“In the ongoing series against England, Ali, Rashid, Santner and Sodhi have already shown their dominance and if the Black Caps’ do end up losing the series, it will be yet another crude message that the team should focus on their strengths rather than putting undue emphasis on what works and does not work for the rival team”.
You do not have to be a cricket historian to know that cricket pitches all over the world are expected to bear their own unique traits, something that changes from country to country and from continent to continent. Thus, while the wickets in the sub-continent are generally meant to be on the slower and the sluggish side, the ones in England assist swing and the conditions in Australia and New Zealand are more in favour of the seam bowlers. This not only makes the sport exciting – for one has to constantly watch as a batsman changes his technique when he tours the world, but it also allows the bowler the opportunity to improve his skills and his variations according to the conditions he will play in.
That is why when the WACA, once considered a bowler’s haven, started producing pitches that no longer remind one of the threats that it possessed, the mood around the cricketing realm bore a sombre look. Not only Perth, the wickets on a whole are moving away from a greenish tinge to a browner and barren dustbowl to aid higher scores in the T20 formats, which has not been met very keenly around the circuit.
The latest incident that spread waves of worry was when Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali combined to lead England to a 4-wicket win against New Zealand at Wellington, picking up 5 wickets between them for 70 runs in their 20 overs. 8 wickets fell to spin in the game, which was the most to fall to the tweakers in New Zealand after 2010, when they had scalped up 9 wickets in a game between New Zealand and Bangladesh.
Ish Sodhi in the third ODI bowled 11 googlies in his first 5 overs and Rashid bowled deliveries that spun at over 6 degrees off the pitch. The ODI game had more turn for the spinners than any other game in New Zealand and if that does not make one concerned about the changing nature of the wicket, that was always known for its pace, the fact that the home team have been asking for such wickets in the recent past only add to the misery. In the last season alone, opposition spinners in the T20 games have picked up 14 wickets at an average of 27.62 and an economy of 7.89, whilst the other bowlers have picked up 36 at 30.5 and an economy of 9.8.
So, what has led to this marked change? Why have the pitches and the wickets undergone such a massive change that bowlers like Keshav Maharaj ended up picking up more wickets than Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel, when South Africa toured New Zealand last year? Why was discarded spinner Dane Piedt unexpectedly recalled to the squad after the Faf du Plessis-led side were caught unawares with the slower tracks and had packed in six seamers in their side before they left the African shores?
Even more surprisingly, match-winner Tim Southee had been excluded from the first Test match, where the Kiwis opted to go in with two full-time spinners Mitchell Santner and Jeetan Patel for the first time at home. Even the ODIs that were held in Hamilton before the Tests were on the slower side, something that had really rattled du Plessis.
“We haven’t played on wickets like this in New Zealand before. I don’t know if it’s a genuine tactic from New Zealand or if it’s just how the wickets have changed. All the times we’ve been playing here, wickets have been green and over the last two years, New Zealand wickets have been pretty similar to the look of our wickets with seam and swing and then when the sun comes out you can score some nice runs. Conditions have surprised us.”
Mike Hesson, New Zealand’s coach was forthcoming in his statements when he honestly conveyed that the side had asked for less grass in the Hamilton ODI and in the Test match at the same venue, where the game was played on the slow Waikari clay block and not on the Patumahoe side, which is generally known to assist pace and bounce and on where the Black Caps had raced away to fine victories over Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The reason for this, as stated by Hesson was that playing South Africa – a team that has the most dangerous bowling line-up in the world, on seam-friendly surfaces would have allowed the Proteas pacers to unleash their venom on wickets that were to their liking, and instead of the home advantage aiding the Kiwis, it would have worked against them. And so, the groundsmen were asked to negate the home advantage and instead lay down tracks that did not assist the visiting side.
In the process, however, the hosts ended up losing the T20I series, the Tests and the ODI games, without pace but spin leading to their downfall. They were unable to unravel Maharaj’s spin web in the Tests, who picked up 15 wickets at an average of 19.93, including a match-haul of 8/87 in Wellington. He was ably supported by part-time spinner JP Duminy, and one is only forced to think that if the pitches were more in favour of the pacers, maybe the likes of Southee and Trent Boult would have had a greater say and could have gone head-to-head with Morkel, Vernon Philander and Rabada.
New Zealand’s agony against the spinners was not only limited to the series against South Africa. Since 2016, even when the pitches had not been doctored, they were unable to get under the skin of Shakib al Hasan, Shadab Khan and Ashton Agar in the series against Bangladesh, Pakistan and Australia, respectively, and the ploy to further play to the opponents rather than their own strengths seemed a rather folly move indeed.
In the ongoing series against England, Ali, Rashid, Santner and Sodhi have already shown their dominance and if the Black Caps’ do end up losing the series, it will be yet another crude message that the team should focus on their strengths rather than putting undue emphasis on what works and does not work for the rival team.