Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Pitch Bitching

Reasons we did not win a cricket match:
  • It's the start of the season, we're out of practice.
  • The pitch was rubbish.
  • It's the end of the season, we're tired.
  • OMFG, left-arm spin!!!
  • The pitch was rubbish.
  • Sudden appearance of much-hyped Mystery Ball.
  • Star player is injured / resting / at IPL.
  • The pitch was rubbish.
  • Trott's fault (TM).
  • We lost the toss.
  • It was too hot / cold / windy / rainy.
  • The pitch was rubbish.

Is it a peculiarly English thing to blame the state of the pitch for the game not going your way? Or is it something that I notice more as coming from English sides because I tend to read more about cricket from my own country? Either way, it is something that I've noticed a lot.

This entry follows Surrey's 3-run defeat to Middlesex at Lord's. At close of play on Saturday, it looked very much like Surrey had it in the bag. They were 95/4, chasing 141, with Rory Hamilton-Brown looking pretty good on 51. I'll probably jinx RHB by saying this but early signs are that his batting has matured over the winter despite him having a rough time in New Zealand (more stitches than runs out of his first game for Wellington, poor guy). He appears to be batting more sensibly when required, anyway. Please, RHB, do not now go for under 10 in your next half dozen games by swinging wildly at filth. Meanwhile, back at the plot, Surrey looked like they could get their first Championship win over Middlesex at Lord's since 1997* and I spent Sunday morning desperately trying to listen to the game on TuneIn with the signal dropping in and out around the M25. By the time I actually managed to hear anything, there had been the dreaded 'flurry of wickets' and Surrey were 104/7. Not great, but still in reach. I counted down the runs required to victory. And then... well, most of you know what happened - Jade Dernbach skied the ball, game over and the majority of the A20 probably heard my howls of profanity.

I was disappointed, obviously. I mean, three runs. THREE. THREE POXY RUNS. But, on the other hand, just three runs. It wasn't a humiliating innings-and-50 defeat. It was a really close game. Jon Lewis got a 5-fer. There were good things to be taken from the game.**  I knew that there were issues to look at regarding the batting, but I didn't really feel ashamed of my team's performance.

Until the bitching started.

Surrey are up in arms about the state of the pitch at Lord's, apparently. It was on CricInfo and I saw pieces in Metro and the Standard too. There may well have been bits in other papers. Not to mention quite a few people weighing in on Twitter. Now, I am not - and have never claimed to be - an expert on cricket. I know very little about the nature of cricket pitches beyond a basic understanding that they change during the course of a match, and that this change varies due to a whole bunch of factors. But if we look at the batting figures for both teams in the second innings, it looks very much like the pitch didn't do either side any favours. In fact, Surrey racked up 31 more runs (29% more) than Middlesex in that innings. They got four players over double figures against the opposition's two. So unless the pitch took a sudden turn for the dreadful after Middlesex's first innings then stayed consistently rubbish for the rest of the match, I don't really think we can place all of the blame there. People who know far more about this stuff than I do have said that the pitch wasn't amazing but it's ok for the time of year. I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the pitch at Lord's was crap. This does not, however, give us an excuse to overlook the flaws of individuals and of the teams as a whole. Yes, I said teams, plural. I know Middlesex won but their performance wasn't flawless either.

Where do I think Surrey lost the game? The batting isn't sorted. Despite RHB's improvement, too many fell too easily. It took Mark Ramprakash a while to get back into the swing of things last season and it's looking a bit like that this year too. He has the albatross of "Is it retirement time?" hanging around his neck which can't help. Chris Jordan, opener for Surrey in the Sussex game, did okay with the ball but struggled to get any sort of total. Gareth Batty, often good for a steadying chunk of runs last year, hasn't found form yet. And, on the bowling side, they let the Middlesex tail bat too long. I think that the two team issues that let us down last week were that Surrey's batsmen do sometimes panic when wickets start falling, leading to rash shots and hence more wickets; and that they can let the pressure up when bowling - we saw this against Kent last year. I don't think that these flaws are insurmountable or mean that Surrey aren't Division 1 material, mind. The team as a whole needs to mature and find a workable batting order, then I truly believe that they'll be fine.

I know I've talked about the Surrey game a lot but it's not just a Surrey issue, as I said initially. When England struggled in the UAE, there was a lot of talk about sub-continental pitches and England's problems with them. Some people started saying that it "wasn't fair" that pitches over there were prepared to suit spin bowlers. (Fairly ironic, then, that England's stand-out bowlers over there were from our pace attack.)  How dare they have pitches that suit their strengths, after all? The very nerve of it! And the thing is that of course different pitches suit different players. Everyone has some conditions that suit them and some that don't, whether that's a case of Sri Lanka's searing heat versus England's soggy chill or something as simple as bowling from a certain end of the ground. So I don't know. Is this an English thing? Did India come away from the carnage of last year's Test series complaining that it wasn't fair how our pitches suited fast bowlers? I know that Sri Lanka weren't keen on the weather over here last May but did they have a bit of a gripe about the state of the pitch at the SWALEC too?

I do understand the instinct to blame an external factor for the loss of a match, and I sympathise to a large extent. Nobody likes admitting they screwed up. This applies to life in general, not just cricket. It's far easier to point the finger elsewhere and let someone else pick up the slack. But if we do this, then (a) we can never fix anything that we're doing wrong and (b) we annoy the hell out of everyone with our whinging. I appreciate that Surrey aren't happy about the Lord's pitch but I believe that moaning about it has done nothing to help the image of the team. I'm sad that you lost the game, guys, but we have a whole lot more to go and - who knows? - hopefully Surrey can redress the balance when Middlesex come to the Oval.

When it comes down to it, cricket fans, the way the pitches mostly affect the matches - certainly in England anyway - is when they're surrounded by that soggy outfield which signals Rain Stopped Play. And if there's one thing the English can do with real expertise, it's bitch about the weather.

* Thanks to Iain O'Brien for the factoid, and for not rubbing it in on Twitter.
** Feel free to tick the relevant square on your Cricket Cliche Bingo card.


  1. So true, so true ... but it works the other way too ...

    On sunday, I hit 40 not out in my first innings as a left-handed batsman. When telling people, I added the typical excuses: 'well, it was an artificial ... the bowling was gentle ... they pretty much fed my only shot ...' but the truth is, the scorebook says 40 NO. We lost on the final ball. we all thought it was the penultimate over ... but get over it. It was a great game.
    Oh, love your tags.
    No, everybody, go to my webpage and sponsor my 2012 season for Parkinson's ...

    1. I see your point, although I think that playing down the positives is less damaging to team image than passing the buck on things that went wrong. Well done on your 40*!

  2. Good analysis on the match and an interesting overall point. It's something I tend to sort of tune out, but it would be interesting to try to look at all the instances of whingeing about the pitch and see who is the most culpable. I know it is not limited to England though, in fact the most notable instance that I can remember is the Australians blaming the pitch for their defeat in the 2009 Oval Test. In that case it seemed like every single opinion piece in Oz was about how we only won because of a substandard pitch!

    1. Thanks. It's the first time I've put in actual match stats and tried to look at them!

      Especially ironic about the Aussies given they coined the phrase "whingeing Poms".

    2. Bandon - that was hilarious. Nothing to do with them completely misreading the pitch and not playing a spinner!

  3. What a fantastic piece - and it contained plenty of great cricketing insights, stats and analysis, things you said you didn't usually talk about. It's natural for people to blame externals - its far easier than looking in the mirror. I doubt that the Surrey lads complained solely about the pitch above all others but often that is what's reported.

    As for other countries and their pitches set up to suit themselves - everybody does it. Why wouldn't a side take every advantage they could? Ask any of the subcontinent sides who have travelled to NZ in the last 20 years.... And we usually stick them down south in Dunedin or Christchurch for their first match because it's as cold as a freezer.

    1. Thanks. Putting in actual facts is scary business, which is why I try to skirt round it with waffle!

      I do wonder how much of the pitch furore was a couple of comments (ill advised as they may have been) getting blown up to fuel the Surrey/Middx thing. It's not as though Surrey have put in a formal complaint about it or anything.

    2. Good post. I think you nailed it in that the pitch was fair for both teams. Actually it should of suited Surrey if anything. It was a great surface for Lewis, Dernbach and Linley - and one of Surrey's strengths is a long batting line up.

      I know it's harsh on Jordan but I think in early season you'll be fine with 4 specialist bowlers & de Bruyn. I was surprised he wasn't dropped for the current game. Anyhow shame it's going to rain today otherwise I was going to join Surrey supporting friends in the Pavilion.

    3. Apart from letting the pressure off in the first innings, Surrey's bowlers did pretty well. It needed sensibly batting - Surrey could have gone at 2 per over on the Sunday and still won the game by lunch time.

      Not sure what would've happened about Jordan if Rudolph hadn't been withdrawn. I know he's a handy bowler but we have got a lot of bowlers and, like you say de Bruyn is a good all rounder.

      Looking promising for a bit of play this morning. Tempted to head up there.