TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
WHAT’S that shimmering like a mirage from the middle of the ground? If you’re in the Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica, less often in Barbados, never in Guyana, but almost everywhere else in the region that made cricket sexy, it’s the pitch.
Most West Indian pitches are little more than slabs of clay rolled long and hard enough to acquire a sheen so slick that close observers see themselves reflected in the surface. Dinkum.
You want grass? No problem. The groundsman will fetch some of that morning’s clippings from the outfield, scatter them where you want them, and roll them into the manmade marble. There you go: grass.
You want live grass? Go to England, which is almost the most difficult place among test-playing countries to score runs in one-day internationals. The most difficult place is Australia.
Runs trickle at 4.64 to the over in ODIs in England. In Australia, that falls to 4.60. West Indies? A comparatively fluid 4.79, or fifth on the list after India, Pakistan, and New Zealand and SA – which both clock in at 4.87. Who would have thought.
And yet, only one of the 17 totals of more than 400 posted in ODIs has been registered in the Caribbean, while there have been four in SA and three in Australia. Just to complicate things, India, which tops the runs-per-over log at 5.60, is also where 400 has been breached the most times: six.
All of which is an attempt to get to the bottom of why bowlers, rather than batsmen, are winning matches in the triseries in the West Indies.
“It’s the conditions,” former SA batsman Peter Kirsten said. “Steve Smith was playing across the line. That tends to happen; batsmen play across the line when they’re not used to the pace of the pitch. But they sort that pretty quickly, like Smith has done.”
Dismissed for six and eight in his first two innings, Australian captain Smith has since scored 52 not out and 74.
“All the countries’ batsmen have struggled, except perhaps for David Warner and now Hashim Amla,” Kirsten said. “You need two of your top five batsmen to come to the party and ‘Hash’ has done it for the last two or three games. Faf du Plessis has also batted really well.”
That neither SA nor West Indies made it to 200 in the first innings of the first three games of the tournament could be blamed, at least partly, on a surface at Providence in Guyana that was so pitifully slow it made batsmen look like they had been ordered to club baby seals to death.
But slow pitches don’t help bowlers either, and they do so only marginally if they are slow turners. The challenge was met nevertheless, especially by Imran Tahir, Adam Zampa, leg spinners both, and unorthodox off-spinner Sunil Narine. They are the leading wicket-takers after six matches, half of which were played at faster, smaller Warner Park in St Kitts.
In Guyana, 31 wickets were claimed by spinners and 17 by seamers. In St Kitts, the quicks owned 23 and the slow poisoners 17.
But after a dozen innings in which 111 men have faced 3124 balls, only Warner and Amla have scored centuries.
SA’s 343/4 against Australia on Wednesday was the first time in the series that 300 has been topped. Teams have been bowled out five times in 12 innings and the average cost per wicket is 27.70. As an ODI bowling average, that’s better than Graeme Swann, Lasith Malinga, Ian Botham or James Anderson.
Of course, if each batsman scored 27.7 the total would be a mite more than 304: decent by any measure. If only things were that simple. Thank goodness they aren’t.