Asantha de Mel was a fiery pace bowler, arguably the fastest from Sri Lanka. Even as chief selector he was fiercely outspoken and often rubbed his players the wrong way. The pace bowling ace, the first Lankan to capture five wickets in a Test innings — against India — had his career cut short by a dodgy knee. Remarkably, he went on to represent his country in bridge.
The ICC got a taste of his outspokenness when, as Sri Lankan cricket team manager, he minced no words to allege that there was an absence of level playing field at this World Cup.
“The matches we played at Cardiff and Bristol, the ICC had prepared a green pitch. At the same venues, other countries have played on pitches which were brown and favourable for high scoring,” he said.
“It is not sour grapes that we are complaining. But it is very unfair on the part of the ICC that they prepare one type of wicket for certain teams and another type for others,” he said in a stinging commentary on ICC’s conduct of the event.
Asantha de Mel’s reference was to the match against New Zealand in Cardiff where on a green top Sri Lanka were skittled out for 136 by the Kiwi pacemen.
However, at the same venue, hosts England were given a brown batting strip and they revelled on it by pulverising the Bangladesh bowling for 386/6. Bangladesh replied with a very encouraging 280. That batting performance and the margin of victory certainly had a huge positive impact on England’s net run rate (NRR).
Stung by Sri Lanka’s criticism, ICC came back with an official response: “We employ an independent pitch advisor to work with the host curators... We are happy with the wickets that have been produced across the event so far in English conditions.”
However, that explanation cannot dismiss the belief that England’s batsmen have enjoyed playing on better batting surfaces and the same is reflected in their totals in this World Cup: 311/8 versus South Africa; 334/9 vs Pakistan, 386/6 vs Bangladesh, 213/2 in 33 overs vs West Indies, and 397/6 Vs Afghanistan. Of course, they were bundled out for 212 in a shock defeat to Sri Lanka while chasing a modest 232 but that cannot take away from the fact that they have had the best opportunities to showcase their batsmen’s hitting abilities.
Unlike other sports the pitch and outfield have a great impact on the outcome of cricket matches. The closest to this abnormality may be Davis Cup tennis where the host country can play to its strength thanks to the right to choose venue (indoor or outdoor in freezing winter or hot and humid summer; high altitude or sea-level), surface (grass or hard court or synthetic), ball (light, high-pressured bouncing or heavier, slower), etc.
It is nobody’s argument that ICC loaded the dice against certain teams. But when rain causes league games to be abandoned, the race for the final four teams and the placings of the four teams for a semi-final line-up could hinge on NRR.
Of course, when two or more teams end up with the same number of points the team with greater number of wins would be placed higher. The NRR would come into play only when the number of wins is the same.
The playing conditions for the World Cup states that “A team’s net run rate is calculated by deducting from the average runs per over scored by that team throughout the competition, the average runs per over scored against that team throughout the competition.”
It is here that curators could play a role in the fortunes of a team. For instance, if a team has good spinners or bats very well against spin bowling, its assets could be made redundant on a fast, seam-bowler friendly pitch. Or if a team has good stroke players, they could be hampered by a sluggish, low pitch where strokeplay could be very difficult, like it was on the pitch for India-Afghanistan game last week.
These, apart from the outfield, could be made very fast or heavy as desired. Fast outfields are a bane for teams with slow-moving fielders. Likewise, heavy outfields reduce boundary hits and could impact the scoring rate. These factors have a big say on NRR.
Here, it must be pointed out that ICC has no curators of its own. It depends on home curators, and rightly so. Local curators are the ones with experience and knowledge of local conditions like soil, clay content, quality of clay vis-a-vis local temperature and moisture retention, its tensile strength, quality of grass, its binding properties, etc. Thus a curator from India or Australia, for instance, will not be as proficient in England and vice-versa.
Additionally, it is normal for local curators to favour local teams (unless it is Nagpur 2004 where Australians were provided a green top in a Test to the detriment of the national team).
The problem, though, arises when NRR is identified as a criterion. In the current scenario, at the end of the Pakistan vs South Africa league game, England (+1.457) have the best NRR. India (0.809) with as many wins and no losses are trailing far behind while Australia (0.849) with one win more than England are also trailing the host country. Surely, this is not a coincidence.
Certainly, it seems only a matter of time before NRR as a criterion is done away with in ICC events. Otherwise, the impression that local curators play a massive role in the way it pans out will always queer the pitch.