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Martin Johnson column: Getaway trip on hold now the Aussies are losing!

Phew. That was a close one. The way things were shaping up in India I’d started planning one of those get-away-from-it-all trips, and had more or less decided on a remote venue called Foula in the Shetland Islands, where there are apparently more ponies than people, the inhabitants speak a dialect of Old Norse, and the calendar is the Julius Caesar version which went out of fashion in 1582.

Remote enough from modern communications, I reckoned, to be able to stroll past a crofter’s cottage of an afternoon without a commentator’s voice coming through the window and ruining your day with utterances like: “Brilliant century from Steve Smith . . . ” and “Got him! Nathan Lyon’s on fire out there!”

There are a couple of Australians who use the same local pub as I do, and more convivial companions you couldn’t wish to meet. Unless their cricket team is winning, that is, in which case the gloating and smugness reaches such proportions that the only way to avoid reaching for the vomit bag is to find a distant bolthole. If not the Shetlands, Alaska maybe. Or Greenland.

Happily, India finally pulling their finger out means that I can now put the escape plan on hold and stay at home to watch the rest of the series, which is jolly good news given the entertainment value from the first two matches. And how many times have we seen it in Test cricket? Namely, the trickier the conditions to bat in, the better the game.

There’s nothing more boring than a game of cricket staged on 22 yards of turf that turns out to be exhibit A in the case for the Flat Earth Society. It’s mid-afternoon at The Oval, someone is 322 for 2, and you can nod off in your deckchair in the sure and certain knowledge that there won’t be a single shout of “Owzat!” to wake you up before tea.

Fascinating things, cricket pitches. You’d have thought, with all modern technology available nowadays, you could have any surface you wanted. Just pick up the phone to the local nursery and order it. “Hello? It’s Bert at Trent Bridge here. We’ve got the Sri Lankans over next week, so could you send round something suitable? A green trampoline if you’ve got one.”

However, these drop-in pitches have not really provided the a-la-carte variety we thought they might, and the search for the ideal playing surface remains, by and large, the twin preserve of groundsmen and nature. Get it too perfect, and the ball spends all day flying to the boundary. Err in the other direction, and it spends all day flying past the batsman’s nose.

Only occasionally does it all go completely pear-shaped, as was memorably the case  when England played the West Indies in Jamaica back in 1998.Twelve years earlier, on the same Sabina Park ground, they’d dug a piece of Mike Gatting’s nose out of the ball, and ten years before that, the Indian captain Bishen Bedi, declared an innings closed on humanitarian, as opposed to cricketing, grounds.

So for this game, the pitch had been relaid in an attempt to calm it down a bit, which might have worked had the 22 yards of soil contained anything resembling a root. By the end of the first over, the surface was more potholed than one of Kingston’s B roads, and by the end of the second over, England’s dressing room supply of pain-killing aerosols was all but exhausted.

The match itself lasted 57 minutes, against the backcloth of a large advertising board which read “Are You Man Enough To Have A Vasectomy?” Most of England’s batsmen were not, but even if they had been, they drew the line at having the operation performed by Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

The most talked about Test pitch in England down the years has been Headingley, a byword for unplayable swing and seam bowling. When the sun was out the ball didn’t do much at all, but as soon as the clouds came over, the ball, for reasons no-one could entirely fathom, would start hooping around corners.

The head groundsman there in the 1980s and 90s was an eccentric character called Keith Boyce, a kind of cricketing mad professor, obsessed with trying to turn Headingley into a five-day batsman’s paradise. So much so that he often took his work home, and began baking soil samples in the oven. You had this vision of Mrs Boyce pouring custard over what she thought was an apple crumble, and ruining what was actually one of the old man’s Surrey loam samples.

A cricket pitch can be a highly emotive thing, capable of stirring the passions in a way that other surfaces, like a tennis court, or a skating rink, simply can’t. As was the case in a village green match some years ago, when the opposition turned up to discover a covering of grass lush enough to fatten a herd of dairy Friesians.

Needless to say, they lost the toss, got bowled out for next to nothing, and the simmering sense of injustice boiled over into a heated exchange of insults over the teatime scones and sandwiches. Finally, one of the home players decided he’d had enough insults for one day, fired up the groundsman’s lawnmower, and went on a short back and sides spree, not only shaving the grass, but splintering the stumps as well.

Not all pitches are as easy to read. On England’s 1986-87 Ashes tour to Australia, for example, they’d moved on to Perth after winning the opening Test in Brisbane, where the pitch had so many cracks in it that there were fears that Australia’s beanpole opening bowler, Bruce Reid, might disappear down one of them and never be seen again. Prediction? Fast bowlers’ paradise. Result? A trillion runs, and a turgid draw.

Meantime, club cricketers across the country are getting ready for the upcoming season, and very soon now we will be witnessing the familiar sight of the visitors driving into the home team car park, and immediately heading off to inspect the pitch.

There will be much peering, a bit of prodding, thoughtful stroking of chins, a knowledgeable headshake here and there, before the captain turns to his senior man and says: “Well, what do you think?” The reply will be somewhere along the lines of: “Looks like a flat ’un, plenty of runs. Bat first I’d say skipper,” whereas, were he to actually tell the truth, he’d say: “Don’t ask me mate. I haven’t got the foggiest.”

*This column originally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday 10th March.

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