The imponderables of wine, bridge and pitches

Cricket is not an exact science. After listening to all the forecasts, both actual and implied, about the Lord's pitch before the Test against Sri Lanka began, there can be little doubt there is as much nonsense talked about pitches as those other two supremely argumentative subjects, wine and the game of bridge. All three are full of imponderables.

Cricket is not an exact science. After listening to all the forecasts, both actual and implied, about the Lord's pitch before the Test against Sri Lanka began, there can be little doubt there is as much nonsense talked about pitches as those other two supremely argumentative subjects, wine and the game of bridge. All three are full of imponderables.

The surface on which a cricket match is played is important. The selectors pick their sides accordingly and balance their attack to suit the conditions. In this match England's bowling has been irrevocably overbalanced because those who should be in the know got it badly wrong and did not choose a serious spinner.

Is that a hanging offence? Probably not, but it would be reassuring to think that the assembled brains trust who have masses of experience about these things, were not going to miss the target altogether as they have done here, especially as they talk such a good game.

We heard before this match that the England captain, Nasser Hussain, was seriously considering putting Sri Lanka in. When Sri Lanka won the toss, Hussain told the world that it was a good toss to lose. At the end of the first day Duncan Fletcher, England's coach, described the pitch as the flattest they had played on since Durban in January 2000. Ho hum.

In not much more than 24 hours the pitch had gone from a "put inner'' to the prince of flatness and docility which is a bit like moving blindfold in the same short period from the Fens to the Himalayas. One would like to think that the experts knew enough to get a fraction nearer to the hub of the matter. They may have been caught out by the final mowing which removed all the grass, but they should have realised that these things happen and have been prepared with left-arm spinner Ashley Giles still in the dressing-room on Thursday morning and not playing for Warwickshire.

The uncertainty of pitches and their behaviour is nicely underlined by a story from the WACA ground in Perth 27 years ago. For a long time, until the end of the 70s, this was the fastest pitch in the world, a short head in front of Kingston's Sabina Park. Peter Loader, the former Surrey and England fast bowler who took a hat-trick for England against the West Indies at Headingley in 1957 recalls a sobering incident about Perth's frightening pace.

He went to Australia with Len Hutton's England side which, thanks to Frank Tyson, won the Ashes in 1954-55. The first ball he saw at the WACA was bowled by Brian Statham to Keith Carmody, the Western Australian captain. He played forward and the ball hit him on the forehead just above the nose and rolled back towards the bowler.

For a long time the pitch at the WACA was presided over most skilfully by Roy Abbott. In 1974-75 Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson had blasted away England. A year later the West Indies were there and the day before the match began I went to the ground with John Woodcock, the nonpareil of cricket writers.

We walked out to the middle and talked to Abbott. Woodcock asked him how fast his pitch would be. The curator, as they are called in Australia, produced a craggy smile and said: "You come back and ask me after the first over has been bowled tomorrow morning and I'll tell you.'' It was true to its reputation to the particular joy of Andy Roberts and Michael Holding.

I still find it difficult to understand how the England selectors could have been quite so prepared to put all their eggs in the same basket and go into this match with an attack so lacking in variety. OK, in the past there have been Lord's pitches where only fast bowlers have been able to do the business. One thinks particularly of the recent Tests against New Zealand and the West Indies.

The difference between those pitches and this was as extreme as the proverbial chalk and cheese and yet apparently those whose job it is were unable to spot this. Perhaps they had their legs pulled by the Lord's groundsman, Mick Hunt, and that lost mowing, as maybe Woodcock and I had ours mildly pulled by Abbott all those years ago in Perth.

Did they not also consider the thought that if three seam bowlers cannot do the job, a fourth is unlikely to make much difference? If two batsmen get in and begin to build a serious partnership a fielding captain needs variety. Giles may not be the best spinner in the world – the presence of Shane Warne in the media centre on the first day underlined this point – but to send him back to Birmingham on the day before the match was madness. I would like to think that those in charge were a little bit more in control of their own destiny.

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