grass – and rain-affected.
Allen, who started watching county games during this period, recalls matches in which spinners could be a decisive influence from the first day, and batsmen employed skills now largely defunct in England to counter sharp turn and unpredictable bounce. Perhaps if we had fewer of what Steve Harmison acutely described a few years ago as chief executives' wickets, such skills could be revived – and fans drawn back to the longer version of the game. Instead, as soon as a 20-year-old left-armer takes a six-for on the South Coast, the inspectors are called in.
The other regret with covered pitches is that they have led to a standardisation of conditions around the world. The cricket writer Lawrence Booth, an old friend of this column, reminds me that during the 1936-37 Ashes series Australia responded to a sticky dog – a wet pitch exposed to the sun – in Melbourne by reversing the batting order. Don Bradman came in at No 7, scored 270, and Australia won by 365 runs.
Cricket in England and beyond could do with more sticky dogs and fewer administrative poodles.