Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Pitches and sixes

It only occurred to me the other day that I was among those present when Kent fans were last able to watch their team play. It was a disappointing day on which to see cricket at St Lawrence for the first time in three years. The rain that ended it early did not relent sufficiently for play to resume over the following three days. As the faithful few made their way home that afternoon, none could have imagined what was to follow, or that it would be so very long before almost everybody would again be able to celebrate again the ritual of going to the cricket.

I have had two full New Zealand seasons as a spectator since then, and am thankful for it every time I walk through the gates at the Basin Reserve. Covid-19 finally cost me a day a couple of weeks ago, when New Zealand upped its alert levels after a small number of community cases appeared in Auckland, meaning that a domestic one-day game at the Basin was played behind closed doors (once more, New Zealand’s strong response has eliminated Covid in the community, and restrictions were soon lifted). This piece is drawn from three domestic one-day matches that were open to spectators, a double-header of international T20s, and games from several continents on TV.

The New Zealand domestic season is, like those in most jurisdictions, structured with the T20 at the heart of summer, the 50-over and first-class competitions in orbit around it. The longer one-day form has an odd format this season. All six teams play each other twice, with both games at the same venue with a day between them, presumably a cheaper option.

So Wellington played their first six games away from home before Christmas (Scorecards reported on their contest with Central Districts in Palmerston North) and now had four at the Basin, the first pair against Northern Districts, the second versus Otago. All featured some terrific cricket.

On both weekends, the pair of matches was played on the same pitch. That against ND found a near-perfect balance between bat and ball, while the one for Otago was an instrument of torture for the bowlers. I’d call only the former a good pitch.

Speaking of pitches, the India v England test series was on at this time, causing a spike in the sales of smelling salts across England to revive the cricket aficionados on whom the sight of a ball turning on the first day had the same effect as that of a bare calf on a Victorian debutante. The strip produced at Ahmedabad’s (ridiculously oversized) stadium for the third test was particularly provocative. Clearly, the scales measuring the balance between bat and ball had a heavy thumb placed on them in the bowlers’ favour, but it was nowhere near as bad as much of the comment from the UK suggested.

I now pause to don my smoking jacket, clench my pipe above a firmly set jaw and say “gather round, my young friends, as I speak of uncovered pitches in the time of Underwood”. The thing with those soggy pitches was not that they turned, though they did, copiously. The real danger lay in how the ball would randomly rear up or shoot through. There was little or none of this in Ahmedabad, the main issue being whether the ball would turn or not. Michael Atherton, among whose many qualities as a writer is a sense of perspective, wrote a series of pieces about the pitch. He talked about the effects of DRS in limiting the batsmen’s options, and how their priority should be protecting the stumps rather than playing the ball, thus closing the chasms evident between some English bats and pads. We would all agree that it would help not to take points off Somerset, or anybody else, for producing pitches on which batsmen learn to play spin.

The Basin strip for the Northern Districts games was not spiteful, just a bit shady, the sort of pitch that might try to sell you a cheap bottle of whisky or some nylons. Yet it produced a splendid game of cricket that defied prediction from first ball to last.

At 90 for one after 20 overs, Northern Districts seemed set for a routine 270-plus, but the wickets started fall, first to the spinners then the seamers, mistimed shots disclosing the pitch’s duplicitous character. ND struggled to 205, thanks to Colin de Grandhomme’s typically low-exercise approach to batting—32 of 43 in boundaries—and some late-order nudging.

When Wellington were 24 for four in reply, ND’s 205 looked more than enough, but Troy Johnson and Fraser Colson batted for 23 overs with full adherence to the health and safety manual, but just fast enough to give the later batsmen a margin. Every time it looked as if Wellington were ahead, a wicket would fall, until when the ninth went five short of the target with two overs left. The build up in tension in these tight, lower-scoring 50-over games is, at its best, Shakesperian. I heard recently some commentators in Australia, where hyping is habit, say that it seemed that almost every game in the Big Bash was a tight finish. If so, that merely reduces the outstanding to the ordinary. Here, Colson finished it with a leg glance to the boundary with nine balls remaining.

The second game between these two teams, played on the same pitch two days later, followed a similar pattern, but with Wellington batting first. Two down for 115 became 188 all out. Of the last seven batsmen, only Younghusband reached double figures. This time it was Bracewell who batted through, unbeaten for 64 at the end.

At 91 for three in the 18th, an ND victory should have been a formality, but four wickets fell for 23, and we began gnawing on what was left of our fingernails. With 11 overs left, 48 were needed, but with only two wickets remaining. Henry [sic] Cooper and Joe Walker did well to survive through the next nine overs, but could not maintain the required rate, leaving them with 18 to get from the last two overs.

Troy Johnson took over the Wellington captaincy for the second half of the 50-over season, impressively so. His choice of Bhula’s occasional slow left-arm for two of the three final overs made Wellington supporters jittery, but we need not have worried. The bowler held his nerve and both Cooper and Walker were caught in the deep in the 49th over. We had five days to get our pulse rates back down for the visit of Otago.

The action now moved to the eastern side of the block, which for the bowlers was a change of sentence from community service to a term in the gulag. Over the two matches, 1,454 runs were scored at an average cost of just under 50 a wicket.

As might be expected, Finn Allen got Wellington off to a sprint start. Only six of his 46 from 21 balls were not from boundaries. Nobody got a century, but there were three half-centuries for a total of 340, doubted by nobody among the home supporters to be a match-winning score.

It quickly became evident that we were wrong. With 20 overs gone, Otago needed 230 off 30 with all wickets intact. In the T20 era, on this pitch, that made them favourites. Four wickets were lost, but each time the new batsman took over without any impact on the scoring rate. Though the winning run was not hit until the first ball of the 50th over, there was never the level of tension that either of the ND games had induced. It as the biggest successful run chase that I have seen as a spectator.

The brief Covid restrictions meant that the second game against our southern visitors was played in camera. I followed on the live video feed from one fixed view that shows only the pitch. I invented a new game: Was That Six?, where the viewer has to judge whether a six has been hit based on the shot played and the trajectory of the ball as it left the bat. There were 35 in total, so a guess that it would be six was likely to be correct.

Eleven of them were struck by Finn Allen, who consolidated his reputation as a thunderous striker of the ball . He made 128 from 59 balls, reaching his century from 50. It seems that the evidence of the fixed camera was enough to impress overseas audiences, as contracts in the IPL and with Lancashire for the T20 have followed.

Even if I had been there, Allen’s effort would not have become my fastest spectating century. That notable record remains Mark Ealham’s, for his 44-ball innings in the Sunday League against Derbyshire at Mote Park in 1995. I have never seen more ferocious batting (though the latter section of Martin Guptill’s 2015 World Cup quarter-final double century was its equal). Dominic Cork took a fearful pounding. Ealham came in with only 14 overs left and Kent in trouble. Without his innings, the Sunday League would not have become the first title won in 17 years.

Tom Blundell made a less frenetic century with only one six, but 17 fours, as Wellington reached 427 for eight, the highest List A score ever seen in New Zealand. Otago’s reply of 345 was bold, but futile.

It is always fun to see sixes raining down on the popular seats, but if I had to choose between watching cricket on the ND pitch, or that for the Otago games, I would opt for the former every time. The great thing is that the choice does not have to be made. If you watch for a season, you want to see the game in as great a range of conditions and circumstances as you can, including a road at the Basin or a snake pit in Ahmedabad.

Wellington lost the play-off to Northern Districts, who were in turn beaten by Canterbury in the final.

T20 Internationals

Those of us who spend a fair amount of our summers at the Basin Reserve don’t care much for the Cake Tin. Opened at the start of the 21st century, it was the last throw of the 20th century concept of sports venue design here in New Zealand, one which aimed to fit as many sports into the one venue as possible. As well as a stack of cricket, I have seen both codes of rugby, World Cup soccer and even Australian Rules there. Only the last, cleverly conceived to occupy whatever space is available, is a good fit. Wellington had been the only major centre in New Zealand to separate cricket and rugby, but in an attempt to arrange a forced marriage between the two, the Cake Tin is an oval arena. This means that the rectangular sports are remote from their spectators, and the stadium has to be near-full to create an atmosphere that does not imitate that of the moon.

It is also a concert venue, which means that it has a sound system that could wake the dead, operated by people who consider the cricket a sideshow to the main entertainment of the day: themselves. As it turned out, the crowd for the double header against Australia’s men and England’s women, was disappointing, given that this fifth game in the men’s series stood at two-two, so providing a rare opportunity of seeing New Zealand beat Australia at cricket. We could have fitted into the Basin comfortably.

But there was great consolation in the batting of Martin Guptill. He had been through a poor run and many amateur selectors would have dropped him. Not me. Guptill in touch is as glorious a sight as anything I have seen in cricket. I mentioned earlier the World Cup quarter-final innings against the West Indies. Here, he played as sweetly, if more briefly. I have seen any number of players who hit the ball as far and as hard as Guptill, but none who do so more cleanly. He put the ball on the roof, the third time he has done so at this venue. He reaches this peak with the frequency of total eclipses of the sun; both are worth going a long way to see.

New Zealand were chasing only 142. At 74 for one in the tenth, it looked like being a lot higher, but under pressure from Ish Sodhi in particular, the middle order crumpled.

When he came in at No 4, we thought that Glenn Maxwell would impose himself on the innings. My wife was taken by Maxwell’s nickname, the Big Show, thinking it rather insulting. On the other side of the Tasman Sea, it is nothing but a compliment. She forgot that if Ned Kelly had been guilty only of irony, rather than robbery and murder, the Australians would still have hanged him. Here, the Big Show was caught second ball and the matinee was cancelled.

One of my regrets as a spectator is that I never saw Sarah Taylor keep wicket. Watching Amy Jones here was not far off. She executed three stumpings with a deftness of hand almost too fast to see. England’s 128 for nine appeared chaseable, but Katherine Brunt removed both openers in the opening over and that was pretty much it. Of the six games in this series—three in each shorter format—New Zealand won only the final ODI. In none of the other five did they come close. There is a lot of ground to make up if they are to be competitive in the rescheduled World Cup early next year.


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