When a good pitch is a bad pitch: John Stern

At Guildford yesterday there was no sign of an ECB pitch inspector and the umpires said they hadn’t seen the customary blazer from Lord’s. That is not to say the pitch for Surrey’s game against Middlesex was worthy of report but it seemed odd nonetheless that an inspector had not shown up on the first morning to see that all was in order.

Four wickets fell for 88 runs on a rain-affected. Conditions favoured the bowlers but so what. The general view was that the pitch was grassier than was often the case at Guildford. Surrey’s decision to bowl first was sound. They were not alone. My colleague on The Times blog yesterday, George Dobell, pointed out that in all six first-class matches around the country the side winning the toss had chosen to bowl first.

Granted, the weather is hardly befitting of mid-July but there seems to be a creeping tide back towards pitches that favour seam bowling and will guarantee a result.

One batsman from the second division of the County Championship told me recently that the “desperation” to gain promotion is such that he is certain the pitches are more “result orientated”. First-division pitches tend to be different because draws can keeps teams up whereas in the second tier it is wins that matter.

According to the Wisden report of the 2010 Championship season, the average-runs-per-wicket fell to its lowest for 10 years and winning the toss was the most valuable it had been since two divisions arrived in 2000. The strike-rate in the second division was the lowest since counties started playing four-day matches only in 1993.

For the ECB this is a perennial bar of soap that can never apparently be brought fully under control but must just be kept off the floor.

We’ve gone from too many result pitches to overly bland pitches and back again. Points allocated for wins and draws are tweaked regularly. In 2010 a win’s worth was increased by two to 16 points and the heavy roller has been done away with.

In terms of spectator entertainment, the 600 plays 600 match is a debacle. Everyone agrees on that. For paying punters or casual observers, a too spicy pitch is better than a flavourless one.

As with so much in the county game, this comes to self-interest. If counties need results (like those in the second division) then they will prepare pitches to give themselves, and theoretically their opponents, the best chance. Then there is the issue of home advantage as well.

Pitches should not be all the same but my limited understanding of the arcane art of groundsmanship is that most things are possible, mitigated by the limits of bad weather. Bit of extra grass left on? No problem. Shave the ends? No problem. Make it last four days? Sure thing.

Proving a county has wilfully mis-prepared a pitch is exceptionally hard and is also predicated on the notion that a bad pitch is one on which lots of wickets fall. Counties are disingenuous when it comes to discussing their own pitch preparation.

Middlesex particularly and occasionally England will moan about Mick Hunt, the seemingly omnipotent head groundsman at Lord’s, because it would appear, much to their chagrin, that he is his own man.

What if county groundsmen were all centrally contracted, answerable only to the ECB rather than their under-pressure, results-obsessed bosses around the shires? No chance. The counties would have to vote for it.

John Stern is a former editor of The Cricketer
Follow him on Twitter @Cricketer_John

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