England have nobody to blame but themselves for the manner of their 317-run mauling at the hands of India in Chennai. They were skittled out for less than 200 for a second time with almost five full sessions of the Second Test left on Tuesday. There was none of the fight, none of the character, none of the clear intent to get stuck in that was in evidence in the First Test last week. But perhaps they were beaten from the toss.
India’s victory was dogged from start to finish by claims that the pitch was simply not up to Test cricket standard. Spinner Jack Leach was brought into England’s attack just eight overs into the first day’s play in response to a pitch that turned and spat like a fifth-day track from the off. And it was no surprise that Ravichandran Ashwin should wrap up Man of the Match-winning fixtures of 8 for 96 in a fourth innings in which all 10 wickets fell to spinners.
India’s efforts with the bat, and Rohit Sharma’s match-defining 161 in particular, proved that runs could be scored on it, but this was a surface which was never going to produce a tight five-day fixture. Sharma succeeded on day one by playing shots, knowing that trying to bed in would probably only result in him getting a ball with his name on it, and once he had got in the tone for the match had been set. Test cricket’s element of attrition was nowhere to be seen thereafter, and perhaps uncontested tosses are the way forward.
For decades now, Test match pitches have been curated to suit the home side. Need a win? Let’s prepare a minefield for batters. Will a draw do us? Then make it flat, flat, flat. It is nothing new, and England have done it themselves many a time. But now might be the time for lawmakers to do something about it.
The BBC’s Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew was among those moved to protest at the preparation of the Chennai wicket, saying: “We want Tests to last five days. There are countries, including England, who produce grassy pitches to start with so the ball moves around off the seam to suit the quicker bowlers.
“But those surfaces tend to flatten out over the course of the Test. The problem with starting with a pitch which is very dry and warm, like the one in Chennai, is that it does not get better.
The ideal scenario is a pitch which offers something for the quick bowlers to start with, flattens out and then spins later in the match, not from the very start.”
He is right, of course, but the motivation to produce a ‘homer’ of a wicket is too great for groundskeepers right now. So often it takes nothing other than a favourable toss to tilt the balance of power massively in favour of the home side, with the pitch prepared to favour the talents and line-up of the hosts. But if the toss was taken away, it could level the playing field – no pun intended.
Between 2016 and 2019 the County Championship brought in the option of an uncontested toss to allow visiting teams to choose to field first if it took their fancy, and that rule was only removed in 2020 because of the timing of the domestic four-day season in England. With so many games played at the beginning and end of each summer, it meant that the push for more equal pitches was compromised by weather conditions at those times of the year.
But in Test cricket, where the majority of matches take place in the heart of a country’s summer, there is reason to believe that an uncontested toss could help to even the game out. Teams already have the benefit of having players who have spent their entire careers playing in home conditions, so why should they need a pitch tailored exactly to their needs too? Test cricket can provide some of sport's most fascinating battles, but they almost never happen when pitches are so clearly made with the home team's motivations in mind.
No pitch should be so ill-prepared that success in the toss has such a massive bearing on the result of a Test match, and if there is every chance that a touring captain will simply choose to make the most of a poorly-worked pitch then the motivation to produce tracks with a bit in it for both sides becomes stratospheric.
One way or another, pitches the world over need to be produced for the betterment of Test cricket. And taking the coin out of captains’ hands might be the way to make that happen.