Is the pitch-rating system used by the ICC appropriate?

Why is Ahmedabad 2021 above average, yet Brisbane 2022 is below average? This is why many of the flaws in the existing procedure would be eliminated if pitches were evaluated using technology.

When it comes to the surfaces on which cricket is played, no other sport is as obsessed as cricket. Pitches are a topic of debate in addition to being a timeless source of intrigue. Consider the initial stages of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, which typically involve a dance between defensiveness and preemptive suspicion. “I think if they produce fair Indian wickets that are good batting wickets to begin with… we win,” said Ian Healy, boosting Australia’s chances. A confident Ravi Shastri called for pitches that turned from the opening. I believe India plays those conditions better than us if they are unfair wickets.”

When the covers came off in Nagpur, it became clear that the pitch had been watered, mowed, and rolled selectively. This “differential preparation” clearly suited the home team, which had one leftie in the top seven against the visitors’ four, and two left-arm spinners against the visitors’ none. The bare patches were left outside the left-handers’ off stump on a spinner’s length at both ends. Although Australia’s players remained silent strategically, was this going too far to give them an advantage at home?

Even though Andy Pycroft, the match referee, ultimately determined that the pitch was not sanctionable, concerns over pitch preparation were nevertheless sharply highlighted once more. Will pitch-doctoring, as Rahul Dravid has noted, become an even bigger temptation in the era of bilateral series where World Test Championship points are at stake? Furthermore, how is a “good” or “fair” pitch determined, and what does that mean in general?

The current operation of the ICC pitch-rating system

The ICC’s Pitch and Outfield Monitoring Process was first implemented in 2006 and revised in January 2018, with the stated goals being to better represent the range of global conditions, hold member boards more responsible for the pitches they generate, and increase transparency in pitch rating.

For every game, the pitch and outfield have the option of one of six possible ratings: very good, good, average, below average, poor, and unfit. The lowest three receive demerit points (1, 3 and 5 for the pitch, and 0, 2 and 5 for the outfield). If you accumulate five demerit points within a five-year rolling period, your ICC ground certification will be terminated for a full year. Pick ten, and there won’t be any international cricket for two years. Significantly important for the local association, maybe not as much for the national board. Before evaluating a pitch when it performs poorly, match referees are required to confer with the captains and umpires.

A pitch is considered “below average” when it has “either very little carry and/or bounce and/or more than occasional seam movement, or occasional variable (but not excessive or dangerous) bounce and/or occasional variable carry” . Okay, but how can you find this out?

Whether a pitch favors batters or bowlers, it is considered “poor” if it “does not allow an even contest between bat and ball”. The guidelines continue to point to “excessive seam movement” , “excessive unevenness of bounce” , “excessive assistance to spin bowlers, especially early in the match” along with “little or no seam movement or turn at any stage in the match together with no significant bounce or carry” in addition to “excessive dryness” along with “excessive moistness” . Okay, but how precisely do you figure all that out?

We learn that “Excessive means ‘too much'” from the comments for “clarification” in Appendix A of the ICC literature for the ratings. Yes, but how precisely do you quantify that?

Pitch marking leaves too much up to interpretation.

In actuality, pitches hardly ever receive any of the lowest three grades. Only six Test pitches out of 135 (plus one outfield) received a “below average” grade between the men’s World Cup in July 2019 and the end of 2022, with five of those pitches occurring in 2022. Rawalpindi had two “below average” ratings for 2022. The first came from Ranjan Madugalle during Australia’s March tour, which yielded 14 wickets for 1187 runs over the course of five days. The second was provided by Pycroft following England’s visit in December of last year, but it was later reversed on appeal. The appeal is now being heard by the general manager for cricket at the ICC, Wasim Khan, a former CEO of the Pakistan Cricket Board, and the chair of the cricket committee, Sourav Ganguly. How did they come to this conclusion?

“After reviewing the Test Match footage, the ICC appeal panel unanimously concluded that, although the Match Referee had followed the guidelines, there were several redeeming features – including the fact that a result was achieved following an exciting game, with 37 out of a possible 39 wickets being taken,” stated the official explanation. The appeal panel therefore came to the conclusion that the wicket was not deserving of the “below average” classification.”

This reasoning is strange. With just ten minutes of daylight remaining on the fifth evening, Ben Stokes’ team won with 921 runs at 6.73 runs per over, a historically unprecedented rate that “put time back into the game” and significantly increased the likelihood of wicket losses (every 43.2 balls compared to Pakistan’s 75.6). England’s plan was almost certainly developed after thinking about the March Test match against Australia. Is the ICC stating that if the Bazball method is used, this kind of pitch is suitable?

In an attempt to maintain transparency, the ICC would only cite the press release when asked how much of the match footage was examined.

An “average” pitch “lacks carry, and/or bounce, and/or occasional seam movement, but [is] consistent in carry and bounce,” per the pitch-ratings criteria. Okay, however consistency is a frequency-based attribute, and judging based on this suggests that in order to ascertain how frequently deliveries misbehaved, one would need to witness the entire game, or have access to the entire data set, much like a match referee would. Was the appeal panel responsible for this?

All of this leads to the feeling that the criteria for marking pitches contain too much “interpretative latitude” and, as a result, lack empirical robustness. This is supported by the fact that the decision made by an individual who watched the entire game (and, presumably, conferred with umpires and captains in accordance with ICC protocol) can be disagreed with by an individual who did not. This means that a match referee who has had a “below average” rating overturned on appeal is likely to play it safe the next time he has to choose between “average” and “below average,” if only because the criteria seem to support it. Why stick out one’s neck?

The first two Tests in the Border-Gavaskar series were Pycroft’s next two after the Rawalpindi appeal ruling was returned in January. Both the “differentially prepared” Nagpur strip (where Australia only selected two front-line spinners, including a debutant) and the Delhi pitch (where both teams played three front-line spinners and where a wicket fell every 47.1 deliveries) were classified as “average”.

The pitch in Indore for the third Test, which featured the identical spin-bowling line-ups and a wicket every 38.5 deliveries, was deemed “poor” by Chris Broad, earning him three demerit points at first. Though completely reasonable after the Rawalpindi decision, the Ahmedabad bore draw strip (a somnolent 1970s run rate of 2.9 and a wicket winkled every 115.7 deliveries, 22 in five days on a surface that rarely altered) was judged as “average”. It is undoubtedly not good for Test cricket.

The Indore ruling was challenged by the BCCI, forcing Ganguly to step down from the review process and designate Roger Harper as his stand-in. It made little difference because the result was the same: Wasim Khan and Harper “reviewed the footage” of the game and concluded that “there was not enough excessive variable bounce to warrant the ‘poor’ rating” even though they thought Broad had “followed the guidelines.” Insufficient. All right, then.

Even though everything sounds hazy, the BCCI clearly benefited from the outcome, though there are situations in which it might not have even been worth appealing. After all, the local association—which loses money and prestige—rather than the national board is the one being sanctioned. This is also the area where abuse can occur: It is theoretically possible to assign important matches involving WTC points to a nation’s second-tier grounds, instructing players to prepare manipulated, biased pitches while fully aware of the possibility of receiving demerit points. The venue’s possible loss of ICC accreditation – effectively taking one for the team – would be appropriately compensated by the board.

Why not enhance and add accuracy to the pitch-rating procedure using ball-tracking?

In the end, referees—none of whom are allowed to voice their opinions about the system—are not helped by the subjective, interpretative component or the lack of empirical rigor in the pitch-ratings criteria, and in certain cases, they may even be subjected to an excessive amount of “political” pressure. Therefore, it seems to reason that they would be in favor of an assessment structure that is more fact-based and objective.

Potentially, the answer lies right in front of cricket players: ball-tracking technology, which has been an integral part of the infrastructure at all ICC matches since the DRS was implemented in November 2009, rather than impartial curators.

Match referees are essentially assigning ratings to the following characteristics of a pitch: pace, bounce, lateral deviation, consistency, and gradual deterioration. Ball-tracking technology providers currently measure most of these, using the data for their broadcasts. These qualities may theoretically have carefully calibrated parameters applied to them, below which pitches are deemed extreme and above which they must fall in order to achieve the various ratings.

The first step would be to go deeply into those more than 13 years of ball-tracking data (565 Tests and counting), figuring out the correlations between the various pitches’ quantifiable performance qualities and the scores they were given. Cricketing common sense would dictate that the facts and the decisions made by referees should have a reasonably logical set of correspondences.

You then begin to construct the parameters. Even though some of the variables should be easily “parameterized,” there would still be some complexity involved. Specifically: pace loss upon pitching, bounce, bounce consistency (and deterioration), and pace loss consistency throughout the game. Pitches that above specific levels will be sanctioned appropriately.

Although one would expect the deep dive to give excellent correspondences between pitch ratings and the ball-tracking data for sideways movement, lateral deviation, for both seam and spin, would be less accessible to parameterization and therefore more difficult to employ to develop a regulatory framework. Of course, deviation from pitching is instantly apparent, but bowler talent also has a significant impact. The revolutions the bowler imparts on the ball, the axis of rotation, the delivery rate, the angle of incidence with the pitch, and the age of the ball are among the many essential input variables that affect spinners and produce the degree of turn.

These variables may resist any one-size-fits-all parameterization because of their propensity for overlap and mutually reinforcing interactions. For example, once this is determined, a pitch may have “excessive” turn, but it may also turn very slowly with reasonably uniform bounce. In this case, the technology may be used to simulate the relationship between spinners’ degree of turn and pace loss, which would then be compared to widely accepted ideas of bat-ball balance.

Despite the difficulty of lateral deviation (where and how strictly to set the parameters?), a few points need to be made about it.

First off, everything here is within the reach of currently available technology, notwithstanding how challenging it may be to build the framework. (Hawk-Eye declined to comment on the possibility of utilizing its technology to evaluate pitch performance, whether for contractual or business reasons.)

Secondly, the objective is not to create an entirely prescriptive and flawless system, but rather to enhance the current one. Rather than being viewed as a flaw, the challenges in creating a comprehensive a priori model are only a reflection of complexity. Although they don’t stop all traffic accidents, seatbelt use is still preferable to not wearing one. Therefore, it may not be beneficial to automatically mark down a surface based on a predetermined degree of lateral deviation, even though it would be appropriate based on a precisely quantified pace loss after pitching. It would be necessary to balance additional considerations, but this would be done precisely with the help of the data the ball-tracking device gave.

Third, nothing will inevitably alter. These are heuristic instruments that enable a more rigorously scientific application of established criteria and values about the equilibrium of the game. But you would unavoidably boost match referees’ confidence in their assessments—especially in the face of irascible and influential national boards—by combining the quantitative (ball-tracking data) with the qualitative (the ICC’s pitch-ratings criteria descriptions). This would also increase public confidence in the process as a whole. Because of this, those 565 Tests might be considered a form of “legal precedent”: “Pitch X was marked ‘poor’ because, like Test Y in city Z, it exhibited an average of n degrees of lateral deviation for seamen’s full-pace deliveries on the first day.” Furthermore, as the teams’ on-field performance include elements of the game like intent, strategy, and skill that should be unrelated to the pitch-rating process, these decisions would be made regardless of how the teams performed.

Will the international game lose its diversity if pitches become more uniform due to the development of a technology-backed pitch marking framework? No. All that would have to happen is for the ball-tracking technology to define certain performance standards that a pitch would have to meet in order to be labeled as “average,” “good,” “very good,” and so forth. The question then shifts to how best to achieve those in any given context, which would also contribute to the body of knowledge regarding pitch preparation that might prove extremely helpful to the developing cricketing nations, where such expertise is not as prevalent.

Pitch-ratings methodology supported by technology would ease cultural issues.

Naturally, if national teams were penalized (by docking WTC points) for poor surfaces, their boards would no longer have any motivation to “request” outrageously biased pitches whenever it was convenient, whether for political, athletic, or other reasons.

Less conspiratorially, creating a framework that is more accurate and supported by evidence will provide referees more confidence in handling often politically contentious situations. Comparable to the adoption of neutral umpires (or perhaps the DRS, which may eliminate the requirement that match officials be perceived as impartial), this could prove to be.

This is possibly the most significant, if least obvious, advantage of all: most of the cultural tensions that arise when pitch rates are discussed would be eliminated, including the accusations and denials, the mistrust and defensiveness. It would diffuse sensitivities. This is a serious issue in the era of social media, which have shown to be cutting edge sources of conflict. In a recent survey, 50% of respondents indicated that they thought society had become more divided, according to an ancient joke.

The most recent attempt to pick up a demerit point before Indore was the two-day Brisbane Test between Australia and South Africa in December of last year, which served as an illustration of how these simmering emotions were sparked. Astute spectators quickly noted how the length of the match was virtually exactly the same as the day-night Ahmedabad Test between India and England in February 2021 (particularly the way the overs were divided among the four innings).

The spirit of preemptive grievance and defensiveness set in before the Gabba pitch was even marked. Wasim Jaffer shared a meme on Twitter that compared the potential responses to a two-day pitch in the subcontinent and the SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia). The meme basically implied that the cricket world would have been inconsolable if the two-day Brisbane outcome had occurred on an Indian surface. Though the concept of victimhood is fairly antiquated for Indian cricket in 2023, Jaffer was maybe comparable to the populist politician creating a straw man to stir up a sense of victimhood among his following (1.2 million Twitter followers currently) if social media is an anger amplifier.

To put it mildly, the responses would have been very different if the subcontinent test had ended in just two days. #AUS vs SA yvcH0rWweL –

@WasimJaffer14, Wasim Jaffer 18 December 2022
The irony, of course, is that while both sets of players and the curator agreed that Brisbane was “below average,” Richie Richardson rated Ahmedabad’s pitch, the shortest Test since 1935 (on which Joe Root took 5 for 8), “average” according to Javagal Srinath, who was serving as match referee because of Covid travel restrictions.

This is not meant to imply that Srinath is improper in any way. After all, he rated the Bengaluru Test pitch as “below average” a year later during a day-night encounter that lasted 223.2 overs. It is merely to highlight how any referee’s assessment of a pitch that is hovering between “average” and “below average” ratings may ultimately be a matter of perception, unconsciously influenced or conditioned by cultural background (“This isn’t a turner, mate!”), a point on which Jaffer is unintentionally correct. This is because of the interpretative latitude baked into the ICC’s pitch-ratings criteria.

Another reason in this situation is that, in general, pitches with excessive seam movement early in the game are not equal to those with excessive spin, even though the Gabba surface was initially very damp and consequently became pockmarked, causing varying bounce at speed as the surface baked. The former should theoretically get better as the game progresses. A pitch that is disintegrating and overly dry from the start will not improve. (However, there should be some leeway in the referee’s pitch rating to account for this expediency in cases where the umpires are eager to get the game underway in front of a packed stadium but the curator has prepared the pitch in wet conditions and is fully aware that it is excessively damp to begin with, fearing a demerit.)

A more impartial pitch-rating procedure would aid in preventing systemic abuse.

It is to be hoped that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is keen to use its existing resources to tighten all of this. In the end, however, there might be substantially more at stake than just calming cultural tensions or stopping WTC shenanigans. It may be in the interest of safeguarding the pitch-ratings procedure from potential misuse or even corruption to remove the potential pressure on referees to render the “correct” decisions in specific situations.

Think about the fictitious situation that follows. Six months before that nation hosts an ICC tournament in which the stadium has been designated to host multiple games, including the championship, a big stadium named for a firebrand populist leader finds itself on four demerit points. But before that, the facility hosts a high-profile Test match and creates another dubious surface, endangering its ICC accreditation. Owing to the fact that sport can be used as a tool of “soft power” for a regime, there would be tremendous pressure on the match referee in these situations because of the public interest in the rating given to the surface.

Or a hotter, more commercial version of the same situation. A ground perches on a suspension bridge on a Caribbean island. In addition to hosting games during the Under-19 World Cup, it will play host to 10,000 members of the Barmy Army during a Test match against England in a few months. In the event that a fifth demerit point was accumulated, the economy would suffer significantly. Once more, it is conceivable that local politicians would have a disproportionate amount of stake in the outcome of a potential U-19 World Cup match, based on the difference between a “average” and “below average” field rating.

Assuming a match referee is unaffected by external influences or the need to play it safe, which always grows whenever a pitch decision is overturned, a national board retains the ability to appeal and potentially wield influence. Why not play the dice and file an appeal, after all, if Pycroft can observe every ball of the Rawalpindi Test and have his well-considered assessment overturned by officials inferring the pitch’s characteristics from the scorecard, tail wagging dog? If administrators watched “footage” and decided whether the variable bounce was “excessive” or acceptable after Broad saw a ball in the first over of a game he witnessed in its entirety explode through the surface and rag square, then why not try to bend and stretch those utterly unscientific definitions to your advantage?

Both Rawalpindi and Indore demonstrate how urgently the pitch-ratings system needs more empirical weight and objectivity, if it is to avoid losing more confidence overall and keep match officials from being routinely hauled under the bus. Although the ICC claims to be satisfied with the current procedure, does its executive truly have the power to improve things, even in the event that they so choose?

The ICC executive’s ultimate lack of power in the face of the national boards, who are theoretically equal but may not be open to change regardless of whether it benefits the game, may ultimately be the obstacle to reform, as noted in the Woolf Report of 2012. To completely eliminate the prospect of some influential members engaging in some advantage-seeking skulduggery or pitch-doctoring may not be in their best interests. This is especially true for individuals who have an abundance of international venues and the ability to manipulate the system.

Under such conditions, the astute, careerist member of the ICC executive may conclude that it is best to avoid upsetting the big boys and to choose the least-excusing route. The ICC effectively becomes what Gideon Haigh called “an events management organisation that sends out ranking emails” in the absence of any meaningful regulatory bite in relation to bilateral cricket. Thus, inertia takes control and vagueness rules when it comes to marking pitches, which causes resentment to fester and ultimately results in cricket losing.

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