The bias against spinning pitches
A look at many of the reasons that we react as we do when a pitch spins on day one.
This pitch was spinning too much from day one, they said.
We're all English and Australian with how we look at cricket. The narrative on cricket comes from England. They wrote the laws, sent it to most of our countries, and detailed their own role in the sport to such a level that we all been touched by English cricket.
Australian cricket's path to moral authority was different. They dominated cricket in so many eras they became a step-parent to the game. It's hard to ignore someone beating you all the time and loudly telling you about it.
And really, until the 1970s cricket was not a truly international game at Test level. Many teams played it, but there was a small club that were any good. When the West Indies were great, the English and Australians often felt they weren't playing cricket in the right way with seam bowling, slow over rates and bouncers. Of course England had become seam dependent by this point and had tried Bodyline once upon a time. The West Indies bouncer theory was inspired by Australia's Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
Yet, when the West Indies twisted it and used it to dominate cricket there was a feeling that they were bullying everyone. And this isn't new, reverse swing was around in the 1970s in Australia, when Pakistan perfected it was when it became an issue. The same thing happened when an Englishman invented the googly, and then South Africa used it to win a series. Any change to how the two major teams play is some form of 'it's just not cricket'.
This is the first generation when we have access to watching cricket around the world and other ways of thinking. Before the internet you could watch the ball rag sideways in Chennai, moan to your friends, and that was it. Newspapers and radio went to only their audiences, and so they didn't look for nuance or the opposition's viewpoint. And so you had what Americans call 'homers' (home team fans) and a mix of what the English or Australians said was right.
ESPNcricinfo and rec.sport.cricket changed that. But that was for only the few who were online. My career started at the beginning of this new world where comment sections of online newspapers and blogs changed the conversations further. Social media was the biggest disrupter of this thinking. Once your drunk uncle came online there was a global cricket community sharing ideas of cricket in other nations.
But how we were grown as cricket fans takes a lot of unlearning. Cricket is an heirloom sport, carefully gifted to each generation. That included the biases.
Five years back when Australia toured India, they privately complained about every pitch - before they played on them - being doctored for spin. The first Test it spun, and they won. The next Test they lost, partly because the Indian seamers bowled brilliantly, and the third Test in Ranchi they moaned it was another rank turner. Look at the colour they said, it's going to be horrible. 25 wickets were taken on what was the flattest surface I've ever had the displeasure of covering. For the first two Tests, the Australian team leaked me info about how they thought the pitch was doctored, I answered the same way twice, "It's India, it spins here". They didn't contact me for Ranchi.
So let's look at this Chennai pitch, it is spinning more than a good wicket should. If you have a puff of dust on the 5th ball of a match, the surface is not ideal. But the curator had to prepare back to back wickets, and so the second one was also going to be less reliable. And I would say that the toss was more important in the first Test. Even if it was a better overall cricket surface.
But India made 300 in the first innings, and even if you allow that some of that was assisted by the English bowlers, that's a decent score. Actually, they made 329. In the last three years of Test cricket, the average per wicket is 33 in the first innings. Meaning that India's score was very close to par.
Now, there is a difference, because once a spinning wicket goes, it rarely stops. A seaming wicket may flatten and balls don't swing forever. One other thing that often confuses all this is that seam usually comes in places where you get swing. The curator can't make the ball swing, he can make the grass lusher to protect it. But the ball swings on hot days in South Africa, and on flat pitches in the West Indies pretty well too.
But the fundamental issue here is when the pitch spins on day one, if you aren't from an Asian cricket nation, it feels very odd. That's ok, no one is doubting your lived-in experiences. If the MCG did this on day one the crowd might dig it up. But it's not odd for Chennai.
My friend Amol Desai (https://twitter.com/amol_desai?lang=en) looked up what percentage of the balls delivered at each first class cricket ground. There are 345 grounds that have had a lot of first class cricket played. If you look at the percentage of spin bowled per ground, the 30th highest in that is MA Chidambaram Stadium. 58% of the time teams use spin there. And this is not Tests to catch touring teams, this is just the normal pitch here over generations.
But let's look at just the last ten years, and England. In county cricket 22% of deliveries are from spinners according to Cricviz. And Somerset's Taunton - known as Ciderbad because of the turn - has spin 40% of the time in the last decade. That's half as much as the number one, The Air Force Ground in Colombo. And Taunton ranks 60 out of 124 modern grounds. The next highest in England is the Oval, ranked 81st with 30%. Somerset has created two of England's current three spinners. And have also been docked points for creating an uneven surface that favoured spinners too much.
If Somerset spun the ball like this on day one the ECB might demote them to minor counties.
India has been winning at home with seam bowlers dominating for a long time, and they haven't had raging turners recently. But the pitches help spin on most surfaces in India. Except perhaps Dharamsala, which has 75% of the overs bowled by seamers, and is a ground that India defeated Australia with pace. Think about that number, 78% of all county deliveries are by seam, and India's highest ground is 75%. India have won at home on pitches of all kinds, their last loss prior to the first Test here was in Pune, on a raging turner they requested. Since then they've stuck to beating teams by just being better in India.
But the bias is planted in, and while much of this comes from the English Australian history of our game, but I also think this is a seam versus spin thing. I am a spinner, and I love watching spin, but as fun as a raging turner can be, quick bowling on a fast surface is just better. There is a gladiatorial aspect to it, and good pace in a pitch usually helps seamers, spinners and batsmen.
But how many pitches are like that? Most are slower, lower, favour one kind of bowling, both kinds, or are flat for batsmen. The CEO brown pitches from 05 to 15 really affected the enjoyment of Tests for many. The last three years where no one can hit the ball off the square has been wonderful. Though somewhere in the middle might work well too.
This Test has been so interesting. It produced the incredible innings, shown the gulf in class between the spinners and the seamers have taken surprising early wickets. The pitch doesn't have something for everyone. It will get worse, but with so many pitches allowing teams to score massive chases, it's nice to see a Test where it starts tough and degrades into anarchy.
If India are rolled for 150, and England don't make it to 100, the curator will probably look at what he can do better. I doubt the ICC would get involved in a back-to-back Test on the same ground, though. But if India get to 250, and England are rolled for 150, it will be a tough pitch which India thoroughly outplayed England on. If no pitches were tough, Tests would get boring.
There have been many Tests in the game's history where less than 700 runs were scored though, they're not for everyone, but they can be fun.
This pitch was spinning too much from day one, of course. Rohit Sharma didn't seem to mind, though.