Monday, June 11, 2007

Courting different pitches

The French Open concluded yesterday with yet another victory for Rafael Nadal on clay. The opponent may have been the top-seeded Roger Federer, but Nadal has been well-nigh unbeatable on clay – this was his third successive win at Roland Garros, and his zillionth victory on the surface over the last three years. However, Federer has been close to unbeatable on all other surfaces. And if you look back at men’s tennis over the last few decades, take away Andre Agassi and no one person has won all the Grand Slams in his career – not the incomparable Bjorn Borg, not the feisty John McEnroe, not the phlegmatic Ivan Lendl, not the seemingly invincible Pete Sampras. No, this is not a post about tennis champions.

Tennis is the only game that seems to be played formally on different surfaces. And while true champions tend to play well on all of them, you do have four formal Grand Slam championships every year, played on distinctly different surfaces. It certainly adds to the beauty of the game. Watching a Lendl play those marathon games with Mats Wilander on the red clay of Paris was very different from watching the same Lendl struggle against Boris Becker on the sylvan lawns of Wimbledon. No, this is not a post about tennis champions.

Inasmuch as tennis has clay, grass and synthetic surfaces, cricket has the bouncy wickets of Australia, the swinging conditions of England and the dustbowls and shirtfronts of the Asian sub-continent. I sometimes wonder at the hue and cry about the differences across pitches – especially the “expert” view of the need to prepare bouncy wickets in the sub-continent. Why is there no demand to prepare absolute shirtfronts in Australia? Or spinning dustbowls in England? Why should the Asian pitches alone have to change? Is the trampoline of Perth better for cricket than the dustbowl of Barabati?

So why can’t we leave pitches the way they are? And introduce the concept of playing on different surfaces in the formal sense in cricket? The administrators want to promote the game aggressively. Wouldn’t a pitch-defined definition work better for drawing up schedules than organizing random series at arbitrary times of the year in unsuitable locations? (Of course, this might tempt the ICC to have a World Cup every year, on different pitches!)

It will also preserve the sanctity of the pitch and weather conditions in different nations. For a real cricket fan, I would imagine there is a charm in watching different contests on different conditions. It also preserves an unpredictability that is supposedly inherent to the game.

An approach like this could also lead to different possibilities in terms of team selection. Just as there are clay court specialists and grass court specialists in tennis, cricketers may also prove themselves to be adept on some kinds of surfaces more than on others. Thus leading to interesting team selections and opportunities for different kinds of players. Just as teams increasingly have test specialists and limited-overs specialists (and Twenty20 specialists soon), they may also have pitch specialists. There are odd occasions when teams (especially England) have followed the horses-for-courses approach to team selection, but if we have a formal set of “Shirt Front Series” and “Dust Bowl Tournaments”, we might just have formal specialists for each of these.

And the real world champion emerges out of a composite calculation of performances across all surfaces, not just performance in one World Cup. (Though for now, Australia win every which way, England can at least hope to be the Swing Champions some day. And India, the Dukes of the Dust Bowl.)

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