CMJ: Lord’s pitch not the villain of second Test

Was it the pitch, was it the weather or were the bowlers not quite good enough to take 20 wickets in the Lord’s Test? The game, watched by full houses in sunny weather on the first two days, was a huge success as an occasion, but in the end a disappointment because, without Jimmy Anderson, England could not bowl enough wicket-taking balls.

It depends on your perspective, of course. From Sri Lanka’s viewpoint a draw was cause for heartfelt relief after the sheer embarrassment of their extraordinary collapse at Cardiff. If that England triumph had something to do with a failure of leadership, in that Tillekeratne Dilshan failed to get his men sufficiently sharp on the final day when everyone was expecting a draw, the fledgling captain certainly made up for it by batting with such elan, determination and sheer physical courage at Lord’s.

When the spirited Dilshan could not bat in the second innings because of the finger fracture that will keep him out of Sri Lanka’s team for the third Test at the Rose Bowl next week, the other senior batsmen, and the dogged and capable Tharanga Paranavithana, needed badly to make a statement that England would not have things all their own way in this series. They did. They showed the same qualities as their stricken captain to keep Broad, Tremlett, Finn and Swann at bay.

But there is a leadership vacuum now in a touring team that has shown signs of suffering from the administrative blood-letting that followed the World Cup. If England had come within 15 runs of winning that tournament there would have been disappointment but no recriminations. In Sri Lanka there were wholesale resignations that to the outsider seemed quite absurd. Unlike England, they had excelled.

Everyone is expecting Kumar Sangakkara to take over as captain in Dilshan’s absence next week, however temporarily. If I know Sangakkara they are mistaken. Having resigned on a point of principle I would not be at all surprised if he politely declines the responsibility now. Should Mahela Jayawardene do likewise, Sri Lanka will be ripe for the plucking again, for all the intrinsic quality of the players who remain.

Experienced batsmen of high class like Jayawardene and Sangakkara had no explanation for the Cardiff collapse that made the subsequent Lord’s draw such a relative triumph. For them and all the other batsmen it must have felt like setting out across an apparently empty road and being hit by a car they had never even seen. The old boy scout’s motto applies in every cricket match: be prepared; especially, perhaps, for the unexpected.

Their performance at Lord’s was a vast improvement on the bowling front, too. Rangana Herath’s figures of 2 for 64 and 3 for 87 were sufficient, believe it or not, to lift him to 19th place in the ICC’s World Rankings list, but the fast bowlers respectively in 35th, 53rd and 71st positions – Dilhara Fernando, Chanaka Welegedera and Suranga Lakmal – all did well too. In the circumstances I think they bowled better than Broad, Finn and Tremlett, proving, perhaps, that on true pitches it is not size that matters but how often you hit the right line and length.

There was something in the pitch on the first morning but the manner in which the three giants bowled suggests that it would not have been enough to set up a win if England had won the toss and, as Andrew Strauss intended, bowled first.

Whether there was sufficient help for bowlers in a pitch prepared with his usual expertise by Mick Hunt, last year’s Groundsman of the Year, is at least a debatable point. The game badly needs surfaces that produce results over five days and this one probably would have done that if time had not been lost to the rain. Lord’s is certainly no longer one of those grounds where draws are expected before a ball is bowled. The average runs per wicket here over the three previous years were 29.64 in 2010, 32.94 in 2009 and 44.64 in 2008.

Compare those figures with some of the horrors that have given Test cricket a bad name in other parts of the world: the SSC at Colombo’s runs per wicket average in the last Test there in 2010 was 86.94. In the last Test at the Premadasa Stadium, in 1997, 14 wickets fell in the entire match and each partnership averaged 106 runs. Even the Gabba’s groundsman will have to look to his laurels after last November’s Ashes game. The average at Brisbane was 62.04. Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott did not mind, of course. But too many repetitions and spectators will not come back in a hurry.

For groundsmen it is certainly very difficult to strike a balance between bat and ball that pleases everyone, including both fast and slow bowlers. The absolute essential is that pitches should allow a ball bowled with real energy to get above stump height at a pace fast enough to allow the batsmen to time the ball and bowlers a chance to defeat them if the ball moves laterally.

Are there enough outstanding bowlers in world cricket at present to make the best use of what the groundsmen give them? That, certainly, is another question. Sri Lanka knew life would be harder after Murali, Vaas and, to a lesser extent Malinga, just as Australia did after Warne and McGrath.

There can be no doubting the quality of Dale Steyn, Graeme Swann, Anderson, Morne Morkel, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, but it is hard not to raise an eyebrow looking at others in the current ICC top ten. They include Mitchell Johnson at six, Shakib-ul-Hasan at eight and Doug Bollinger at ten.

About Christopher Martin-Jenkins

One of the leading chroniclers of cricket over the past four decades, he is perhaps best-known for his commentary on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special since 1973. But he is also a former cricket correspondent of both The Times and Daily Telegraph newspapers as well as the BBC, besides having had two spells as editor of The Cricketer magazine. A fine after-dinner speaker, he played second XI county cricket in his youth and his son Robin was an all-rounder for Sussex from 1995 to 2010.
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