Go green: the way of the new cricket order

A sight that could welcome subcontinent teams outside their strongholds a lot more often ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In the days before the 1996 World Cup Final the host city of Lahore had unequivocally declared its support for Sri Lanka, and Ramiz Raja popped by the team hotel. A veteran of the city's cricket circuit, he brought with him a question: "What's the wicket you guys want?"

The answer didn't require much thinking. "Plenty of turn please, medium bounce, but also not too slow in the second innings."

As it happened, the surface could hardly have fit the brief better. Sri Lanka's spinners trussed Australia up, restricting them to 241 for 7. Despite the loss of two early wickets, the pursuit went smoothly. For the first time in history, a chasing side triumphed in the final of the World Cup.

For over two decades now, Sri Lanka has had a productive relationship with home pitch curators. When England, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa arrive on the island, dry tracks are, and have routinely been, ordered by captain and coach, with reasonable expectation groundstaff will at least attempt to give them what they want. When Asian teams, West Indies, or Zimbabwe tour, conversations are had about the relative strengths of the opposition, plans are hatched to neutralise those advantages, and if possible, magnify Sri Lanka's own.

"The difference between dustbowls and greentops, perhaps, is that the latter have tended to defang spinners more effectively than the former does to quicks"

The conspiracies don't always play out in reality as they do on paper (or perhaps even as they do in the imaginations of the visiting cohort). The Galle pitch, for example, is immutably a spin-bowling stomping ground - attempts to make it batting-friendly having gone awry most notably in 2013, when after a festival of runs with Bangladesh, Angelo Mathews labelled it "absolutely a road". At other times, the scheming has backfired: in 2015, it was India's quicks who prospered on a seaming SSC deck.

Nevertheless, on this tour, and their two recent tours to New Zealand, Sri Lanka have tasted a little of their own moonshine. In Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton, Dunedin and now Port Elizabeth and Newlands, Sri Lanka have consistently been greeted by green tracks. Pitch doctoring has, in the past, been cast a South Asian sneakery, but other teams have begun to get a taste for it. They have started to catch on.

South Africa have been clear about their intentions: they want to neutralise Rangana Herath. With the 0-3 drubbing on Indian dustbowls perhaps still playing on Faf du Plessis' mind, he has had pitches made to order in this series, and that is power he seems to like.

"If there's one or two percent that I can add as a captain with my voice, it's making sure that we have the conditions that we ask for," du Plessis said after the 282-run win at Newlands. "It's something I'm really big on. I'm going to scream at the top of my lungs to make sure that we get it. Because I feel there's been too many times when I feel teams come here and they get the conditions that favour them. And when you go overseas you don't get that. You've got to make sure that you maximize the conditions you have."

This is new ground for a South African captain, partly because in the past, the team's clout over curators has been tempered by commercial concerns. As is the case in Australia and many grounds in England, venues and broadcasters want matches to last five days and have prepared surfaces primarily suited to that purpose. But now, even at Newlands, where no Asian team had ever won, an unusually verdant track helped bring the game to an early conclusion, and du Plessis was only too pleased.

"This has been an amazing Test wicket once again - the groundsmen can take a lot of credit," he said, having also thanked the St George's Park groundsmen after the first Test. "We asked for a wicket that took no spin, and there was a good contest between bat and ball, and that's exactly what it was. Day one, it was green and moving around. Day three, four and five, if you batted, you could get a big score. It was a fantastic Test wicket."

The difference between dustbowls and greentops, perhaps, is that the latter have tended to defang spinners more effectively than the former does to quicks. On a pitch that takes little turn, a spinner is left only with drift, dip and flight - which are valuable weapons to be sure, but are largely supplementary ones. Fast bowlers, meanwhile, are often still envenomed by movement in the air, and on drier tracks, by reverse swing.

In Galle in 2014, for example, vicious bursts of reverse brought Dale Steyn match figures of 9 for 99, and carried South Africa to victory. In the most recent New Zealand series, by contrast, Yasir Shah was largely ineffective in Christchurch, and was left out entirely in Hamilton, where the surface was almost indistinguishable from the rest of the square on the eve of the match.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time until non-Asian sides began to pursue home advantage as unapologetically as South Africa in this series. It has been common practice in Asia for so long, that on one occasion, Pakistan even took their own curators to the UAE to oversee preparation of surfaces there.

And Sri Lanka can hardly complain. It has been the unqualified failure of their batsmen that has seen them lose the series; only two fifties have been hit in 40 completed individual innings.

But perhaps this is the new way of the world. Under Mike Hesson, New Zealand are at least two seasons into preparing tracks that suit them. If South Africa continue to follow suit, Asian sides can expect even tougher tours outside the continent than they have been accustomed to.