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Slow death: Overuse due to TV pressure adds to South Africa slow pitches

Cricket pitches in South Africa no longer remain as pacer-friendly as they were in the 1980s, with overuse and a demand for flatter wickets the main reason why India’s spinners have found so much joy during this tour.

cricket Updated: Feb 15, 2018 20:46 IST
Khurram Habib
Khurram Habib
Hindustan Times, Centurion
India vs South Africa,Indian cricket team,South African cricket team
Yuzvendra Chahal (L) and Kuldeep Yadav (not in picture) have found plenty to work with on South African pitches this time around. (AFP)

There is a YouTube video from the 1980s of a rebel tour game between Australia and South Africa played at the traditionally slow St George’s Park ground in Port Elizabeth.

Many deliveries rear up and trouble the batsmen with some even hitting them.

Port Elizabeth, despite the curator leaving grass in a bid to help generate and pace, is now the slowest surface in South Africa. It is so slow batsmen struggle to time the ball, as was evident in the fifth One-Day International on Tuesday.

In the 2014 series, South Africa had to rely on the reverse swing of Dale Steyn to beat Australia here for their lone win.

Rebel tour pitches

Mike Haysman, who played for Australia on that rebel tour, remembers that game well. “The wickets back then were quick, even at PE. They were all about the ball zipping through,” recalls Haysman, who says one of the reasons the surface has got slower is because South Africa wanted to get in tune with the rest of the world, especially after the return to international fold in 1991.

Former South Africa paceman Shaun Pollock says wickets have changed even from what they were during his career (1995-2008).

“They are no more what they used to be with regards to pace and bounce. In South Africa of those times, we had pace and bounce. The wickets have flattened out and behave a bit different from how they did back then.”

The roaring success of Indian spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, though helped by inept Proteas batting, vindicates his view.

Slow wickets are not peculiar to South Africa. It is the case around the world. Perth’s WACA – once the fastest pitch in the game – over the last decade is an example. Even 400-plus targets get chased in the fourth innings with the ball not rushing on.

In South Africa, Durban’s Kingsmead ground is an example of a pitch slowing down over two decades. The surface where India were skittled out for 100 and 66 on the 1996-97 tour is now a paradise for slow bowlers.

TV pressure

Evan Flint, curator of Newlands, Cape Town blames the failure to relay the surfaces. “These wickets have not been re-laid and therefore they have lost pace. There are only 3-4 surfaces that can be used in a square to play games due to TV broadcasting – for cameras. So, naturally they slow down over time.”

One way out is laying drop-in wickets, but Flint says they are expensive. Haysman says it is usually done on grounds hosting multiple sports, like in Australia.

But results on drop-in wickets in Australia haven’t been great from the pacers’ perspective. The one at MCG, where the fourth Ashes Test ended in a tame draw, was loaded in favour of the batsmen and was rated ‘poor’ by the ICC.

During India’s last tour of Australia, pace spearhead Mitchell Johnson had complained about the batting pitches.

Haysman says during the South African domestic series of 1970s and 1980s, played at a time when South Africa was isolated due to the country’s Apartheid policies, matches were played on quick surfaces also because captains were fast bowlers – Clive Rice and Garth Le Roux two of them.

First Published: Feb 15, 2018 18:57 IST