Cricket pitches in England, County Cricket and more
The Typical Scenario
The touring captain bends over. Dressed in white, he is all geared up for the opening match of the Test series against England. He examines the pitch carefully, moves from one side to another, squints because of the sunlight, Oh wait! He sees something. There's a crack, and another, and another.
It's all covered with a hint of grass. His eyes light up at that magnificent sight and in a moment he knows what to do. He starts praying that the coin falls in his favor. He starts praying that he wins the toss. For if he does, there's still hope.
A ray of sunshine. Maybe. Maybe. The coin goes up and he calls tails in a feeble voice. The voice is now a reminder of his desperate nature at the time. There's still a doubt if the others have heard him or not ! The coin lands in a green spot and the side it reveals frightens the touring captain.
Heads and a heart sinks very deep inside because now he knows that the English captain is going to choose to bowl first. It's almost impossible to lift the touring team's spirits up. That's something which is now the sole responsibility of the openers. The onus is on them. They walk out with the hope that they could be knights today. Knights in shiny armours leading their team into battle against the mighty English(not so mighty outside England).
Play starts and the English seamers are right on the money as usual, traumatizing the batsmen with their deliveries. Out-swing, reverse swing, yorkers, bouncers. You name it and they have it in their arsenal.
The English seamers are like wizards and the batsmen are like pawns or paupers, whatever seems appropriate. They hop, they duck and they are on the move but they are not giving up. Not yet ! Common sense dictates them to see off the new ball and then play their shots.
They obey that vision shared by everyone in the pavilion as they watch the drama unfold. The batsmen are obedient. They make it a point not to mess around with the out-swingers. Leaving them alone, the batsmen look stylish even with that signature pose of hands raised in the air while leaving a ball.
It gives the spectators a vision that the batsmen are technically sound. The nerves calm as the scoreboard slowly ticks forward, with the batsmen gaining confidence with each run. But alas all that is well, does not end that well.
The Pakistanis first practiced the art of reverse swing and like ripples in a pond, it spread to all corners of the cricketing world. Now who better to use it than an English bowler in England. Using it perfectly, they rattle the stumps of the openers with the remainder being a clueless expression on the batsman's face asking himself what just happened?
The batting order crumbles and falls to a dismal total. Its shocking, it should be shocking, it’s not at all shocking for the world has seen this turn of events a number of times when play goes on in English soil. But the question is why does this happen so often? What's the deal with these English pitches that even the best batsmen in the world surrender while facing them?
The Secret Ingredient
Taking this question to the pitch curators in England and they give you a grin which is both a symbol of pride and arrogance. The simple answer being that they want to prepare a pitch that suits the needs of the home team and at the same time exploits the weaknesses of the tourists.
Obviously the coaching staff takes a keen interest in the way the pitch is prepared before the series unfolds. However, the practice which seems to be unfair is not limited to England. Everywhere in the world, the pitch is prepared in a way that the home team prospers while the opponents bow down.
In India, the ground staff makes it a point to prepare batsmen friendly pitches because obviously that's been our strength for years now. The pitches in India and in fact in most of the subcontinent favor spin more than seam.
So while we watch a Test match in India and watch how our great batsmen put up tons of runs on the scoreboard, the same batsmen when in England have made it a point to put on a lacklustre display every single time.
Famous examples being Sachin Tendulkar who in the 2011 tour to England, could manage only two 50's in the four-match test series, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh also failed miserably.
Michael Clarke being the recent addition to this list having a nightmare Ashes test series this year. His teammates weren't far behind. The highlight of this year's Ashes undoubtedly being Australia's Gone in 90 minutes innings score of 60.
This consistent failure of batsmen on English pitches has been a subject of constant debate and research. Recently enough the Cranfield university has conducted a research with the ECB and the Institute of Groundsmanship on cricket pitches laying down some fresh guidelines on pitch preparation.
Traditionally cricket pitches in England are green and seam friendly. The grass cover can vary from a touch of grass to a lot of grass which would eventually wear out by the end of the series or county season.
The seam friendly nature seems to be the trend but then again, the nature of cricket pitches in England is as fickle as the country's weather. Late in the summer, the pitches start behaving in the opposite manner with the bowlers having their task cut out.
Then again, The Oval offers a contradiction. The pitch there is a paradise for bowlers who want to try their hand at reverse swing. Even a 50-over old ball will give handy reverse swing to the bowlers here.
To hone their skills in these dreaded seam friendly conditions of England, many cricketers have taken the route of county cricket, the English domestic cricket competition which has played a big part in transforming careers.
Remember Murali Kartik, the slow left arm unorthodox bowler who after falling out of favor with the national selectors, played county cricket for several years. We don't know if its been worth it or not. Nevertheless, it yielded him the tag of a cricketer with loads of experience.
Something you could hear the commentators say while he was bowling in the IPL. Cheteshwara Pujara, Varun Aaron, Ravi Shastri have also tried their hand in county cricket. Their performances have been hovering around the average mark showing glimpses of brilliance time and again.
After the world cup concluded, Zimbabwean stalwart Brendan Taylor chose to venture into county cricket. The decision involved a big sacrifice with the Kolpak deal forcing Brendan Taylor not to play for Zimbabwe for the time his contract lasts. The decision could have been motivated by monetary reasons.
The Zimbabwe cricket boards bankruptcy issues are no secret to the world now. With no currency in place in the country, who wouldn't want to get out of that mess? Brendan Taylor did the same. His heart was torn, but he had no other choice.
County cricket's entertainment value has been debated a lot. To some it's boring, to some it's classy and engaging. Cricket of the highest standard, pure cricket and a lot more. So inspite of the dwindling crowds, it continues to flourish and nurture talent.
For those who find it hard to get some takers in county cricket, the ICC cricket academy in Dubai is just a 3 hour flight away from New Delhi. Its another option where you can recreate conditions from different parts of the world artificially and work towards improving your game.
The technology there is quite unreal allowing a batsmen to face his demons while facing a bowler whom he really fears. The bowlers action is recreated by displaying his bowling video on a giant screen and the ball is released from behind the screen through a hole at an adjustable speed. I guess Jonathan Trott could have used it to overcome his demons and get used to Mitchell Johnson's bouncers! Maybe he retired too early .