Is the ICC’s pitch-rating system fit for purpose?

LONDON (Cricinfo): No other sport obsesses quite as much as cricket over the surfaces on which it is played. Pitches are not only a perennial object of fascination but also the subject of controversy. Take the preliminaries for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, with the usual dance of pre-emptive suspicion and defensiveness.

A bullish Ravi Shastri called for pitches that turned from the outset, and Ian Healy talked up Australia’s chances thus: “I think if they produce fair Indian wickets that are good batting wickets to begin with… we win. If they’re unfair wickets … then I think India play those conditions better than us.”

Then the covers came off in Nagpur and it was apparent that the pitch had been selectively watered, mowed and rolled, and that this “differential preparation” – which left bare patches outside the left-handers’ off stump on a spinner’s length at both ends – had ostensibly been tailored to suit the home team, who had one leftie in the top seven to the visitors’ four, and two left-arm spinners to the visitors’ none. Australia’s players maintained a strategic silence, but was this pushing home advantage too far?

The match referee, Andy Pycroft, ultimately decided that the pitch was not worthy of sanction, yet questions around pitch preparation were nevertheless again brought into sharp focus. In the age of bilateral series, with World Test Championship points on the line, will pitch-doctoring become an ever greater temptation, as Rahul Dravid observed recently? And, more broadly, what is a “good” or “fair” pitch, and how is it determined?

The ICC’s Pitch and Outfield Monitoring Process was introduced in 2006 and updated in January 2018 in an effort, they say, to reflect the variety of conditions worldwide and make member boards more accountable for the pitches they produce, as well as to introduce greater transparency in the rating of pitches.

One of six potential ratings applies to both pitch and outfield for each game: very good, good, average, below average, poor and unfit, with the bottom three incurring demerit points (1, 3 and 5 respectively for the pitch, 0, 2 and 5 for the outfield). Pick up five demerit points in a rolling five-year period and your ICC ground accreditation is suspended for 12 months. Pick up ten and it is two years without international cricket. Hugely consequential for the local association, perhaps less so for the national board. In situations where a pitch underperforms, match referees must consult umpires and captains before assigning a rating.

A pitch is deemed to be “below average” if there is “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”. Fine, but how do you determine this?

A pitch is deemed “poor” if it “does not allow an even contest between bat and ball”, whether that favours batters or bowlers. The ICC’s guidance goes on to invoke “excessive seam movement”, “excessive unevenness of bounce”, “excessive assistance to spin bowlers, especially early in the match” and “little or no seam movement or turn at any stage in the match together with no significant bounce or carry” as well as “excessive dryness” and “excessive moistness”. Fine, but how exactly do you determine all that?

The notes for “clarification” in Appendix A to the ICC’s literature for the ratings tell us that “Excessive means ‘too much'”. Sure, but how exactly do you measure that?
Too much is left to interpretation in the pitch-marking process

The truth is that it is rare for pitches to be given any of the bottom three marks. From the men’s World Cup in July 2019 to the end of 2022, only six Test pitches out of 135 (and one outfield) were given a “below average” rating, five of them in 2022. Two of 2022’s “below average” marks were for Rawalpindi. The first was given by Ranjan Madugalle when Australia’s visit in March produced 14 wickets across the five days for 1187 runs. The second was given by Pycroft after England’s visit last December, although this was subsequently overturned on appeal, which is heard by the chair of the ICC’s Cricket Committee, currently Sourav Ganguly, and the ICC general manager for cricket, currently Wasim Khan, the former CEO of the Pakistan Cricket Board. How did they arrive at this judgement? The official explanation was that, “having reviewed footage of the Test Match, the ICC appeal panel […] were unanimous in their opinion that, while the guidelines had been followed by the Match Referee […] there were several redeeming features – including the fact that a result was achieved following a compelling game, with 37 out of a possible 39 wickets being taken. As such, the appeal panel concluded that the wicket did not warrant the ‘below average’ rating.”

This is a curious logic. Ben Stokes’ team scored at a historically unprecedented rate (921 runs at 6.73 runs per over) to “put time back into the game”, thus drastically increasing the chance that wickets would be lost (every 43.2 balls to Pakistan’s 75.6), and they won with just ten minutes’ light remaining on the fifth evening. It is almost certain that England’s strategy was devised after contemplating the Australia Test match in March. Is the ICC saying that such a pitch is adequate provided the Bazball approach is adopted?

When approached, in the spirit of transparency, about exactly how much of the match footage was reviewed, the ICC would only refer to the press release.
According to the pitch-ratings guidelines, an “average” pitch “lacks carry, and/or bounce and/or occasional seam movement, but [is] consistent in carry and bounce”. Fine, but consistency is a property determined by frequency, and adjudicating on this implies one would watch the whole game – that is, have the full data set, as would a match referee – to be able to assess how regularly deliveries misbehaved. Was this done by the appeal panel?

What emerges from all this is a sense that the process for marking pitches contains too much “interpretative latitude” in the criteria, and as such, lacks empirical robustness – borne out by how the judgement of a person who watched an entire game (and, presumably, consulted umpires and captains, as per ICC protocol) can be overturned by those who did not.

This makes it likely that a match referee who has had a “below average” mark rescinded on appeal will, the next time he finds himself deciding between “average” or “below average”, be inclined to play safe, not least because the criteria plausibly allow it. Why put one’s neck out?