First published on the Club Cricket Conference website
The ICC pitch watchdog has quickly sunk its teeth into an unsuspecting backside. The Wanderers has become the first venue to be sanctioned in the new crackdown, as though to emphasise that no international ground, however famous, can be guaranteed Test cricket.
The iconic Johannesburg stadium finds itself in real danger of suspension after the recent third Test between South Africa and India. For Wanderers to disappear from the international circuit would be unthinkable, like losing Lord’s or the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The towering stands that dwarf the little club-style pavilion make this stadium one of the finest and most dramatic in the world. The pitch usually offers pace and bounce and therefore entertainment. Sizeable crowds attend matches.
A trend in five-day cricket generally had been a return of featherbed strips – with drop-in pitches a culprit – so the Wanderers setback came as a surprise. Preparing pitches is not an exact science for even the most expert groundsman, so something must have gone badly wrong with turf preparation in South Africa’s 63-run defeat. At one stage the umpires felt that the pitch was dangerous and considered abandoning the match.
The ICC match referee Andy Pycroft rated the pitch as “poor” so that three demerit points were automatically awarded. This meant that if Wanderers were to reach a total of five points in the next five years, the ground would be barred from hosting international cricket for at least a year.
Pycroft reported that the pitch had excessively steep and unpredictable bounce, and excessive seam movement. “It deteriorated quickly as the match progressed,” he said, “which made batting extremely difficult and hazardous, resulting in the medical staff from both the sides having to come onto the field of play multiple times to treat their batsmen.”
Pycroft added: “As the on-field umpires are also responsible for the players’ safety, they expressed concerns about the behaviour of the pitch, and debated after day three if it was appropriate to continue the match. In the end, the umpires made the decision to continue, and the Test reached its natural conclusion on day four. However, there was still excessive variable bounce and seam movement when the Test match ended.”
According to the new ICC regulations, one demerit point is awarded to venues with pitches rated by the match referees as ‘below average’. The sanction rises to three for ‘poor’ and five for ‘unfit’. From a spectator’s point of view, there is more interest in a bowler’s match than five days of cheap runs on a featherbed pitch, but the Wanderers must have been close to unfit. The batsmen took a bruising during this Test, and AB de Villiers will miss the one-day series through a finger injury.
The scoring was remarkable in the circumstances. A total of 805 runs were chiselled out in almost 296 overs for 40 wickets. Dean Elgar became the first South Africa batsman to carry his bat in both innings for a second time in a Test. South Africa won the series 2-1.
In December the Melbourne Cricket Ground was criticised for a bland drop-in pitch for the Ashes Test against England. This might well have cost them three points if the ICC sanctions had been in place at the time.