(My article for The Express Tribune, a major English newspaper in the country. Originally appeared here.)
Historically, cricket pitches in Asia had the tag of ‘lifeless’ and ‘flat’ associated with them. They’re considered as batting paradises where scores of 500 and above are regularly posted in Test matches, and taking 20 wickets is akin to climbing Mount Everest.
While it may be true in some cases, despite the notion that they’re flat, some non-Asian touring teams have often been found struggling in these ‘batting friendly’ conditions. The pitches on which Pakistan is able to score in excess of 500, touring parties like England and Australia have repeatedly been bundled out for less than 300, with both of them getting whitewashed in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Things weren’t different for Australia in their 2013 tour of India, where they lost 4-0 on ‘flat’ surfaces.
During the ongoing Test series in the UAE between Pakistan and England, Michael Vaughan claimed that “home advantage has swayed too far”, and that these matches should have been moved to Australia. Apart from the crowd attendance issue, he made a point that Pakistan gets an unfair advantage playing on flat, turning wickets they’re accustomed to.
But is this really an advantage, and should the touring teams complain about it? What actually is the problem, when one side is able to bowl you out two times but you can’t take 20 wickets to snatch a victory?
Why blame the pitches, when teams like South Africa and New Zealand have been competitive on these same wickets, where they gave tough competition to the home side, Pakistan?
In the 2013 tour of UAE by South Africa, they managed to beat Pakistan by an innings in the second Test played at Dubai. The series was 1-0 in favor of Pakistan, before Dale Steyn turned up in the second match and ran through the Pakistani batting lineup—sending them all back to the pavilion at a grand score of just 99!
When New Zealand visited the desert in late 2014, they drew one Test and won the other by an innings and 80 runs. Their pace sensation Trent Boult put up a spectacular show of both conventional, as well as reverse swing bowling.
It’s not just the bowlers who adjusted to desert conditions. Flat wickets turn; with an attack of Yasir Shah, Zulfiqar Babar, and the now banned Hafeez/Ajmal duo, you need batsmen who can hold their own against quality spin bowling. Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers, Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson; each of them scored hundreds to secure their team’s victory.
Visit England and you’ll get green mambas with cloud cover, where the ball swings miles. During the 2015 Ashes series played in England, some Australians complained that the hosts have an advantage due to green pitches; Vaughan insisted that England must exploit this home advantage. How come the same home advantage is unfair when it comes to Asian pitches?
Ability to read a pitch can be a vital factor in deciding the outcome of a match. When you’re playing in Asia, hardly any grass is found on flat wickets; what you rather look for and predict is when the surface will start breaking. The resulting cracks and rough areas can wreak havoc for the batting side if you have a spinner to exploit them.
Green pitches with plenty of grass give a massive advantage to seamers from ball one, where the ball moves off the seam as well as through the air. Bouncy tracks are found in Australia, where the hard surface makes the ball come on to bat nicely, but an express pace bowler can cause trouble with awkward bounce which is difficult for batsmen to handle. A surface with variable bounce is equally dangerous as batsmen lose the ability to anticipate the bounce.
Good teams adapt. If you want to win matches home or away, you have to adjust. You need batsmen who can play spin or pace equally well and an attack that can do both: Move the ball at pace and also turn it around on dust bowls.
Flat wickets are not inherently a bowler’s graveyard—they just require a specific skill set in each department of the game. Bowling in Australia? You’d make a mistake of not going with pacers who can hit the deck hard and produce bounce. Touring England? Make sure your batsmen can handle new ball swing. And finally, if you’re touring Asia, come with attacking spinners and seamers who can reverse the ball. It’s all about horses for courses.
Home advantage is fair; the beauty of it is every team gets to have one.