Undercooked pitch could undermine India-Pakistan spectacle

June 9, 2024

There is excessive seam movement and bounce, batters are getting hit by the ball, and conditions have been anything but standard

Undercooked pitch could undermine India-Pakistan spectacle

On paper, not much is riding on the India vs Pakistan match early morning this Sunday New York time, which is prime time on a Sunday night in India and Pakistan. The losing team should win its other matches comfortably and go on to the next round. The opponents in the next round are allocated on pre-tournament seeding so it is not that important to top this group either.

And yet the success of the first half of an ambitious tournament rides on this match. At their best, India vs Pakistan matches subsidise the more predictable parts of a cricket tournament. They generate revenue that partly ensures expansion of the game. It is a fixture that gives ICC the confidence to play 20 teams in the World Cup of a sport that is notoriously snobbish. The contest gives them the confidence to risk moving it into the US, a country whose time zones are not friendly to existing fans elsewhere and where fandom is restricted to expats.

After three matches (including a warm-up game) in the makeshift Nassau County International Cricket Stadium, if the ICC is not nervous about Sunday, it is treating India vs Pakistan like a cheat code that can paper over every other crack. If these matches were being played in an established stadium, it would be close to getting serious sanctions from the ICC.

Excessive seam movement and bounce, which is also excessively variable, have left a massive cloud hanging over the weekend. The ICC rightly prefers standard conditions in limited-overs World Cups. It goes further than the simplistic preference for big hits. Standard conditions allow for execution of most skills that make for an even contest.

It is also largely the concept behind T20, the biggest expansion tool for the sport. You want the batters to use their skills to score runs but you don’t want to see them fumbling and ducking and weaving and not be able to score more than 96 batting first in both matches so far.

These conditions have been anything but standard. After a couple of wides against Ireland on Wednesday, Arshdeep Singh tried to bowl cross-seam but the ball still kept moving too much. Andy Flower is not exaggerating when he says the pitches are bordering on dangerous. Harry Tector, Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant were all hit by the ball because it bounced in a way you don’t expect it to.

The drop-in pitches have behaved this way because they are both underprepared and haven’t even had the time to bed in. Usually, when a cricket stadium relays its main square, it plays about 10 to 12 matches of junior cricket then senior domestic cricket before playing international cricket on it. Here, pitch No. 1 was used for the first time when Sri Lanka batted on it, were bowled out for 77 and made South Africa sweat in the chase. The pitch that hosted Ireland’s 96 all out against India was being used only for the second time.

There are possible contributing circumstances to the pitches being underprepared. When they were brought in from Australia, New York was cold and rainy and snowy. They had to be taken to Florida to provide them the best chance of getting ready, and were then shipped to New York.

Even if there had been great weather in New York and the pitches had been ready, it is unlikely the ICC had budgeted for the bedding-in period. It has been given permission to play only nine matches on it, including the warm-up game. So how did the ICC expect to bed the pitches in even if they had been prepared properly?

The stadium was handed over to the ICC practically a day before the India vs Bangladesh warm-up match. India had sent half their side early to the US to prepare properly for the tournament, but forget training at the ground, when captain Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid tried to take a look at the ground and the pitch, they were turned away because the ground had not yet been handed over. Getting the stadium ready in three months for your biggest match of the year is not the flex the ICC thinks it is.

Not much can be done now. India showed their bowling prowess on this pitch, and Pakistan only bring quicker bowlers with higher release points, making it an even bigger challenge for batters. They have tried pitches No. 1 and 4 already. The six pitches at the practice facility at Cantiague Park some 20 minutes from the ground were grown at the same time, and have been just as spicy. So spicy that South Africa’s batters refused to bat there against Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada. Local net bowlers have frequently hit batters because of seam movement and variable bounce.

What are the odds then that the remaining two pitches, Nos, 2 and 3, will be any different? For what it’s worth, it is likely they will play Netherlands vs South Africa on one of the two middle pitches followed by India vs Pakistan the next day. So it will not be a completely fresh pitch although we saw in India vs Ireland that a used pitch does not mean a settled pitch.

Perhaps two menacing bowling attacks can even out the toss advantage. Perhaps we might see a low-scoring close match. But even if it does produce a low-scoring thriller, it is unlikely the ICC’s commercial partners will be happy with it.

It is not just the on-field action that has been less than ideal. It was strange to see empty stands for an India match even if against Ireland. The two stands on the sides were full, but the hospitality stands with a straight view of the action were sparsely populated. There is a good chance the ICC might have priced people out of coming for some of these matches. With some packages going as high as $10,000 for the India-Pakistan match, who knows if Sunday morning will be full.

There used to be a joke that if you name two bulls India and Pakistan, people will still watch a fight between them. There’s probably some truth to it, who knows. A shared bloodied history, some yearning among those who were displaced, continuous threat of war throughout their existence, India and Pakistan find a release when they play cricket, a licence to express feelings and emotions they otherwise just can’t: be it anger, pettiness, love, sporting etiquette.

The ICC needs to be commended for involving 20 teams in this World Cup. The idea of taking it to a new venue, the capitalist capital of the world, is also a noble one. The execution of the idea, though, makes you wonder if it took the India-Pakistan emotions for granted. –Cricinfo

Undercooked pitch could undermine India-Pakistan spectacle