Cricket has always had a difficult relationship with ethics and integrity. This is notwithstanding two things: the game’s pride in the saying “It’s not cricket” to describe anything unfair, and the inclusion in the game’s Laws of a Preamble called “The Spirit of Cricket” to guide player behaviour.
Cricket’s Ashes are upon us, and England’s captain has commented publicly that he wants “fast, flat pitches” for the series. Ben Stokes has fired a salvo in the game’s never-ending debate about the influence of home teams on the pitches on which games are played.
The game has never been sure about its ethics. Should bowlers be allowed to aim to severely hurt opposing batsmen? The Bodyline series of 1932-33 was a case in point, and there is still discussion about the legitimacy or otherwise of ‘intimidatory’ bowling.
Then there was the tradition of turning a blind eye to umpiring bias towards home teams. Irrefutable evidence often existed that partiality was present: strong imbalances in ‘leg before wicket’ decisions that defied legitimate explanation were not hard to find.
And there was the matter of pitches being prepared to suit home sides. Pressure on curators from captains and administrators to influence watering, mowing and rolling regimes has long been alleged. There has also been ‘sledging’, a curse for years, and in recent times the scourges of match-fixing and ball-tampering.
Cricket’s administrators are forever trying to shore up the game’s integrity. After decades of concern that at the Test level umpires sometimes favoured home teams, the International Cricket Council during the 1990s introduced ‘third-country’ umpires. Complaints dried up immediately. Now the ICC is faced with allegations that wickets are being ‘doctored’ so as to disadvantage visiting teams.
To be clear, this latter allegation has always existed, and all countries including Australia have at times been accused of sharp wicket-management practice. A ground in New Zealand (Seddon Park in Hamilton) has a wicket block with different soils making up its two halves: one is said to favour spin and the other pace. On which soil the strip for a particular match is sited is a decision made by the host authority. The decision will presumably be made on the basis of the relative strengths of the two sides in a coming match.
A number of major grounds in India similarly have wicket blocks made up of separate halves of different soils. Just why is not hard to determine.
The issue of pitch management surfaced with a vengeance during the Test series played in India in February and March between India and Australia. Turning pitches were prepared, allegedly on the basis that India had the better spin bowlers. Indian batters, meanwhile, were believed to have superior skills against spinners thanks to constant exposure, while the Australians were thought less skilled and less practised. In the first Test, at Nagpur, parts of the pitch outside the left-handers’ off stumps at both ends were drier and more bare than other areas. The suggestion was that this was a response to the larger number of left-handed batters in the Australian side.
At Indore, the venue for the third Test, the wicket was parched, dusty and grassless at both ends while the middle featured green grass and appeared to have been better watered. From the start there was considerable turn and unevenness of bounce and batting against spinners was clearly difficult. Puffs of dust, and sometimes pieces of soil, were brought up as the ball landed on a full length. Batters on both sides struggled to survive, let alone to score runs.
Much comment ensued. Some considered that what was happening was a legitimate part of ‘home advantage’: Brett Lee (a former Australian fast bowler and now a television commentator), claimed during the Nagpur Test to have “no issue with it”, but not everybody agreed. One Indian commentator thought that the Indore pitch, and by implication its preparation, constituted a “disservice” to the game.
What should be done? Fundamentally, it needs to be recognised that preparing pitches to advantage one side is not honest. It is gamesmanship, bordering on cheating, a blot on the game’s integrity and certainly not in accord with the best of the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ as defined in the Preamble to the Laws of the Game. It corrodes trust and encourages ‘tit-for-tat’ behaviour on reciprocal tours. The game would be better off without it.
It should not be impossible to manage the problem. The ICC has criteria for identifying good and poor wickets, and these can be used to penalise venues (by denying them later Test matches) when poor pitches are provided. At Rawalpindi late last year, the pitch for a Test between England and Pakistan was rated as ‘below average’ and received a demerit point (later withdrawn on appeal from the Pakistan Cricket Board) because it gave no bowler any kind of assistance for the whole five days of the match. On it batsmen could do virtually as they liked with little fear of dismissal. Likewise ‘minefields’, on which batters’ wickets are endangered not by bowlers’ skills but by pitch conditions, can be marked down and given demerits.
In February, Indore was given three demerit points and a rating of ‘poor’ for the ‘excessive’ spin and uneven bounce that the pitch offered from the start. The demerits levied were later reduced to one on appeal by the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
What is needed is guidance on appropriate pitch preparation and penalties when inappropriateness is identified by match referees and umpires. It should be made clear that the whole of the pitch must be prepared the same way in terms of watering, grass-propagating, rolling and mowing procedures. The ends should not be prepared differently from the middle and areas outside the line of the stumps should be prepared in the same way as the rest of the playing strip.
And the ICC could discourage captains and administrators talking to curators, personally or via the media, and effectively giving ‘instructions’ before matches. Too often there is open discussion of what the home team wants by way of the surface to be played on. Curators hear it and some will be influenced. A sense of patriotic duty can be triggered.
Rohit Sharma, the Indian captain, spoke in unabashed, even naked fashion in a media conference when he mused about a pace-friendly pitch being prepared for the final Test at Ahmedabad provided India won at Indore. Such a wicket, he made clear, would aid India’s preparation for the World Test Championship final at The Oval in June.
But with the series still not won after Indore, a spin-friendly though slow track was prepared at Ahmedabad. This, in the light of Sharma’s comments about what was likely for the final Test, gave the game away completely. The pitch on offer would be spin-friendly if India needed to win the series against Australia, and pace-friendly to help them prepare for the Championship final should the series have already been wrapped up.
Sharma also asked what was wrong with India preparing wickets to help its own cause: this was, he implied, a legitimate part of home advantage and indulged in around the world. The answer surely is “Plenty is wrong with it”. It damages the integrity of cricket wherever it happens.
The Tests between India and Australia were at times compelling to watch. But cricket’s best traditions were not served by the surfaces on which they were played. The sense that India was ‘hoist on its own petard’ at Indore, where they lost on a raging turner, surely appealed to Australians. It seemed that the pitch doctors had come unstuck.
The doctoring in that India-Australia series appeared blatant, beyond the pale, as Sharma’s openness in endorsing it suggested. Cricket’s administrators should take note: this long-standing weeping sore should be addressed because it threatens the game’s ethical health.
What damage would have been done to cricket had the recent World Test Championship final at The Oval been played in India or Australia and a wicket tailored to the strengths of the home side been prepared? The answer, surely, is obvious.
We should hope that Stokes’ seeming appeal to England’s curators goes un-noticed by the curators but not by the administrators. The latter still have work to do to guard cricket’s best interests.
Chas Keys is a former academic and emergency services practitioner who writes occasionally on the politics and culture of cricket.