A lot of old cricket books discuss sticky wickets. WG Grace and Victor Trumper were good sticky wicket players, we read; Don Bradman was not.
Never having watched any of them play outside of highlights reels (if that), and over six decades after the two Englishmen in that list passed on to the great big pitch in the sky, I have no way of verifying those descriptions, so I’ll believe it. Irrespective, cricket had sticky wickets all right, in the days of the uncovered pitches – “when its surface is in a glutinous condition”, as described by The Language of Cricket, “where the ball turns and rears at a great pace from the pitch, are of all wickets the most impossible from a batsman’s point of view”.
So it was that batsmen at the Wanderers in Johannesburg late last week found life in a bit of a ‘glutinous condition’. All those who spent any length of time in the middle during the course of the match got hit. In the arms and the fingers and around the midsection and elsewhere. Then, Dean Elgar copped one in the head. It reared at pace from the pitch, from short of good length actually, and Elgar, kind of on the move, was caught in an awkward position when he met that Jasprit Bumrah delivery.
I don’t know if that’s what sticky wickets did when they were in vogue, but it certainly seems like it. You see, pitches are covered now, and unless the covers are damaged and water seeps in (as happened in Perth), or natural vagaries come into play (which I’d wager is what happened at the Wanderers), we just don’t see those challenges of old anymore. Perhaps the pitch manufacturers, in trying to do the bidding of the South African team management, messed it up a bit in Johannesburg? At any rate, the Indians gave a better account of themselves sticking it out in the middle.
Now, I am far from being an ‘Indiaaaaah’ chest-thumper and the result of a game doesn’t matter to me hugely as long as the game itself has been good, as was the case with the Johannesburg Test. Even when it is tainted by some off-colour moments.
Elgar looked dazed after taking off his helmet, and the commentator on TV said that had “shocked the living daylights” out of the batsman. Fair enough. Being shocked is the natural reaction from a batsman who has been hit. Elgar would later say, “I do think (the game should have been called off earlier). On day three, the wicket didn’t play great. Batters got hit a hell of a lot of times. If there was a period to call it off, it was sooner.
“We had an incident of being hit in the head, where we could have had an incident of what happened in Australia [reference to Phil Hughes]. People want to watch Test cricket but we are also human beings. We are not just going to take blows and accept putting our bodies on the line. The situation could have been addressed sooner.”
‘Sooner’ would have been when the Indians were doing exactly the same thing as Elgar was – ducking and weaving and playing and missing and getting hit in the ribs and arms and legs. Not in the head, true, but that’s chance or perhaps a difference in playing technique. Twice they batted, and twice the Indians managed all right – in terms of getting hit – against Rabada, Morkel and Ngidi; shouldn’t the South Africans be all right against Bumrah and Shami on that pitch then?
Elgar said, “I had already been peppered three or four times before that. I know what was spoken throughout the day and I know they had a feeling of this wicket not being the greatest. It was extremely freak. I’ve faced many fast bowlers before and I know the Wanderers wicket has that steep bounce, but I have never experienced it like that.”
Faf du Plessis admitted to having noted the number of times the Indians got hit but “the only time I got a little bit concerned was when Dean got hit in the face. That’s when I got a little bit concerned for player safety”.
Now, du Plessis and Elgar didn’t make the pitch, but there is a bit of an onus on the home team in situations like this. India batted 80.1 overs on the same pitch after which it was rolled to South Africa’s specifications. Within 8.3 overs after that, it became so that play couldn’t continue. Yes, the umpires took the decision to go off, but it was bordering on the unsportsmanlike, to my mind.
As, I’d argue, was Ottis Gibson’s response to a reporter’s question, when he said, “Before you go on about India batting twice on the same pitch, yes they did. And there were balls that were taking off from a length, and our captain was saying that, ‘I’m not sure that this is fair either’. It’s not like we are sour grapes or anything.”
Sunil Gavaskar and Shaun Pollock had criticised the pitch on the second day of the Test itself. But they were unhappy with it for being loaded too heavily in favour of pace bowlers. Since both teams had left out all spin options and picked only pacemen, this couldn’t have come as a shock to anyone.
Also, while the umpires Aleem Dar and Ian Gould have been lauded for taking a good decision by taking the players off the field after Elgar was hit, I wonder – why did it need a 140kph ball in the grille? If it was dangerous, surely there were grounds to walk off earlier? Or was it a case of ‘let’s see if someone gets hit’?
You know what was dangerous – that Sabina Park pitch back in January 1998, which lasted just 10.1 overs within which quite a few English batters had been bruised and battered. That was an unplayable one. Even the one in New Delhi for that India v Sri Lanka ODI in December 2009 was a bad one. This one definitely wasn’t. It was sticky, sure, but that’s about it.
The real problem is that batsmen nowadays are far too used to conditions being largely in their favour and, as we have discussed on Jiminy Cricket before, technique is no longer what it used to be.
Also, it is unfortunate, and perhaps in poor taste, that Phil Hughes is brought into the conversation each time a ball hits a helmet. If all of those situations are comparable, I don’t know how we can continue to play cricket with the bouncer remaining a legitimate delivery.
I thought both the Cape Town and Johannesburg contests were outstanding, and that’s because it really forced the batsmen to dig deep to stay out of trouble. Few managed, but that’s the best part – the ‘test’, as the old cliché goes. I genuinely didn’t see any real threat to life or limb at the Wanderers, and every delivery practically could have resulted in a wicket. It didn’t happen because of the determination and skill shown by Pujara and Kohli, Rabada and Amla, then Kohli and Rahane and Bhuvneshwar, and finally, by Amla again and, not to forget, Elgar himself. It took some doing, but that 86 not out did him credit.
A few medical tests, a good night’s sleep – hopefully – and there he was, out there, doing the ugly again and sticking it out, exactly as he was expected to. “It’s nice bruises. At least I have something to show for this Test match. It’s a little personal reward, I guess,” he said. Just so. Brian Close would have agreed too, I’m sure.