‘English Conditions’ is one of those oft-repeated phrases in the cricket world that is rooted in pure historicism – yet in the seemingly never0ending run up to the World Cup, it has been parroted lazily by every single non-English fan and commentator going. It’s been repeated so much, often by professionals who should know better, the words have lost the meaning they once held. Recently, Inzamaam ul Haq, one of Pakistan’s greatest ever batsmen and now chief selector, remarked in a PCB presser that the conditions the Pakistan side faced in England were unlike anything seen before. Sure – if you stopped engaging with English cricket in about 2010.
In the days before women could be MCC members, English conditions referred to the overcast cold, where the Dukes ball moves around corners and wobbles in the air, dying on the way to the batsman or failing to carry through to the keeper. Think tops greener than Pakistan’s kit, more seam than a quilt, and more military than a check post. That’s the cliché, anyway. Very few people discuss that while there are nuggets of truth in this, the weather and timing of the season has been a huge factor – as the season wears on, English pitches have lost moisture, and bowling has become more difficult.
These stereotypical ‘English conditions’ stand in stark contrast to the ‘uber flat roads’ that have been complained about pre-World Cup. Every time the superlative English batting line up breaks a new record, someone complains about English pitches being a motorway of ‘the flattest pitches in cricket.’ Whilst simultaneously parroting the phrase ‘English conditions.’ Whilst side-stepping the issue of the skill of England’s batting line up (how many number 10s have 10 first class centuries with an average of over 30?), this chat also sidesteps the fact that there is more than a little diversity across England and Wales – both in terms of assortment of weather across the landmass, and variety in pitches. As global warming has led to hotter English summers, with temperatures soaring earlier than expected, moisture has died out, pitches have become baked, cracks have appeared and spinners have come into play – these are now ‘English conditions,’ differing up and down the country, highly dependent upon our already volatile weather.
Whilst people tend to focus on ‘almost’ 500s at Trent Bridge or the short boundaries at the Ageas Bowl, this diversity is true of pitches prepared by the ECB, often to suit the needs of the home side, as with all other cricketing countries, and it will remain true for pitches prepared by the ICC. While there won’t be a dramatic difference between ECB and ICC pitches considering the weather and soil at Taunton will remain the same no matter who prepares the pitches, minor effects of doctoring will be absent – see the ICC Champion’s Trophy of 2017 for example – true English and Welsh diversity was present, with balanced pitches for batting and bowling, and classic British weather disparities leading to pitches which were far from lifeless; Pakistan bulldozed England and India with the ball, but scores of over 300 were still seen in the tournament.
With 11 distinct venues being used at the World Cup, each with different characteristics, regional quirks, boundaries sizes and typically-seen local weather, the only safe bet is that Trent Bridge is the likely location of the 500 that some of us are desperate to see:
Home of Somerset, the quick outfield, short-boundaried Taunton is domestically known as a batsman’s paradise, but was the site of PitchGate 2017, when Middlesex complained about being served up a spinner’s paradise in the County Championship – four day pitches aside, this Royal London One Day has seen Somerset set Essex a stonking 353 to win (Azhar Ali and Peter Trego might be the batting partnership dreams were made of), as well as Hampshire restricting Somerset to a paltry 216 with the use of Liam Dawson and Mason Crane – in short, any side that bats deep and hard but has a couple of tricky spinners up their sleeve will have a field day.
Bristol’s County Ground is another small-boundaried ground (particularly at both ends of the wicket), so bowling plans will have to mitigate for this – this is not the ground to field two spinners, unless they’re particularly intelligent and resilient. The ball doesn’t get a whole lot of bounce, so think low, with bowlers looking to skid on or stay square. Gloucestershire’s Benny Howell’s variations have seen considerable success, as has tall left-arm seamer Chris Liddle – it’s just difficult, not impossible. Recent ODIs saw England comfortably chase 359 with 31 balls remaining and West Indies falter at 124 runs short of the 369 England set them with Plunkett taking a 5fer.
3. Emirate’s Riverside:
Relatively flat, but with massive boundaries that are harder for your non-Supermans to clear, Riverside is Durham’s unique creature that suits batsman up for running 2s and 3s, in it for the long haul. Unless you’re quite literally Chris Gayle, you’re likely to accumulate your runs through, well, running. Jason Roy, the fella who can do both, should be feeling pretty good – particularly as he made 101 from 83 at Chester-le-Street just last year against Australia. Bowlers will look to have batsmen caught, forcing an error, rather than uprooting the stumps.
4. Sophia Gardens:
Glamorgan’s small on the straight, but abundant on the sides Sophia Gardens is one of the windier British grounds (think of a reverse mullet). Famous for its slope across the ground, it’s not the easiest place to bowl. It was the site of the now famous England v Pakistan CT ’17 Semi-Final, where the used pitch definitely helped Pakistan’s bowling attack restrict England to 211 (but somehow didn’t help England prevent Pakistan from chasing it in 37 overs….Mother Cricket, you unfathomable creature). Oh, and it’s pronounced Sophia like So-fiyah, not like the name Sophia. Despite being named after a woman named Sophia.
5. Ageas Bowl:
Flat, large boundaries and easy-paced, the Rose Bowl is for batsman and smart bowlers a la Liam Dawson. With spin becoming a factor in the middle overs to restrict runs and trick a batsman into giving away his wicket, the ground is evenly matched if you’re a bowler who keeps a cool head (as Hampshire’s Liam Dawson and Mason Crane know full well). Pakistan, they of the characteristically uncool head, got unexpectedly close to beating England here earlier this month, falling just 12 runs short of their target of 374.
6. Trent Bridge:
The ECB’s ground outside of London that needs no introduction or explanation – if you don’t know, where have you been the last few years? Home of the 444 before it became home of the 481, Trent Bridge is hailed as the batsman’s haven, allowing home-grown Alex Hales to register 171 in what was a record innings for an England batsman. Last summer, Kuldeep Yadav took a remarkable 6 wicket haul to lead India to a 8 wicket win, proving nothing is impossible – ego heavy batsman will be eyeing up this ground, and for anyone who is on ‘500 Watch…’ the West Indies will be taking on Pakistan here on Friday. Just saying.
7. Old Trafford:
Drier than your average ground, Old Trafford has a little something for everyone – a little later in the tournament, expect spin to play a big part in matches. If the 2 new balls system ever really allows for reverse swing (unpopular opinion, it does), expect it to be here. The site of Glenn McGrath’s sensational 5-14, bowlers have an opportunity to make the ball sing. Scores of 200-odd are ACTUALLY defendable – Lancashire have been doing it just fine, and while not everyone has a Jimmy Anderson-Saqib Mahmood double team, a decent bowling unit would back themselves with 260 on the board.
This may be Southern bias but the weather up north is definitely cloudier and cooler – possibly part of Headingley’s reputation for being a seaming ground, where the ball zips through, aided by bowling down the hill. The ground has a reputation for aiding a chase, with 300 often on the cards, although the wicket is, like almost everywhere in England, variable. It’s been an unusually dry year, with Adil Rashid getting turn and Yorkshire playing 2 spinners all season. Fair warning – if it rains, matches may well be a write-off.
Edgbaston’s an interesting variable – a little bit of grass, a little bit of bounce – this has stimulated teams to favor bowling first, particularly if we’re looking at a 10.30am cloud coverage start. Despite this, in hotter times (yes, they do happen in England, Easter weekend and we were all sunburned), the pitch dries out enough to get real turn – expect those talked-up wrist spinners to feature more heavily later on in the tournament.
10. The Oval:
When they say ‘there’s something in it for everyone’ they’re thinking of The Oval. Large, almost perfectly even boundaries mean that the hard hitters and the run-accumulators can have fun, should they be patient; good for the Morne Morkels, garnering some tricky bounce; good for the spinners when they can take advantage of the spin and bounce on offer. Win the toss, bat first is the usual call of order, with winning scores ranging from the mid 200s to the high 300s. Something for everyone.
Nothing like a good slope, and a man who knows how to use it. A geographical feature of the ground, the slope runs a drop of 2.5 meters. Coming in from the Nursery End, the slope pushes away from the stumps, something that Middlesex’s Tim Murtaugh has exploited flawlessly. Small boundaries on the sides, this historic ground is a conventional mullet – bowl square and you will get milked for runs, particularly by a batsman who knows how to use the ground’s geographical features to their advantage. Runs are by no means impossible, with England racking up 322 against India last summer, however a strong bowling side (hello, South Africa) will run amok at cricket’s holy ground.
In conclusion – runs, low scorers, turn, swing – the Cricket World Cup should have it all – extrapolating England’s strongest ODI batting line up’s performance at Trent Bridge, Cardiff and the Ageas Bowl to an ICC tournament hosted over 6 weeks at 11 different venues up and down the country won’t get you very far. Knowing the intricacies of the individual grounds, the way they have played over the last few years (particularly in the Royal London One Day Cup) and taking the weather in the lead up to the match into consideration is your only hope. Throw in winning the toss, reading the pitch at 10am, and being a meteorological expert who can guesstimate the way the pitch will play for the remainder of the day – while you’re at it, a crystal ball might help too.