Before I came to the US, I didn't realize how much of a role outfields play in shaping cricket technique. When we were in school, coaches taught us the basics that equipped us to deal with all sorts of conditions. Roll your wrists when hitting a short ball, to keep it down; words to remember on a bouncy track. Get to the pitch of the ball to drive; words to live by, especially against a swing bowler.
But there was nothing prescribed for the specific case where the grass is three or more inches tall in the outfield, a condition that we face every day here in the US; certainly a lot more than we face bouncy tracks or top-class swing bowling. Whatever the characteristics of the pitch or the opposition, most club cricket venues in the US have one thing in common: the grass in the outfield is too long.
This has had a butterfly effect on our techniques. The only way to score quickly is to hit the ball in the air. Half a dozen of Sachin Tendulkar's boundaries during his 51st Test century in Cape Town were just firm pushes down the ground. On my home turf, those shots would not even have earned me a single. I've actually been run out a couple of times having beaten the bowler with a firm push, only for the ball to lodge in the thick grass near the umpire, allowing the bowler to run back from his follow through, pick it up, and knock over the stumps.
A pitch map that looks like Graeme Swann's is a no-no for a spinner in the US. A three-quarter length gives the batsman the opportunity to get under the ball and hit it in the air, and thus affords an opportunity to score quickly. With grounds being smaller, and the ball gripping less on the smooth artificial turf, batsmen are all too keen on lofted shots. In fact, that's the one length a spin bowler doesn't want to bowl.
If he bowls full, the batsman can't get under the ball. One knows that's what the batsman's always looking to do because a full-blooded drive is just a single, and a firm push nothing at all. If one keeps it full, eventually the batsman might get frustrated, play across the line, and give the fielding team a chance. If the spinner bowls a tad short (not a half-tracker, but just enough to push the batsman back) and outside off-stump, once again the batsman cannot get under the ball. Spinners are encouraged to make the batsman square cut here, whereas what the coach said 20 years ago was to get the batsman playing forward at all times.
The grounds here also reduce outfielding to either stopping a ball rather devoid of speed and coming straight at you, or chasing a stationary ball.
The outfields that we have here have thus completely turned our techniques upside down. The best shots to play are the ones along the ground and the best length to be bowling is three-quarter length, we were told. Not so here. It's frustrating because we can see quality cricket being played by the likes of Tendulkar and Swann, but there is no point emulating it. How can the standard of the game improve if players try to be ‘less’ like Tendulkar and Swann?
Not that we are talented enough in the US to hit centuries loaded with straight drives like Tendulkar, or return figures of 22-11-23-1 like Swann produced at Melbourne. But perhaps following the same techniques might yield half or a quarter of the results they do, which would be great for USA cricket. Right now, we are following contrary techniques.
To be fair, there are some fast outfields in the country, but too few. On the west coast of the country, in Seattle there are none, but the Kirigin Cellars grounds in Gilroy, California, and of course, Woodley Park grounds in Los Angeles, both have great outfields. But most of the cricket in the USA is played on cricket-unfriendly outfields. I have often heard cricket administrators talk about improving pitches. Here in Seattle, the league spent money on improving pitches at a few venues in the last couple of years. The league I played for in Chicago also spent money on improving their pitches. I wouldn't say that it was money wasted, but in my opinion, the pitches ought to be second priority, the outfields first.
The better grounds are often used for representative games, and of course grounds used for international matches have well maintained and cricket-friendly outfields. After playing and performing in club cricket, one takes one's skills to these higher levels, bowls fuller or shorter lengths, and sees cover drives and even late cuts speeding across the turf; the runs pile up quickly through shots along the ground. The batsmen don't even think about lofted shots until the last few overs or the Powerplays. It’s like a different sport! When a team from the MCC toured the US earlier this year, the outfields were the thing they found hardest to get used to. Artificial turf pitches were different from what they were used to, but still conducive to good cricket.
Not that cricket administrators haven't tried getting the outfield shaved. My own club pays $20,000 in rent annually for our home ground, in Marymoor Park near Seattle, but the park authorities have refused, despite multiple requests, to allow the grass to be mowed to cricketing lengths. It's a peculiar problem that I didn't face playing school, university, and league cricket in India. There were perhaps one or two grounds in the city known to be rain forests, but for the most part, you didn't have to leave your cover drive at home.
After much negotiation, the park authorities at Marymoor Park have permitted the grass to be mowed down to a minimum of 2 inches in length for this upcoming 2011 season, but they won't do it themselves. Hallelujah. Such are the minor victories for cricket in the USA, literally at the grassroots. The length of the grass is just one aspect of the outfield though. Good outfields also have an even and relatively hard surface below the grass. But that's a problem for a different day.
If the USACA is looking for a grassroots investment for its new-found wealth, I'd suggest they start right there: with the grassroots. It might be a worthwhile goal to pay leagues to ensure that in their list of venues there are at least one or two grounds with proper cricket-friendly outfields. That will allow players in the league to experience the joy of a Tendulkar straight drive once in a year or two, and representative teams can practice at these venues before they take on the world.
After all, one important consideration in organising a nationwide league or franchise competition is figuring out exactly which venues are suitable for it. One cannot have an NFL franchise team without access to a NFL-standard stadium. Or a Ranji Trophy team without a home ground that is up to first-class standard. By all means, inspect and rate the venues, and punish leagues that aren't putting the investment to good use.