England may have won the Ashes and continued their domination over Australia at home since 2005, but their victory was not achieved on sporting pitches.
For years, the English have taken pot shots at sub-continental wickets, especially when contests have not ended in their favour and sadly, only Michael Clarke has made himself audible enough about their pitches.
Australia captain Michael Clarke looks dejected after being dismissed by England’s Stuart Broad in the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge on August 6. Pic/Getty Images
“I’d like to see groundsmen around the world — not just here — have the courage to go with what they think is a good cricket wicket. I think we’ve seen in the first two Test matches a lot of talk from the media and the commentators about how flat the wickets were, yet those two Test matches were over in four days. One team won and one team lost. The next three are over in two and a half and three days,” Clarke said after the solace victory at the Oval on Sunday. His thoughts need not be viewed as sour grapes. He spoke as an elder statesman of the game and that he did his research over the five Tests in England is indicated in these words: “I’ve got a feeling, from the conversations I’ve had with a lot of the groundsmen in this country (England), they’re a little bit disappointed they haven’t been able to do as they’ve wanted to do.”
Pitches are something the International Cricket Council (ICC) must pay more attention to and host countries need to be pulled up by the apex body not only for akhadas (Indian wrestling pits) but pitches that have not been prepared to facilitate a true bat-versus-ball contest. Clarke’s issues are just that.
Last year’s India vs England Test in Nottingham saw 1,344 runs scored with England not even batting in their second innings. Even the greatest of fast bowlers like Harold Larwood and Richard Hadlee, for whom Trent Bridge was a home ground, would have struggled on this shirtfront.
Probably, only Bhuvneshwar Kumar will look back on it with delight. Apart from his fifer, he became only the second No 9 batsman to score half centuries in a Test. It was the first draw in 11 Tests at the venue and the English were livid with the pitch assisting India more than them. ICC match referee David Boon called the pitch “poor” and the venue got a warning from the ICC. Yet, Trent Bridge 2014 will not be remembered for a downright unsporting pitch but for the Jimmy Anderson-Ravindra Jadeja clash.
This year, Australia were bowled out for 60 in the first session at Trent Bridge. Funny things can happen in cricket but when a pitch behaves in an uncharacteristic manner like it did in 2014, it is worrying.
Clarke didn’t say so categorically, but his attack on English pitches could well suggest that his team — the favourites to win the Ashes — were done in. The recently-retired New South Welshman is not the only Australian great, which had problems with English pitches in Ashes contests. Golden great Neil Harvey revealed in Cricket in the ’50s — Discovering New Boundaries that after Australia won the second Test of the 1956 Ashes at Lord’s, where pace spearhead Keith Miller claimed 10 wickets in the game, England’s captain Peter May told him that this was the last pace-friendly pitch he’d see in the series. “And boy, he was right,” Harvey exclaimed. Richie Benaud, meanwhile said that England’s pace terror Frank Tyson, who was recovering well from injury, was told by the English cricket bosses not to bother about getting fit as he wouldn’t be needed in the series. Australia suffered an innings defeat in the following Test at Leeds with 18 of their 20 wickets falling to the spin of Jim Laker and Tony Lock. “They had wickets doctored for Laker and Lock and I have no hesitation in saying that,” said Harvey. This was the same series in which Laker claimed 19 wickets at Manchester.
Sixteen years later, Ian Chappell’s 1972 Australian tourists discovered to their dismay that a fungus called Fusarium Oxysporum attacked the pitch at Leeds, the venue of the vital fourth Test with the scoreline reading 1-1, which does not grow in cool temperatures. England recalled left-arm spinner Derek Underwood, whose last Test under an England cap was against India the previous August. The Aussies smelt a rat but realised that talking about it in the media wouldn’t be the best thing to do. According to off-spinner Ashley Mallett in his book on Ian Chappell, the team manager Ray Steele warned his players not to moan about the Fusarium pitch and he would come down on them “like a ton of bricks” if they did so.
As expected, Australia succumbed to Underwood, but this incident strengthened their resolve to win the final Test at the Oval, which they did to draw the series although England retained the Ashes. Underwood of course rubbished the pitch doctoring claims. In Beating the Bat, he wrote: “It wasn’t a good Test wicket by any means, but there had been no skullduggery. The whole ground had been flooded the weekend before the Test by violent storms, and the wicket had been attacked by a fungus called Fusarium which damaged the grass.” Of course, the Australians were not convinced and wondered why did Fusarium only attack the strip and spared other parts of the ground.
Clarke, meanwhile, will have to live with the fact that he couldn’t experience Ashes victory in his four Test trips to England. He is the only man in his country’s top 10 run-getters not to have this honour. Cricket can be cruel. Pundits reckon he didn’t lose to the better side this time.
Clayton Murzello is mid-day’s Group Sports Editor