Pitched Language

A look at how the English watch cricket (and perhaps, how we do too)

India have batted twice on the MA Chidambaram stadium pitch in the 2nd Test against England. It took England 1090 balls, and cost 615 runs, to get 20 Indian wickets. Since 2014, England have been bowled out twice in a Test in England 21 times. In 13 out of those 21 Tests, they have survived fewer than 1090 balls. In 17 out of those 21 Tests, they have scored fewer than 615 runs.

Given all this, what does one make of this?

If the deviation off the pitch is due to seam movement, it is attributed to the bowler’s skill. If the deviation off the pitch is due to spin, its attributed to the quality of the pitch. And it is seam movement which makes batting in England so difficult. Seam movement occurs when the ball pitches. Swing occurs before. Seam is nearly impossible to play because it happens too late for the batsman to make any adjustments most of the time (as R Ashwin observed).

Since 2017, a good length ball (pitching 20 ft from the stumps) has moved off the pitch about 7 centimetres on average in England. The batsman has a small fraction of a second to counter it. The width of a cricket bat is 11 centimetres.

Seam is a nobler deception than spin. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. The surface is exactly equally responsible for both, but seam is a challenge, while spin is treachery. Consider the words used to describe this Chennai pitch - “sub-standard”, “not Test quality”, “a beach”, “a sand pit”, and batting on it, a “lottery”. In England, they describe seaming conditions as “testing” or “challenging”. They call a day when the wicket is wet and the ball is going to move off the pitch “a bowling day”. Another day when the pitch is dry is considered a “batting day”. A pitch which takes turn early is called “under-prepared”. A pitch which seams more than normal is not called “under-prepared” though, even though, some extra work - further preparation - would make it less wet at the start of play.

There’s also the story of how pitches which are green on day one take turn by day four or day five after being batting friendly in between. Its the rare pitch which behaves this way. And even if it does, this still does not make it a fairer pitch, because only one team gets to play when its really seaming.

As far as the rules governing cricket - the Laws and the ICC’s codes - are concerned, there are pitches which are dangerous, and pitches which are not. In between the dangerous pitch (on which play cannot continue) and the fair pitch (on which it can), are pitches which offer uneven bounce in varying degrees. The pitch for India’s final Test against South Africa at The Wanderers in Johannesburg in January 2018 was one such marginal pitch. There was sufficient uneven bounce there for play to be called off temporarily after several batsmen were hit.

Turning wickets are not dangerous wickets any more than seaming wickets are dangerous wickets. If being difficult for scoring runs were a measure of the quality of a pitch, then English pitches would be some of the worst in the world.

The irony is that if a pitch is considered unfair because it gives the side which wins the toss an advantage, then the pitch for the 1st Test was more unfair than the pitch for the 2nd. In the first Test, the wicket played significantly better on the first day than it did on any subsequent day. England’s eventual margin of victory (227 runs) was pretty much the number of runs they scored on Day 1 (263) after winning the toss and electing to bat.

English fans have been conditioned for a couple of generations now into thinking that subcontinental tours involve countering treachery from both umpires and pitches. Until the 1950s, spinners were dominant in England. English spinners took their wickets in Tests in England 2 runs cheaper than English fast bowlers did in that decade. In 1956, the Surrey spin twins Jim Laker and Tony Lock dominated the Ashes in England, and West Indies beat New Zealand by an innings at Christchurch with their spinners taking 19 out of 20 wickets. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about the modern day prevalence of seam in England or New Zealand. Seaming pitches are prepared just as much as spinning pitches are prepared.

The English press profitably panders to and reinforces these conventional wisdom. Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s cricket correspondent and Test Match Special commentator, wrote that the Chennai pitch was “not good enough for Test cricket.” There is a constant current in the way a set among the English watch cricket in the sub-continent. They’re always either about to, or have concluded, that the hosts are incompetent or malicious or both.

Consider this, again from Agnew. The TV umpire made an error by not considering the full action from the time the ball pitched to the time the ball lodged in the fielder’s hands. This was the only error he made. Earlier in the match, a marginal stumping decision went against England. In the 2nd innings, a similarly marginal stumping decision would go for England. A marginal LBW went against Kohli, and for Root.

The point is, marginal decisions go either way all the time. That’s why they’re marginal decisions. Notice though, the use of the present continuous tense in Agnew’s published commented above (its from the BBC’s Cricket Social here, their combination of live blog and live podcast stream which goes out beyond the UK). Agnew is not saying “the umpire made a mistake”. He’s saying that the umpire is not only continuing to make mistakes, he’s also actively sabotaging the possibility of competent umpiring by “not even letting the replays roll on”.

Note that this is not an average twitter user who occasionally pays attention to cricket and might be forgiven for seeing one or two balls and being outraged that his or her team is on the rough end of a decision. This is the BBC’s most experienced cricket correspondent - a figure who should know better, not least because he should have watched every ball of the series (something which I have not even come close to doing, even though the timings are convenient and I think I’m interested in cricket). He should know the difference between a marginal call and a mistake. Yet, there is a streak of resentment and pettiness in Agnew’s communicated observations which he occasionally seems to try to suppress, albeit eventually without success.

There was another ball on which Rohit Sharma was hit on the pad after offering a long forward stride with the at behind the pad, as sub-continental batsmen of a certain generation have a habit of doing when the ball is turning. He was hit outside the line and given not out. England reviewed, because they (notably though, not the bowler) thought the batsman had not offered a shot.

The review went upstairs and the TV umpire upheld the not out decision. Here’s how Robert Croft, the former England off-spinner reacted to it.

He’s not just saying the umpire made a mistake. He’s suggesting that the match referee needs to “look into it”! The umpires in this telling are children who need to be disciplined. They need the big guy in the suit to put them in their place. There’s no provision in the protocol which provides for such a possibility because cricket’s protocols do not presume that umpires are errant children who need adult supervision. Nor does it presume that the umpires are crooks who require scrutiny from a different permanent match official.

Still, Croft is just a former Test player. Let’s be generous and presume that he does not know the rules. Here’s how Agnew and his colleagues at the BBC covered it.

They thought (reasonably in my view) that Rohit Sharma had padded up [the pictures are attached at the end of this post]. This is a matter of interpretation though, not fact. Especially against a spinner, the batsman is making several decisions (mostly because there’s more time to make decisions than there is against the fast bowler). The batsman who shoulders arms, as Gill did, is obviously making “no genuine attempt to play the ball”. The Rohit Sharma situation is materially not identical to Gill. A reasonable argument exists to suggest that Rohit Sharma did make a genuine attempt to play the ball. It says that since the bat was tucked in behind the ball because the ball turned back in sharply, Sharma’s forward stroke was beaten, and he managed to get the bat out of the way, but not the gloves. I disagree with this interpretation because it gives too much leeway to the batsman, but it exists.

At any rate, Agnew notes that “The third umpire should have done something about it”. Here, Agnew is flatly wrong. To adopt a phrase which is routinely misapplied to umpiring decisions, Agnew has made a howler. The rules which govern reviews of LBW decisions are given on page 115 of this document published by the ICC. Either Agnew, whose job it is to commentate on cricket, has not read it, or he has read it and not understood it.

The rule (3.3.2.4) is unambiguous. The default assumption in the review of any LBW appeal is that the batsman has made a genuine attempt to play a shot. The exception is when the umpire at the bowler’s end (who gives the original out or not out decision) says that there was no genuine attempt to play the ball. The TV umpire does not make this determination.

Agnew’s observation, in print, that “the Third umpire should have done something about it”, might as well be a continuation of the present continuous tense which lives on a substrate of the twin ideas that the Indian umpires are incompetent and/or partisan (this is effectively an accusation, given that they’re umpires, that they’re cheats).

Agnew is the one who is incompetent here. He’s a cricket correspondent who hasn’t read the Laws of Cricket and the ICC codes which govern the competitive games he covers. He’s a cricket correspondent who can’t (or worse, won’t) tell the difference between a marginal decision and a clear decision. He’s a cricket correspondent who watches umpires make decisions on every ball, and when they make one mistake, unfailingly insinuates that they are acting either in bad faith, or are in over their heads. He’s a cricket correspondent who speaks, writes and sounds as though his team - England - have a divine right to get the benefit of every marginal decision. But perhaps worst, and most despicably of all, all this mediocrity comes cloaked in the garb of the upper class English gentleman steeped in the traditions of fair play and the spirit of cricket.

It is hard not to identify a degree of projection in Agnew’s evident attitudes. But the thing is, Agnew is not a isolated case. He’s representative of an entire category of cricket correspondents and observers - a global nationalistic phenomenon. There is an audience for grievance. And so there are peddlers of grievances.

They exist in India too. The difference is that the underlying asymmetry of cricketing conventional wisdom (seam - noble, spin - treachery; green wickets - challenging, turning wickets - substandard; English umpires - incorruptible, sub-continental umpires - weak-willed) provides the nationalists in cricket’s former colonies with sufficiently fertile ground on which to flourish with some justification.

These are, nevertheless Indian Agnews (and Australian ones, and so on), or on their way to becoming Indian Agnews. Like Agnew, they will also demand that the adjudicators (in our current case, the umpire) be put in their place when they don’t rule in partisan favor in all but the most obvious cases. And they will cultivate a deadly, unsporting audience. The modern economy of attention more or less guarantees this.

Happily, standing in glorious opposition to Agnew and all he stands for, has been the cricket. England have been a magnificent touring side who are led by a genuinely great batsman in Joe Root, and a fast bowling attack full of class and speed. It would be naive to think that cricket is any antidote to the Agnews of the world. But it is certainly a balm.