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14th December 2015

Not giving a toss? Cricket’s pitch problems

The problems caused by cricket pitches have led to changes to a traditional element of the game

England’s cricketing summer was undoubtedly a great sporting success story. Captain Cook’s men defied all of the pundits after a disappointing World Cup by playing brilliant, positive cricket to easily beat Australia in order to regain the Ashes. But the recent 2-0 loss to Pakistan has highlighted not only the problems that England still have, but also the fact that the pitch is becoming such an important factor in deciding Test matches. This caused the ECB to take the unexpected step of getting rid of the coin toss in County Championship matches from 2017 onwards.

In the 1980s, around 30 per cent of Test matches were home wins—compared to about 50 per cent now; 11 of the last 15 Ashes Tests have been won by the home side. The only major team to have defied the trend are South Africa—the current masters of Test cricket—having only lost two of their last twenty Test series, with both losses being at home. The game of cricket is hard pressed—selling Test matches to those who aren’t aficionados of the sport—and the fact that they are becoming more predictable doesn’t help their case, either. The ease of success at home is probably the reason why in 2005—when England had not won the Ashes for 18 years—victory was met with huge celebrations in London, but in 2015, it was received with far less attention than it did before.

So the problem that cricketing authorities are grappling with is how to balance the advantage back towards the away team. To understand how they are trying to do this, you have to look at why it’s happening in the first place.

The amount of professional cricket being played around the world is increasing, meaning that tours by national sides are being cut short in order to accommodate the new T20 tournaments. Lacking the time to acclimatise to a country’s conditions, as well as its time zone, is one way that tourists could put themselves at a disadvantage. However, this is one factor that is out of the ECB’s control, and thus will have to simply be tolerated as part of the modern game. Commercially, players and boards cannot afford to reduce events like the IPL or Big Bash League.

Pitch preparation and familiarity with conditions has always been a part of international cricket. It will always be the case that teams will exploit the conditions to their own advantage, and for England, this is in making green wickets that make the ball swing far more than average in terms of pace. This had caused chaos amongst the Australians at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge this year, which resulted in one of the most spectacular batting collapses by the baggy greens in Ashes history. It’s worth remembering that Australia won the World Cup on their home turf less than four months before. The problem is that if all English pitches are like this, English players will become too acclimatised to it, and won’t be able to win Tests away from home.

One solution is giving sanctions to teams that prepare unfair pitches, but the ECB have now changed the rules regarding the pre-match coin toss. In all matches of the 2016 County Championship, the visiting captain will be given the option to bowl first. If he declines, the coin toss will go on as normal. This is one way that the opposition will be given a slight tactical advantage.

It will also provide the counties an incentive to produce pitches that are likely to turn later on, into a four or five-day match. The classic English green wickets don’t deteriorate enough at the end of a match to suit spin bowling. This has meant that pace bowling has been England’s main strength—with the downside that the spin has been side-lined. According to the ECB, only 21.5 per cent of overs in the 2015 Championship were bowled by spinners. Creating spin friendly wickets is widely seen as the way forward if England are to eventually fill the Graeme Swann-shaped hole in the England team. The loss to Pakistan had showed how the spinners of Ali and Rashid still aren’t at the level of Swann, and the likelihood of another match winning spinner coming from the Championship is fairly low—without some change to how pitches are being prepared.

Changing the toss isn’t going to solve all these problems immediately, or even at all—much like the day-night Tests. However, what it does show, is how the ECB are willing to change traditional parts of cricket in order to try and preserve the longer format for the future. If it helps to even out the pitch advantage or produces England’s next king of spin—even only in a small way—then it can’t be a bad thing.

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