ICC pitch-rating system is regulatory subversion

In today’s edition of The Hindu, Rebecca Rose Varghese and Vignesh Radhakrishnan have a particularly noteworthy edition of their ‘Data Point’ column – ‘noteworthy’ because they’ve used data to make concrete something we’ve all been feeling for a while, in the way we sometimes know something to be true even though we don’t have hard evidence, and which found prominent articulation in the words of Rohit Sharma in a recent interview.

Sharma was commenting on the ICC’s pitch-rating system, saying pitches everywhere should be rated consistently instead of those in the subcontinent earning poorer ratings more of the time.

Rebecca and Vignesh analysed matches and their pitch-ratings between May 14, 2019, and December 26, 2023, to find:

  1. Pitches in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka receive ‘below average’ or ‘poor’ ratings for Test matches more often than Test pitches in Australia, West Indies, England, South Africa, and New Zealand;
  2. In Test matches played in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, spin bowling claimed more wickets than pace bowling; and
  3. When spin bowling claims more wickets than pace bowling in Test matches, the former pitches are rated worse than the latter pitches even if both sets of matches conclude after a relatively lower number of balls have been faced.

This is just fantastic. (1) and (2) together imply the ICC has penalised pitches in the subcontinent for being spin-friendly tracks. And this and (3) imply that this penalty doesn’t care for the fact that non-spin-friendly tracks produce similar results without incurring the same penalty.

The longer a Test match lasts, the better it is for stadiums and TV networks broadcasting the match: the stadium can sell tickets for all five days and networks can broadcast advertisements for Test matches on all five days. This thinking has come to dominate ODIs, T20s, and Test matches, but it’s a sad irony that the ICC created the ODI and the T20 formats to be more entertaining and more profitable without compromising the Test format. Now, with the ICC’s pitch-rating system, this entertainment + profitability thinking has percolated through Test matches as well.

Sharma alluded to this when he said:

I mean, we saw what happened in this match, how the pitch played and stuff like that. I honestly don’t mind playing on pitches like this. As long as everyone keeps their mouth shut in India and don’t talk too much about Indian pitches, honestly.

I’d take this further and say Test match pitches can’t be rated badly because the purpose of this format is to test players in the toughest conditions the sport can offer. In this milieu, to say a Test match pitch is ‘below average’ is to discourage teams from confronting their opponents’ batters with a track that favours bowlers’ strengths. And in the ICC’s limited view, this discouragement is biased markedly against spin-bowling.

Criticism of this paradigm isn’t without foundation. The A Cricketing View Substack wrote in a February 2021 post (hat-tip to Vignesh):

The Laws of Cricket only specify that the game not be played on a pitch which umpires might consider to be dangerous to the health of the players. The ICC has chosen to go beyond this elementary classification between dangerous and non-dangerous pitches by setting up a regulatory mechanism which is designed to minimize the probability that a bad pitch (and not just a dangerous pitch) will be prepared.

If anything, a bad pitch that results in uneven and potentially high bounce will be more dangerous to batters than a bad pitch that results in sharp turn. So the ICC’s pitch-rating system isn’t “regulatory expansion” – as A Cricketing View called it – but regulatory subversion. R. Ashwin has also questioned the view the ICC has taken, via its system, that pitches shouldn’t offer sharp turn on day 1 – another arbitrary choice, although one that makes sense from the entertainment and/or profitability PoV, that restricts ‘average’ or better spin-bowling in its view to a very specific kind of surface.

Point (3) in the ‘Data Point’ implies such pitches probably exist in places like Australia and South Africa, which are otherwise havens of pace-bowling. The advantage that pace enjoys in the ICC’s system creates another point of divergence when it meets players’ physiology. Pitches in Australia in particular are pace-friendly, but when they’re not, they’re not spin friendly either. On these tracks, Australian pacers still have an advantage because they’re taller on average and able to generate more bounce than shorter bowlers, such as those from India.

I believe Test matches should be played on tracks that teach all 22 players (of both teams) a valuable lesson – without of course endangering players’ bodies.

  1. How will stadiums and TV networks make more money off Test matches? The bigger question, to me, is: should they? I’m aware of the role stadiums have played through history in making specific sports more sustainable by monetising spectatorship. But perhaps stadiums should be organised such that the bulk of their revenue is from ODI and T20 matches and Test matches are spared the trouble of being more entertaining/profitable.
  2. Who decides what these lessons should be? I don’t trust the ICC, of course, but I don’t trust the BCCI either because I don’t trust the people who currently staff it to avoid making a habit of tit-for-tat measures – beyond one-off games – that massage Indian teams’ player-records. Other countries’ cricket boards may be different but given the effects of the ICC’s system on their specific fortunes, I’m not sure how they will react. In fact, it seems impossible that we will all agree on these lessons or how their suitability should be measured – a conclusion that, ironically, speaks to the singular pitfall of judging the value of a cricket match by its numbers.