If the 3rd Test between Australia and the West Indies in Barbados can be characterised by one thing, then that one thing must be bounce. It certainly makes a nice change after the slow pace and low bounce the sides encountered in Antigua. It is no secret that pitches in the Caribbean have undergone something of a negative metamorphosis in recent times. One of my abiding memories of watching cricket from the West Indies growing up was the mirror-like polish of Sabina Park and the exciting cricket that would almost inevitably bring. Then came the debacle in 1998 when the curators got a bit carried away and the match had to be abandoned after the opening overs. Since then low and slow has gradually become the depressing norm.
Indeed pitches in the Caribbean have been getting progressively lower and slower to such an extent that back in 2003 the Australian captain Steve Waugh described them as “the slowest I’ve ever played on.” Michael Holding considered the Barbados pitch in the same series to be “the worst I’ve seen this century.” Things have hardly improved much since. Most recently the pitch produced for the final test match against India in Kingston two years ago drew the ire of then captain Brian Lara. Lara was disappointed that a home pitch played right into the hands of the Indian spinners. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that such pitches have an adverse effect on the quality of cricket being played, and indeed of cricketers being produced, in the region.
Far too many players are coming into international cricket woefully ill-equipped to handle good bowling on testing pitches simply because they have had little to no experience of either at domestic level. When conditions are difficult for batting in regional cricket it is usually for all the wrong reasons. Batsmen are forced to negotiate tracks with inconsistent bounce and no pace and the techniques used to overcome such problems tend to be found out at the highest level. Sulieman Benn yesterday looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights as he unconvincingly (and perhaps even fearfully) prodded at the bowling in his brief stay at the wicket. It was hard to believe that he had scored seven first-class half centuries and averages over 20 for Barbados.
The course of the current test thus far bears out that players simply aren’t used to playing on bouncy tracks anymore. Indeed, nearly everyone seems to be getting carried away. The West Indies coach John Dyson accurately summed up what seemed to be the thinking of both sides in approaching batting on this surface. “You want players to be aggressive, particularly on wickets that offer a bit of pace and bounce," he said after the close of the second day’s play. The evidence thus far would tend to indicate that such an approach is misguided. In the Australian first innings Phil Jacques, Michael Hussey and Simon Katich all fell to cross-bat shots off short-pitched balls they failed to control.
Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards, despite much good work, also occasionally got carried away with finally seeing some bounce. Three times they conceded five wides with bouncers rearing over the keeper’s head and flying to the boundary. One can hardly blame them as they have been starved of the opportunity to hit the keeper’s gloves up around head height throughout their careers. It is however of course incumbent upon them to quicly assess such a situation and bowl accordingly.
The West Indian batting line-up as a whole exhibited even less assurance in dealing with the extra bounce than their Australian counterparts. Most failed to adequately get behind and on top of the ball, and coupled with poor application led to an inadequate first innings total. Skipper Gayle’s brainless dismissal was a wasted wicket, while a delightful cameo from Sarwan was cut short by a combination of over enthusiasm and a failure to get on top of the bounce. Unsurprisingly Shivnarine Chanderpaul was a notable and significant exception in compiling a wholly untroubled 79 not out. His simplistic approach and uncomplicated technique proved more than up to the task of coping with the challenges posed by the Kensington track.
An incapacity to cope with good short pitched bowling has in fact been a running theme in the series despite the slower pace of the wickets in the opening two test matches. Indeed the number of players from both sides taking blows to the head and body has been remarkable. Chanderpaul’s sickening blow to the back of his head in Jamaica stands out, as does Brett Lee being felled by Fidel Edwards. Simon Katich was incapacitated after wearing one from Darren Powell in Antigua. The sequence was continued yesterday when Brett Lee cracked Xavier Marshall flush on the badge of his helmet with a snarling bouncer.
Unsurprisingly there are few real masters of playing the short-pitched ball anymore. Players from the past like Roy Fredericks spring to mind for their unflinching willingness to take on the bouncer and for possessing the hand-eye co-ordination to succeed. Freddo’s hooking of Dennis Lillie for six in the first world cup final only to tread on his stumps in the process endures in the memory as one of the game’s iconic moments. Ramnaresh Sarwan may not be renowned for his proficiency in this particular facet of batting, but his uppercut for six over point yesterday was a throwback. Such scenes have become all too rare in the era of the front-foot bully.
In an age where science and technology has rendered almost anything possible it seems odd that curators around the world, and in the Caribbean especially, are apparently unable to produce cricket wickets of the same quality they were thirty years ago. Has the ancient art of pitch preparation been irrevocably lost? Or are the featherbeds of international cricket the result of a concerted effort on the part of administrators to establish once and for all the dominance of bat over ball in the misguided belief that runs and runs alone are what the crowd comes to see? Agronomists will no doubt speak of soil densities, moisture levels and sand content but as a layman the question remains: if groundsmen could do it in the era of Holding and Garner then why not now? Even Perth has flattened out somewhat over the last few years. Stories of 19th century bowlers such as Charles Kortwright bowling bouncers going for six byes may be apocryphal, but there can be no doubt that fast bowlers tend to struggle far more in recent times to extract steepling bounce. There must be something wrong when bowlers clocking at 90 miles per hour barely get the ball carrying to the keeper.
Whatever might be said of the players’ ability or lack thereof in coping with the faster, bouncier Kensington track one thing is certain: it has made for exceptionally exciting and eminently watchable cricket. It has been an ideal pitch, offering assistance both to batsmen and bowlers. Flashing cuts, vicious bumpers, fast scoring and regular wickets have combined to propel the Test along at a furious rate of knots. One way or another we can confidently expect a result come Monday, or perhaps even earlier. This is cricket as it was meant to be played, a real contest between bat and ball. Please, save the slow, low turners for the subcontinent. Let the Caribbean be a haven for quick bowling and dynamic stroke-play.