India's Murali Vijay bats at the Wanderers Stadium during the third Test against the Proteas. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa pitches have been a talking point for much longer than just the four days of the Wanderers Test that finished last Saturday.

One of SA’s premier venues is now on notice after being rated “poor” by the match referee in the third Test between the Proteas and India, Andy Pycroft, and has received three demerit points which will remain on the books for the next five years. If another two demerit points are picked up in that period, the Wanderers will be suspended from hosting international matches for 12 months.

The implications are enormous and with a one-day international, T20 international - both against India - and the last match of the season against Australia still on the schedule this season, groundsman Bethuel Buthelezi, the Gauteng Cricket Board and Cricket SA will be under enormous pressure.

Domestically, there have been murmurings about the quality of pitches for virtually the whole summer. At the start of the season, during the first half of the Sunfoil Series, pitches in general were too low and too slow. “Wickets have been dry and batting friendly, ” Titans coach Mark Boucher said at the conclusion of the first half of the competition.

The surfaces were the primary reason for what Geoffrey Toyana, the Highveld Lions coach described as “boring” cricket in the first 15 matches of the four-day competition. There was just one win - the Titans beating the Lions on a lively strip at the Wanderers. The drought which has severely impacted the Western Cape and until the spring rains in the north of SA, was a major reason pitches weren’t being prepared properly at the start of the season.

As a result the games were loaded in the batsmen’s favour - with 40 hundreds scored in the first half of the Sunfoil Series. By comparison, a total of 40 hundreds were scored in the whole of the Sunfoil Series last season.

But as Boucher also pointed out, it was one thing for batsmen to have everything in their favour, what was also surprising, was the lack of impact from the spinners. Pitches were dry, but not breaking up, which indicates something in the preparation wasn’t right.

Preparing pitches is a tough science, where any number of variables are at play - and not just Mother Nature. Home teams have sought to load conditions in their favour, while host boards - in some instances - want to ensure matches stretch out over as much of the five days as is possible to maximise income from Tests. As a result groundsmen are under a lot more scrutiny now than in the past.

The Wanderers is the first venue that has been been "punished" according to the ICC’s new demerit points system. It’s designed to ensure pitches are fairer and make for a good spectacle. Perhaps it’s time the ICC - mainly in the case of international matches which it governs - set up a system whereby it oversees preparation for matches so as to ensure that pitches don’t become as much of a story as was the case with the Wanderers last week.

That doesn’t mean a surface should lose its “character.” The Wanderers has and must always be a quick and bouncy surface. St George’s Park is lower and slower and will provide spin with more assistance. It’s time venues - under the watch of the ICC - went back to what they always were, and that it’s the players who perform on them that become the story once more.

The Star

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