Pete Sampras. Tennis superstar. Winner of fourteen major singles titles including seven at Wimbledon. Holder of the top ATP ranking for a record six consecutive years. A place assured amongst the all-time greats of the game.
But there is a significant gap in his CV. Like John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker before him, Sampras never won the French Open. He never quite mastered clay.
Tennis is a sport which totally changes according to the surface it is played on, and only a handful of players through history could claim to have a game suited to them all. A player almost unbeatable on clay might struggle to get beyond the first round or two elsewhere – Gustavo Kuerten, for example, won the French Open three times yet never got beyond the quarter-finals of any other major tournament. Equally, the serve-and-volley specialist, ideally suited to fast Wimbledon grass, has to completely change his game and his mindset to compete with the dogged baseliner on that slow, cloying Parisian clay.
But this is the sport. No-one complains. No one surface is considered superior to any other. Players suited to particular surfaces win on them and those who generally aren’t celebrate red-letter victories on those occasions when they do. And only the great players – the truly great players – win consistently wherever they go.
Cricket is the only other sport so influenced by the nature of its surfaces. Different parts of the world produce pitches with radically different and decidedly local characteristics, whether English seamers, bouncy Australian roads or subcontinental bunsens. And the results of the matches played out on them tell us that in perhaps no other sport is home advantage so important.
The Tests played over the past twelve months have followed a familiar pattern. In the UAE Pakistan wrapped up a 2-0 series victory over England, remaining unbeaten in Test series in their enforced home. India and Australia, too, completed crushing home victories against South Africa and New Zealand respectively.
Down to home advantage? Well, in part. In the UAE, spin, in the form of Yasir Shah in particular, proved to be the most crucial difference between the two sides. In Mohali a total of thirty-four wickets in the match fell to the spinners, with India’s trio of R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra accounting for nineteen of them. In the Brisbane Test, the damage was done by mammoth innings from David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns, backed up by Australia’s potent seam attack, on a predictably quick and bouncy surface.
However, an understanding of the fuller picture needs to take account of psychological as well as physical dimensions. South Africa’s players were defeated as much by the gremlins in their minds as any in the pitch. That dry Mohali pitch set warning bells ringing within the team before a ball had even been bowled. Once they had been out to the wicket before the match began South Africa were, in the words of Faf du Plessis, “fearing the worst”. And, in due course, they found it.
Hashim Amla’s dismissal in the second innings of that match typified their outlook – taking guard outside leg, the tactic he had used so successfully against Graeme Swann in 2012, Amla left alone a ball from Ravindra Jadeja that turned not an inch and cannoned straight into middle and off. Done for by anxiety, not by reality.
Amla himself hit the nail on the head in his interview that day. The problems were, he said, not in the pitch but rather in the mindset and application of the batsmen. And herein lies the crux of the issue. Unlike tennis players, it has become convenient for defeated cricketers to blame the surface they have been playing on rather than face a more uncomfortable reality — their inability to adapt their technique to local conditions.
Remember: South Africa had travelled to India as the number one Test side in the world last year. And over the last few weeks it has fallen to Sri Lanka to bring the present incumbents down to earth. Australia had somehow risen to the top of the rankings despite an almost complete inability to play away from home. The loss in Colombo was their eighth in succession in Asia and, just as Amla might have said, came about more through mental rather than physical demons. Like the then South African skipper facing that ball from Jadeja, Australian batsmen fell to straight balls playing for spin that simply was not there. Anxiety triumphing over reality once again.
The inevitable hand-wringing has followed, the armchair-led quest for reasons and magic bullets. We’re playing too much T20. The players are overworked. They’re underworked. They just don’t have heart. No guts. No pride.
And then the familiar shout goes up. Ahh, the pitch. When Stuart Broad inspired Australia’s famous innings-in-a-tweet collapse at Trent Bridge in 2015, well, that was all down to a doctored pitch. Australia’s hammering in Sri Lanka? The same. No matter that Joe Root then scored a hundred on that same Nottingham surface. As did Kusal Mendis at Pallekele and Dinesh Chandimal at Colombo. Don’t mention that Australia led on first innings in both the first and third Tests. Oh no, defeat was, at least in part, down to a nefarious curator.
The viewpoint from Down Under appears to be that ‘a good surface’ means ‘a surface we are used to and therefore will win on’. And as they go through that post-mortem, before anything changes that is something they must challenge. Australia will continue to hide behind excuses, and certainly never crack Asia, until they do.
Home teams cannot be expected to provide pitches to suit their opponents. They will naturally play to their strengths – that is what home advantage is all about after all. In Davis Cup tennis, the home team chooses the surface each tie will be played on and everyone gets on with it. In cricket, however, the surface provides far too convenient an excuse for losing teams to explain away their own shortcomings.
Instead of complaining about them, local conditions should instead be celebrated. Cricket would be dull indeed if every pitch were the same. The best teams and the best players will always be those who are most willing and able to adapt their game to suit all parts of the world.
And, as in tennis, the true legends will always be remembered as those who truly succeeded.
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