top of page

The Insider Achtung: unsafe pitches wreaking havoc

Updated: May 10

by Paul Ford - Repulished from Outright #55 (summer 2023/24)

The Laws of Cricket contemplate the suspension of play when the umpires decide it would be “either dangerous or unreasonable” to continue. The jacketed duo are charged with monitoring the conditions and must agree on the state of play with no consultation, interference or accompaniment from players or officials.

The danger law was invoked recently in the Big Bash League after water seeped under the covers at Kardinia Park at Geelong, creating the ultimate ‘wet patch’ at one end for seamers to aim at. Despite pre-match player concerns, the umpires made the bold call to crack on to the bewilderment of most. And of course 35 balls later, following a series of ‘oh my gods’ from the Perth batsmen, divots exploding out of the deck, deliveries detonating past grilles off good lengths, and bemused body language from the Renegades, it was all over.

The ensuing furore has given people yet another reason never to visit Geelong, but did remind me of several memorably dicey pitches over the years.

There was a beauty in October 2015 as the Black Caps were sent off to the multicultural wonderland that is the Blacktown Sports Park, a niggly 30 kilometres out into western Sydney to ‘warm up’ for a Test match in Brisbane. Four sessions in the Cricket Australia XI was 503/1 and the two teams shook hands in the three-day tour match as “large chunks of turf were dislodged across the wicket, most notably in the popping crease and bowlers' follow-throughs”.

Kiwi skipper Brendon McCullum refused to operate his express bowlers, instead bowling Jimmy Neesham, spinner Mark Craig and a platoon of part-timers including Ross Taylor, Tom Latham (1 for 7!) and Martin Guptill. Coach Mike Hesson described the surface as "a jigsaw with half the pieces missing".

On the Test cricket front there are two decks from the late 1990s that are notorious in the annals of international cricket health and safety.

The first was at Sabina Park, Jamaica in 1998 when Michael Atherton famously elected to bat first ‘to get the best of the conditions’. A farcical situation developed over the ensuing 10.1 overs as the West Indies’ petrifying opening bowlers Courtney Walsh (2/10) and Curtly Ambrose (1/3) were all but unplayable, triggering six visits to the middle from physio Wayne Morton to tend to five English batsmen. “On a new clay surface that bore an uncanny resemblance to a strip of corrugated iron, the ball flew, from a length, towards the throat, or scuttled along the ground,” Paul Weaver wrote.

Despite it being the first Test match in history to be called off for an unsafe pitch, Ambrose continues to say it wasn’t that bad. “It was a little bit up and down,” he admitted recently. “But what they should have done is get the groundsman to get the heavy roller and roll it a bit.”

The other was at the WACA in Perth in February 1998 as the West Indies romped to a 10-wicket win in a tempestuous match on a pitch that Wisden said was “so thoroughly cut and compacted that it sported large, longitudinal cracks.” This game featured a Brian Lara century (132) that doubled as a masterclass, a sublime innings that belied the treacherous conditions as he staved off McGrath, Warne, Reiffel, Bichel, the cavernous cracks and 45-degree heat.


The only ODI to ever be called off in the history of the game was a ‘dead rubber’ match between India and Sri Lanka at the Firoz Shah Kotla Stadium in Delhi in 2009. It was abandoned 24 overs into the first innings as both teams walked off in protest. The Sri Lanka batters had bleeding fingers and multiple bruises, and Sunil Gavaskar told viewers the under-prepared pitch “looked like it had been the victim of a hair transplant”. When an innocuous-looking 117km delivery from Sudeep Tyagi blasted over wicketkeeper MS Dhoni’s gloves stretched above his head the caper was up, and the players left the field.

Things got decidedly unsafe off the pitch too, as the abandonment triggered chaos in the crowd: angry spectators tore down match signage, flung broken chairs at each other, and threw bottles onto the field. The stadium was banned from hosting international matches for a year and the curator was sacked.

Closer to home, a 2018 Plunket Shield match at Canterbury’s Mainpower Oval was called off at the beginning of the third day after the umpires deemed the pitch unplayable and erratic. At the time Auckland was 66-6 chasing a thousand and Matt McEwan had been struck on the helmet by a delivery from Will Williams. Shots were fired by Canterbury assistant coach Brendon Donkers: "I think their mindset was perhaps somewhat negative and they were just waiting for the game to be abandoned.” It is important to note that no signs, chairs or bottles were thrown.

The other that sticks in my head is the incredible pitch at quaint Queens Park in Masterton. It was arguably the safest and least dangerous pitch of all time in November 2021 when it was incorrectly marked out 23 metres long, instead of 22 yards.

Two balls into the game, Wairarapa’s strike bowler realised something was amiss, struggling for rhythm and length. Wairarapa coach Neil Perry said he had never seen anything like it in 40 years of cricket. "Absolutely unbelievable that it happened, unbelievable that the umpires didn't pick it up, and unbelievable that nothing happened sooner.”


Paul Ford is one-third of The BYC Podcast, co-founder of the Beige Brigade. His favourite cricket pitch is at the Basin Reserve, observed from behind the glorious white pickets and never in front.



bottom of page