There has been some strange goings-on this week in the early stages of New Zealand’s current tour of Australia after a match designed as preparation for the Kiwis before the first Test was abandoned due to an unsafe pitch. Now on the face of it, this sounds ridiculous. The Australian side created for this match racked up 503-1 before declaring, with both opening batsman scoring double centuries. So any troubles with the pitch can’t have been too bad, right?
Perhaps. But delve a little deeper and it all gets a bit strange. New Zealand quick Tim Southee only bowled 3 overs on the first morning before going off with an ‘upset stomach.’ The other fast bowlers took on some of the workload but the majority of the overs were bowled by spinners and part-timers. On the second morning it got worse – none of the quicks bowled and it got to the stage where Ross Taylor and Tom Latham were bowling, both of whom turn their arm over once in a blue moon.
So what was going on? After the abandonment, New Zealand coach Mike Hesson was scathing about the pitch, complaining that there was no grass on it and it was starting to severely break up on the second morning, which is why the fast bowlers were withdrawn from the attack. And if you look at any pictures of the surface, you can see that he had a point. As you would expect, the groundsman offered a robust defence, blaming poor weather in the Sydney area for the deterioration of the wicket. For what its worth, I can see that side of the argument too. But the wider point, and one that has come into sharper focus in recent months, is the issue of home advantage and the preparation awarded to away sides before Test series.
Things have certainly changed in this area. I remember as a kid when the Aussies came over to England for an Ashes series they were here for months, and tended to play most of the county sides, (at full-strength I might add) before Test matches to get in good match practise. Now, touring sides are afforded one or two three-day games at best, and against sides that could kindly be called second-string. So there is a lack of quality opposition before going into series. This is not how it used to be. The Kiwis were only given this three-day game before the first Test next week, and were stuck on a little-used wicket in conditions very far removed from what they will face at the Gabba in Brisbane.
Going back to pitches, there has been recent controversy over the so-called ‘doctoring’ of wickets. Darren Lehmann was unhappy with the pitch produced in England for the first Test, saying that it was designed to negate the force of their fast bowlers. There is a fine line between preparing a wicket to the advantage of the home side, which has been done for as long as cricket has been played, and deliberate doctoring to ensure the odds are stacked in the home side’s favour. Everyone will have their opinion, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the line has become more blurred in recent years. Conditions obviously have a part to play – the Australian’s infamous 60 all out at Trent Bridge in the last Ashes showed their batsman’s complete inability to play on a green-tinged wicket with a swinging ball and overcast conditions. Part of this was down to a lack of experience in such conditions, and more due to the poor technique of the batsmen. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the pitch was prepared to be the perfect surface for the England bowlers. They still had to take advantage of it, though.
All this may explain why teams have had very little success in Test series away from home in the last few years. All teams with the exception of South Africa have a negative win/loss record away from home. As an aside, this shows why South Africa are such a good side – their record abroad is streets ahead of anyone else. This is partly down to their pace attack, particularly Dale Steyn who is one of the all-time great fast bowlers.
But look how everyone else struggles. This highlights to me how these issues around pitch preparation and warm-up matches have had an impact on teams performance on the road. One man’s home advantage is another man’s cheating, I appreciate that, but whatever side of the fence you sit on, I think we would all like to see more competitive series where touring sides are given the best possible chance to prepare properly. It would make for more even contests, which can only be good for the prosperity of Test cricket.