Why dubious pitches in US are a poor advertisement for T20 cricket
As a contest, the match between India and Ireland was done and dusted within the first 68 deliveries. | Photo: X/@ICC

Why dubious pitches in US are a poor advertisement for T20 cricket

For cricket to gain any currency in this part of the world, it was imperative that fans draw at least a tenuous parallel with baseball and the home run that is a distant equivalent of cricket’s six

As many as eight pitches, including five that involved matches featuring India, were rated ‘average’ by the International Cricket Council’s match referees at the 50-over 2023 World Cup staged in India. By that yardstick, what will the ratings be for the pitches at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in New York, scheduled to host eight preliminary league fixtures of the T20 World Cup?

Two matches thus far have produced two first-innings scores of less than 100. On Monday, Sri Lanka were bowled out for 77 by South Africa; on Wednesday, India sent Ireland packing for 96.

There are various reasons why a team can be bowled out for a sub-par total, even in 20-over cricket. But when the primary reason is a surface loaded so heavily in favour of the bowlers that batting becomes something of a lottery, questions will be asked, eyebrows raised.

Opportunity squandered

The ICC viewed the T20 World Cup as a great opportunity to spread the profile of cricket in the United States, a hitherto untapped market with tremendous commercial and marketing potential. On the evidence of the first two matches at Nassau County, it appears as if this could turn out to be an opportunity squandered.

Here are some basic facts – the four surfaces that will be used in New York during the group stages are drop-in pitches, nurtured in Adelaide, South Australia, and shipped here. Normally, drop-in pitches take a little time to settle in, but the tight timelines and a harsh winter in this part of the world have ruled out that possibility.

Neither the two match surfaces on view, nor the six practice decks at the Cantiague Park where all teams perforce must practice because there are no practice facilities at Nassau Park, have been up to scratch. The liberal seam movement can be put down to a fair smattering of live grass, and if that was the only problem, the solution is straightforward – shave off as much of the grass as possible without altering the top layer. But seam movement has been just one of the many challenges batters have had to encounter. Seam can make batting difficult, but uneven bounce makes it hazardous. When one ball goes through at ankle height and many others climb abruptly to head height from the same spot, how can one trust the pitch and hit through the line?

Advice unheeded

Nearly a dozen years back, Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell, two of the shrewdest brains in cricket history, had impressed upon the authorities in the US the need to have pitches with true bounce for T20 games, because fours and sixes are the bread and butter of the 20-over game. For cricket to gain any currency in this part of the world, it was imperative that fans draw at least a tenuous parallel with baseball and the home run that is a distant equivalent of cricket’s six. Clearly, that advice hasn’t been taken to heart, which is why we are discussing the playing surfaces at length instead of dissecting India’s eight-wicket victory over Ireland solely on the basis of cricketing merit.

As a contest, this game was done and dusted within the first 68 deliveries. Put into bat by Rohit Sharma, the Irish collapsed to 50 for eight, their egos bruised, their fingers battered, their confidence in tatters. Despite coming into the World Cup with four specialist spinners, India’s XI contained four fast bowlers, leaving wrist-spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal to warm the bench. The inclusion of both left-arm spinning all-rounders, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, was to have extra insurance when it came to the batting, thanks in the main to what the think-tank rightly identified as a dodgy pitch. The faith in pace was because of the conviction that the quicker bowlers would be harder to negotiate on an up-and-down deck.

India didn’t need the batting of Jadeja and Axar, as it turned out, with Rohit and Rishabh Pant shepherding their modest chase of 97. That Ireland only managed 96 was thanks to the brilliance of the four-pronged pace unit in which Jasprit Bumrah, coming on as first change in the sixth over, was the most impressive, but Arshdeep Singh, Hardik Pandya and Mohammed Siraj were only marginally less so.

Not good for T20

Right from the first over, from Arshdeep, it was clear that every run would be as precious as gold dust. Paul Stirling, Ireland’s captain, hardly has a negative bone, but he just couldn’t get into any rhythm because the ball kept jagging around. Any hopes that the ball wouldn’t misbehave once it got a little older was without basis; even when 10 and 12 overs old, it still ‘talked’. Especially when pitched on a length and when the batters were given no room to free their hands, even a soft single wasn’t on offer. If this was meant to be an advertisement for 20-over cricket, it was a very poor one.

Perhaps as a consequence of the attention, and flak, the pitches at Nassau County have received, some of the grass was shaved off the surface earmarked for Friday’s Ireland vs Canada game at the same venue, not long after the conclusion of the India-Ireland encounter. It remains to be seen what impact that move has on the proceedings. In any case, if eight pitches – two that have been used at Nassau County and the six practice strips at Cantiague Park – behave in one fashion, it’s unlikely that the other two produced in the same environment by the same set of people will behave drastically differently.

India are to play Pakistan on Sunday, also at Nassau County. Like India, Pakistan have a fabulous pace attack spearheaded by Shaheen Shah Afridi, with Mohammad Amir, Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah as his co-conspirators. In the first two games in New York, the toss has been a fairly decisive factor. One would have thought a 10.30 am start would take the spin of the coin out of the equation – too late for early-morning moisture, too early for late-evening dew – but that’s not been the case thus far. There is no level-playing field in New York. Just as well, then, one might say, that the India-Pakistan outcome won’t necessarily impact the progress of the teams to the next stage. Then again, try telling the fans of either side that winning isn’t the only thing. Just try.

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