Brett Lee bowls a screamer in Colombo and the
batsman watches it waft innocuously past his knees. In Perth it would
knock his helmet off. Why? Because cricket, almost uniquely in bat-and-ball
sports, thrives on the rich variety of playing surfaces on offer around the
world. In an increasingly regulated, homogeneous sporting world, the arcane
mysteries of the cricket pitch are a precious island of unpredictability.

Which is why the International Cricket
Council’s announcement of a “formal pitch-monitoring process” is a worrying sign. Details are scarce,
except in the area of sanctions, which include “suspension of international
status for venues that produce substandard pitches”.

What’s a substandard pitch? How
do you
measure it? The laws of cricket are deliberately fuzzy
on the topic, handing all authority to the umpires on the day. There
are no
objective, metrical standards for a pitch other than its dimensions, so
what
measure will the ICC use to determine an issue as serious as the
suspension of
a cricket venue’s international status?

There have been some appalling wickets used
in recent years, especially on the sub-continent – although the Perth wicket used
to be so riddled with dangerous cracks it looked like 22 yards had been
transplanted from Lake Eyre – and these are the kinds of disreputable surface the ICC is aiming
at.

But once you move away from the thin end of
the wedge, it becomes harder to draw the line. Are the Lahore and
Faisalabad bowlers’ graveyards, where 2800 runs were scored in January and
bowlers despaired, substandard? What about the Newlands ground, where 434 is a
beatable score in a one-dayer?

Newlands curator Christo Erasmus yesterday
called on
the South African team to admit they pressured him to prepare a more
pace-friendly wicket which saw a Stuart Clark-led Australia
crush the Proteas in three days. Clark’s selection was a piece of adaptive genius which shows what drama
comes from unpredictable playing conditions.

No one wants to see terrible pitches, but
imagine cricket turning into tennis, where Lleyton Hewitt can throw tantrums
about a slightly faster type of Rebound Ace at Melbourne Park?

Peter Fray

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