The home pitch advantage & other vagaries of Test cricket

How much can a home team tailor pitches to its advantage? Is it at all fair when the scales are made uneven to the extent to which a fair contest is no longer possible?

It is true that this question seems to arise only when the advantage is weighted in favour of sub-continental teams. There seems to a default mental model of the game which suggests that fast and seam bowling is the norm while spin, the exotic magic weaved by the East is accommodated only on the last two days of a match. Pitches where the ball seams swooningly or bounces alarmingly, expose the weaknesses of visiting teams while pitches that help the ball spin prodigiously are the unfair tactics used by teams that do not have the skills to win fairly.

The other argument offered is that while home teams have a right to customise pitches to gain an upper hand, the test should last a full five days. Again this argument surfaces largely when the sub-continent is involved. The truth is that Test matches are increasingly finishing in 4 or even 3 days. Out of the 39 Tests played in 2020, 26 did not go to the 5th day. In a Mint report that examined results between 2010 and 2015, out of 185 matches, only 81 lasted all 5 days. The average duration of the matches was quite similar across Australia, England and India- only between 35-40% of matches in these countries last the full 5 days. So clearly, the complaint about doctored pitches in India is overblown. However, the larger question still remains. Shouldn’t there exist a level playing field when two teams are competing? Isn’t that a fundamental requirement for any sport?

It’s a fair point. The question is not whether a particular team rigs the conditions to its advantage, but whether any team should be able to do so. After all, the reason the world moved to neutral umpires is because of the pervasive feeling, based on evidence, that the standards of umpiring were uneven across the world and needed some uniformity.

The truth is that test cricket has never been about a level playing field. The game is simply not constructed that way. Since the match lasts 5 days, something that no other sport can even conceive, the very idea of identical conditions for both the teams is irrelevant. Cricket thrives on complexity and difference, not standardisation and uniformity.

The pitch degrades, the weather changes from hour to hour, the breeze that aids a certain kind of bowling makes its whimsical appearance when it wants to. Which end the bowler bowls from makes a difference. The old ball behaves in a completely different way as against the shiny new orb that begins the day. Pace and spin might both involve a ball being thrown from end of the wicket to another, but they require two completely different kinds of skills.

The toss matters. Unlike other sports where the toss plays a more ritual rather than consequential role, in cricket, it is often the prime factor for a team’s victory. The fact that in a game full of so many improbabilities, the institution of the toss has been retained tells us that this is an intrinsic part of the design.

Duckworth Lewis can exist only in cricket. No other sport could tolerate the apparent arbitrariness of such a system. The problem is of course, that one is trying to solve a problem that cannot be solved. There is no uniform way in which the many variables that go into determining the outcome of a game be calculated when the game is suddenly shortened. If rains are unpredictable, the DL formula is even more so.

The recent history of the game suggests a tension between the need to standardise and flatten out some of the unpredictable kinks in the game and the inherent structure of the sport which resists such an attempt. Duckworth Lewis is a way of contriving a result in a limited overs game when none is possible. DRS is the other device used to address the game’s dependence on the umpire’s often fallible judgment.

The use of technology was meant to straighten things out by reducing uncertainty and making umpiring decisions more accurate and predictable. It has worked in some ways and failed in others. For one, the idea of allowing a team only a limited number of reviews is so cricket-like in its addition of complexity in its effort to reduce it. It makes human frailty more apparent rather than less.

Then we have the combination of the technology with human judgment in the form of the 3rd umpire who interprets the technology and the mechanism of the ‘Umpire’s call’ which accords pride to place to the human eye over the computer. This creates a spectrum of unpredictabilities, all producing delightful quantities of ambivalence.  Only in the last test, we saw decisions where the third umpire judged someone to be within the crease when the eye saw it differently, saw a batsman being given out for not playing a shot when he so obviously did. Not to be outdone by human error, technology did its thing by refusing to spot an lbw decision that was as plumb as could be to the human eye. So much for standardisation.

Cricket is not a sport in the classical sense, it is a rumination on life. It draws meaning from the earth, the elements, time and human strengths and inadequacies. It is structured as a game and as it gets taken more seriously with time, it is striving to incorporate into itself elements that make it a more conventional sport. And while the motivation to do so is understandable, the game finds a way to destabilise any effort to tame it. The home pitch advantage is a necessary part of the game, just as are all the uncertainties that the game cannot shrug off. 



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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