Why the double standard regarding pitches and playing conditions?
When it lightly drizzles, the players run back inside and the playing area is covered up. When the light dims, it may mean the end of play for the day. If a strong wind is blowing, players complain about struggling to follow the ball. It would seem as if cricket and climate just cannot get along. Yet, it is also true that in no other sports other than cricket are the local conditions so pivotal to determining the outcome of a game.
Football is football wherever you play it. In tennis, Roger Federer prefers the grass court and Rafael Nadal is almost unbeatable on a clay court. But this is not what one may call a “home advantage.”
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Players have access to all types of courts to play and practice in, and having preferences just means that different players have different attributes which makes them better suited to different playing surfaces.
Cricket is different
The overcast conditions in England, for example, means that the ball will swing and seam and fast bowlers usually have an upper hand. In Sri Lankan pitches, the ball tends to slow-down, bounce erratically, and spin viciously, giving spinners a big advantage.
In India (and most of south Asia), evening dew means that bowlers struggle to grip the ball and the side batting second have an advantage. In Australia, the ball travels faster and bounces higher.
All of these are over-simplifications and gross-generalizations -- of course -- but also nuggets of wisdom that players are skewered for in the media for not remembering during a defeat.
The state of the pitch has, therefore, been at the centre of discussion during this summer of 2021 in Bangladesh. But before discussing the T20I matches Bangladesh played against Australia and New Zealand, I want to talk about three other series from the last five years that I vividly remember and thoroughly enjoyed following:
Australia tour of Sri Lanka, 2016
In 2016, the mighty Australia (then, the World Champion) toured Sri Lanka to face a team in utter shambles, a victim of administrative incompetence, in-fighting, and an inability to replace retiring legends with even semi-decent players.
Expectations were pretty low for the home team. Australia was expected to perhaps struggle initially, but eventually see off a mediocre Sri Lankan side with relative ease. If that was the script, no one showed it to the criminally under-rated Rangana Herath, who took 28 wickets in six innings and Australia was spanked 3-0 in the Test series, scoring less than 1,200 runs in their combined six innings.
Australia tour of India, 2016-17
Towards the end of that year, Australia toured India. Australia-India is one of the oldest rivalries in cricket and their matches are always fiercely contested. That is precisely what the series dished up. Australia took the lead after winning the first match but India came back to win the four-match Test series 2-1.
But unless you saw the series live, it is difficult to explain what makes that series stay in my mind. Every over, every ball bowled was a battle. After their debacle earlier in the year against Sri Lanka, no one gave Australia a chance against a strong India at home. But a resolute Steve Smith -- scoring 499 runs at an average of 71.28 -- effectively led the Australian attack and almost scripted a historic series win. It was a war of attrition that India just about managed to win.
Asian pitches are viewed as treacherous and something to be overcome by the visiting team, but pitches of Australia, England, New Zealand, and South Africa are viewed as sporting
Sri Lanka tour of South Africa, 2018-19
Fast-forward to 2018/19 season and now it is Sri Lanka who is on tour of South Africa. Sri Lankan cricket, having gone from being in a state of shambles in 2016 to being in complete turmoil in 2018, were quite rightly given no chance to even salvage some pride against a formidable South African side at home.
Lest we forget, no Asian side had managed to win a series in South Africa until then, and only Australia and England had done it once. But once again, someone must have forgotten to show the script to the Sri Lankan players.
A majestic 153* by Kusal Perera in the fourth innings of the first match -- an innings rightly considered as one of the best Test innings ever played -- gave Sri Lanka an unlikely lead in the test series, and they went on to win the second match as well, white-washing the home team.
There has been plenty of good entertainment in recent years when it comes to cricket (the Ashes are always worth watching; India’s exploits in Australia in 2020/21 was a classic, to be preserved in the annals of cricket; and the first Test Championship match at Lord’s between New Zealand and India was riveting from the beginning to end).
The chatter in the background
What is important to not forget, however, is the chatter in the background -- from the commentators to the mass media to the fans alike -- while these matches were being played, and in their aftermath.
Australia’s defeats in Sri Lanka and India did not harm their reputation. Conventional wisdom went: Of course Australia lost on these unsporting pitches of Sri Lanka and India; on a proper cricketing pitch, the results would have been different.
Well, India did tour Australia and faced the fearsome Australian bowling attack of Starc-Cummins-Hazlewood-Lyon on a proper cricket pitch (while going through an injury crisis that forced them to handout debuts to five untested young players during the 4-match series) and won 1-2.
When Sri Lanka demolished Australia in 2016, no one sat up and batted an eyelid. If anything, people fell just short of calling the Sri Lanka cricket authorities cheats for using pitches that favoured the home side. It was only when Sri Lanka white-washed South Africa on their quick and bouncy pitches that the Sri Lankan team received some adulation from the wider cricket community.
It is also an ignorant suggestion to say that Bangladesh should not look to exploit local conditions to win matches
Countries prepare pitches that accentuate the skills-set of the home team to give them an edge. Not a single team in the world is exempt from this. Regardless, Asian pitches are viewed as treacherous and something to be overcome by the visiting team, but pitches of Australia, England, New Zealand, and South Africa are viewed as sporting, and not favouring anyone unfairly.
A Bangladeshi batsman who gets bounced out of the game in Perth will not complain about the dangerous state of the pitch. He understands that he is playing in a condition different from what all his instincts are honed towards -- it makes sense that he is struggling to be as fluid as he is at home.
If he does not know this, fans, commentators, and reporters will be sure to remind him. However, when an Australian batsman gets bamboozled in a rank-turner in Mirpur and loses his wicket, he will look balefully at the pitch for a few seconds before walking back to the pavilion.
Focusing on Bangladesh
This brings me, finally, to the summer of 2021, and the tour of Australia and New Zealand to Bangladesh. England was scheduled to come as well, but after looking balefully at pitches in the humid and suffocating cauldron that is the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium, perhaps they did not seem appetizing enough to the current World Champions.
What has become obvious during these matches is that the major problem with Bangladesh in T20 cricket is that they have no big hitters. It is true, therefore, that preparing slow and turning pitches is not necessarily conducive to developing big power-hitters for the future.
It is also true that with the T20I World Cup not far away, the 10 matches played on these pitches are unlikely to be good preparation (so long as we are willing to argue that confidence and team morale counts for very little).
However, it is also an ignorant suggestion to say that Bangladesh should not look to exploit local conditions to win matches against Australia (the most successful team in history) and New Zealand (current test champions and runners-up in the last two World Cups).
None of the opposing players have yet said something similar, much to their credit. But the wider cricketing-community have found such restraint difficult to muster.
This feature of cricket -- the prominent role that local conditions play on the outcome of a match -- is a value-addition to the game. There are other regional heterogeneities that add to the game as well.
Some grounds are quite small (Eden Park in Auckland) while others are mammoth (MCG in Melbourne), forcing batsmen, bowlers, and fielders to adjust their game-plan accordingly. Some grounds are uniform on all sides while others are lopsided (Lord’s in London is effectively a notched-rectangle and Riverside Ground in Durham is a ten-sided polygon), opening up unique angles for the players to score runs and take wickets from.
Some grounds are right by a sea or a mountain, dictating the pattern and direction of wind flowing over the ground. Some grounds have gentle slopes.
These are not unfair means adopted by the home teams; these local eccentricities merely call for added layers of tactical nuance and adaptability from the players.
To call it anything else is just not cricket.
Ahsan Senan is a Lecturer, Economics and Social Sciences, BRAC University.