There has been much written over the past few days (and not just by me) about the state of pitches at the Oval in light of the two championship matches so far. We have yet to see a game reach the fourth innings and of a possible 80 wickets, just 53 have fallen across eight days of cricket.
To say its been a batsman's paradise doesn't quite do it justice. There have been five hundreds already, including Luke Wells' double last week, not to mention three scores in the nineties. All in all both games have seen over a thousand runs scored despite overs being lost to rain. Bowlers have had to toil through, on average, almost 13 overs for each wicket and those have come at a cost of 41 runs apiece. That said, it's hardly been one for the stroke-makers, the run rate across both games has only just nudged over three an over.
It's almost been the worst of both worlds. The bowlers have struggled to get anything out of an unresponsive surface but meanwhile the batsmen have hardly been clattering the ball to all parts, its been a slow grind rather than free-flowing.
There have been an unusually high number of comings and goings in the post of head groundsman at the Oval since 2010, when Bill Gordon retired. He was a tough act to follow, having been on the staff in some capacity since 1964 and head groundsman since 2003. He has remained at the club in an advisory capacity but is no longer the main man where pitch preparation is concerned. He was replaced in 2011 by Scott Patterson, who then departed a year later. In April 2012 Lee Fortis, an assistant head groundsman under Bill Gordon, was appointed and he's still in post today.
Under Patterson's tenure the pitches were pretty sporting, especially for seamers. One match that sticks in the mind is the game against Leicestershire in May 2011 when we fielded four frontline seamers (yes, I'm afraid I do count Yasir Arafat as a frontline seamer) and Dernbach and Meaker shared 15 wickets between them. We won that match at a canter by 215 runs. Over the course of the 2011 season Surrey seamers took their wickets at a cost of 26.9 runs apiece. Of course the opposition was weaker given that we were then in Division Two, but nonetheless the pitches seemed better for the quick bowler.
Since then things have got slightly tougher for the seamers, but only slightly. In 2012 their wickets came at 27.5 but actually at a fractionally better strike rate than in 2011. What is notable in late 2011 and 2012 is how much more spin friendly the Oval became. Pragyan Ojha's scintillating 10-90 against Derbyshire in September 2011 seems to have precipitated a move to much dryer pitches.
Murali Kartik was duly signed for the latter part of 2012 and twice we saw both he and Gareth Batty deployed at home. And to good effect to as in those two matches they took 25 wickets between them. Across 2012 spinners took 40 wickets at the Oval at the impressive average of just 20. That compares to a 2010 average of just under 40 and in 2011 it was 29.
When Gary Keedy was signed at the end of last season Chris Adams said that two spinners at home was likely more often than not. In fact he said Keedy would've struggled to find a county more committed to a two spinner policy than Surrey. And yet that policy has been abandoned after just one fixture, what gives?
The exceptionally cold early spring weather will likely have made pitch preparation tough, but having said that in Middlesex's fixture at Lord's in mid-April all but one wicket fell to seamers as Toby Roland-Jones and Co. made hay. Meanwhile at the Oval both seamers and spinners alike have found little assistance. As I said yesterday we are always going to struggle to challenge the best teams come September if we cannot force the issue at home.
Given our attack, strong in seam and strong in spin, I would be satisfied with a pitch prepared to suit either. Though I must confess a slight personal preference for fast bowling attacks - and we are blessed with some mighty fine examples of those at Surrey - but that's by the by. What we have at the moment is a pitch prepared for the batsman, and some pretty gritty cricket to boot. Perhaps the square needs to be relaid, or perhaps we just need a bit more luck with the weather, but one way or the other we need to do something a bit different if we want to make our way up the Championship table.