A month or so ago, I discussed how in cricket, especially when played at the highest level in the five-day version known as Test matches between national teams, the nature of the central playing surface (known as the ‘pitch’) is very important. The goal of the groundskeepers should be to produce a pitch that provides a good balance between bat and ball, providing batters with the opportunity to score runs while giving the bowlers enough help that they feel that getting the batter out is something that can happen at any moment.
A good pitch is one that starts with some ‘life’ in it, in that it is of assistance to fast bowlers by providing them with good bounce and speed off the ground, but then starts to play easier so that batters can score runs. Then due to wear and tear and the pitch drying out, over the last two days you would expect the advantage to shift more to the bowlers, especially the slow spin bowlers, who find that they can turn the ball more and thus make it hard to hit.
This affects strategy especially as to who bats first. This is decided by a coin toss and the winning captain gets to choose whether his team bats first or to ask his opponents to bat first. This decision is determined by their judgment of the state of the pitch. Since each team gets two innings, the winning captain has to decide whether it is better to bat first (and hence have their opponents bat last in their second innings on a difficult pitch) or field first and risk having to bat last. The first option is usually preferred, unless they think that the pitch shows a lot of initial life with unpredictable bounce that their fast bowlers can exploit, hoping that they can cause enough damage to the opponents early that they can get them out for a fairly low score before the pitch becomes easier to bat on. If so, they will ask the opponents to bat first, though that decision can backfire if the pitch is easier to bat on than initially appeared.
But sometimes the pitches are not balanced, strongly favoring either bowlers or batters form the get-go. This was what happened in the two Test matches played recently between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, two teams that are pretty equally matched. The second Test was played just three days after the first ended with almost the same teams on both sides. But what happened in the two matches was wildly different and this can be put down to the most significant difference and that is different pitches that had been prepared for the two matches in the two stadiums in different cities in Bnagladesh.
The first Test in Chittagong was played pretty much on a dead pitch that offered no help to the bowlers at all at any time. Bangladesh won the toss and chose to bat and got off to an excellent start, scoring 513 runs. Such a high score when batting first almost guarantees that your side will not lose. But then in response Sri Lanka scored a mammoth 713 runs. By this time, almost four full days had elapsed and now Bangladesh faced the prospect of batting the second innings on the traditionally difficult last day. But the pitch proved to be so dead that they batted out the whole day scoring 307 runs without difficulty, and the game petered out in a no-decision that is called a ‘draw’ in cricket. So over the five days, we saw 1533 runs scored with the loss of only 24 wickets, a rate of 64 runs per wicket and only 0.8 wickets falling per hour of playing time. The entire match consisted of largely batting practice with the bowlers toiling away with little reward.
The two teams then went to Dhaka and encountered diametrically opposite conditions, one where the bowlers were highly favored right from the start and where the batters were always in difficulty. As a result, the match was a low-scoring one that ended in just two and a half days, half the time allotted. In that short time, all 40 wickets fell and only 681 runs were scored in total, for an average of only 17 runs per wicket (about a quarter that of the previous match) and 2.6 wickets falling per hour of playing time, more than three times that of the previous Test. Both teams’ batters struggled but the Sri Lankan batters fared slightly better and so their team won.
The example of these two matches shows how important it is to prepare pitches that are well-balanced so that both elements of the game are on display at their best.