At all levels of cricket, from Sunday beer matches to Ashes Tests, men (and women) stare at a patch of rolled turf, sometimes lay a flat hand on it, sometimes even poke at it with a finger or (heaven forfend) a key before, like a 21st century Gypsy Rose Lee, pronouncing on the future. Amazingly, these words from The Oracle are not laughed out of court with the weary bonhomie that banter usually demands, but considered carefully with furrowed brow as grown men suck on a thoughtful tooth and nod sagely at the wisdom of the Pitch Reader.
It’s bollocks though isn’t it? So how does the Pitch Reader get away with it? The answer, as always, is that he plays by an unwritten, but rigorous, set of rules applied ruthlessly to quell anyone who might be tempted to cry out, “The Emperor has no clothes!” Here they are.
The words, “It’ll do a bit early on”, must be stated at the start of any discussion about the pitch.
This phrase combines three of the key weapons at the Pitch Reader’s disposal. It revels in its vagueness, after all “doing a bit” can be justified by the odd ball beating the bat, never mind jagging, lifting and squatting and it’s bound to be supported by the newly dismissed opening batsman on his return to the pavilion. The statement is also supported by factors that have nothing to do with the pitch – opening bowlers are usually the best available to the fielding captain and they are fresh with a new ball in hand. Thirdly, almost nobody remembers what was said at the start of the match, so the Pitch Reader is never called to account even if the openers each get tons.
If batting looks easier or more difficult as play progresses, always claim that, “The effects of the roller are beginning to wear off.”
Two more crucial advantages of the Pitch Reader are being deployed here. Nobody knows the scientific effect of rolling the pitch, but nobody likes to admit it, so they go along with the spurious notion that an unknown effect existed and is now diminishing. And nobody can ever quite remember if the roller makes batting easier or more difficult – indeed, everyone has a dim memory that it’s definitely supposed to make batting easier and another, equally dim memory, that it makes batting harder.
At some point when a partnership gets going, the Pitch Reader must announce that “It’s gone flat”.
Even the most abject batting line-ups can muster a partnership or two, so the Pitch Reader can always get this one in at some point. Even if its mere stating precipitates a collapse, the Pitch Reader can always put this down to good bowling or bad batting with the important addition of key words – “The pitch is essentially still a flat one”.
Other phrases used as and when required by the Pitch Reader are: “Any residual moisture will have been drawn out of this wicket”; “If it seams, it spins”; “Typical of the kind of wicket one finds in April / August / the subcontinent / the age of drop-in pitches / one-day cricket”. Never miss a chance to refer to the days of uncovered pitches being either “a true test of batsmanship” or “a lottery” often in the same conversation. Referencing “Chief Executive pitches” can give the Pitch Reader a veneer of rebelliousness and, if being quoted from a tweet (as it should really), will allow the Pitch Reader to surf the Zeitgeist like cricket’s very own Anna Wintour.
Cracks. Cracks! Cracks!! Cracks are the Pitch Reader’s very best friend, more of a friend even than the roller. They look spectacular, especially on television, great canyons into which the ball might descend, Evel Knievel style, before emerging as unpredictably as a North Korean rocket. “Anything – anything – could happen if the ball hits one of these little beauties” is the stock phrase, but it’s not enough. The moment the ball misbehaves (which, even on a pitch that looks like WH Auden’s scrotum might only happen once in a session) the Pitch Reader must adopt the most superior tone he can conjure and say, “I think you’ll find that that ball hit one of those cracks I mentioned earlier”, and smile, knowingly.
Finally, and possibly most importantly of all, at the end of the match, the Pitch Reader must never refer to his earlier predictions other than to say that, “As expected, the pitch played a crucial role in determining the outcome of this match.” Everyone knows that the Pitch Reader has been reading it throughout, but nobody can remember what it was they actually said, so this phrase garners all the credit available to the sage-like diviner of a pitch’s foibles. Milk it.
Oh yes. Isn’t the only honest answer to a question about how a cricket pitch will play, “Dunno – what do you think?”