March 24, 2014

It's not easy being a cricket pitch

Being spat upon and trodden on are the least of it, it turns out

An act of unspeakable cruelty: a pitch is roasted alive for not behaving itself © Getty Images

Pity the cricket pitch. Though more lovingly cultivated than the average bonsai tree by ground staff the world over, it must still endure its far share of maltreatment: the constant pounding of the fast bowler's size 13s clumping down monotonously on its wounded soil, with only a bucket of sawdust to soothe its abrasions; batsmen scratching and re-scratching their guard with impunity; and players from both sides running sheepishly across its torso when circumstances suit.

Last week a new abusive low was reached when during a 2nd XI match against Victoria at Melbourne's Toorak Park, South Australia's Dan Worrall took it upon himself to deface an adjoining wicket by embellishing the turf with a rudimentary etching of the more delicate parts of the male person. This anatomical artistic anarchy is, though, far from being the worst assault upon cricket's doughty surfaces.

Perhaps the worst instance of soil sabotage occurred when the Third Ashes Test at Headingley in 1975 had to be abandoned after supporters of George Davis - a convicted robber whose innocence they maintained - broke into the stadium, dug holes in the pitch and poured oil over one end of the wicket. This slick act of devastation essentially left groundsman George Cawthray over a barrel, and the resulting draw meant England had no chance of winning the four-Test series and thus retaining the sainted urn. Though as futile as it was destructive at the time, the protesters' actions did eventually see their aim achieved: in 2011, after decades of legal wrangling, Davis finally had his conviction overturned on appeal, more than 35 years after being found guilty, a length of time broadly similar to that seen in cricket's own review process when Rod Tucker is third umpire.

Dean Jones rarely likes to speak about his epic double-century in the tied Chennai Test of 1986. Well, not more than twice in any one interview, but while a courageous innings, it did involve him repeatedly vomiting up a colourful mix of fluids - which may well have inspired the designer of Bangladesh's current World T20 kit. As no bowl was on hand, the poor pitch was left to bear the brunt of the Australian batsman's unfortunate gastric armageddon, but at least this was inadvertent. In 1994, England captain Michael Atherton deliberately pocketed a handful of Lord's soil to rub on the ball, a dirty act that made the hallowed St John's Wood turf complicit in his crime and cleaned out his wallet to the tune of £2000.

It's important to note that pitch abuse is not merely limited to humanity. Rickmansworth CC, nestled in the heart of the British Home Counties, has been in existence since 1787, but the gentrified English idyll of its Park Road ground was shattered in April 2013 when a colony of badgers tore up its hallowed turf, leaving the surface looking more suited to a rhinoceroses' picnic than a full summer of cricket. Despite the bowlers' run-ups being ruined at both ends, the club stoically refused to cull its fixture list, and with the help of some media publicity and an ECB emergency grant to re-lay the grass, the season was able to go ahead. As ever with the efforts of all the best groundsmen, nurture had triumphed over the inconvenient and whimsical excesses of nature.

After the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval the same year ended in a draw, it was excessive calls of nature that rankled. Following the draw that saw them take the Ashes series 3-0, the England side decided to sit out on the pitch to contemplate victory, but soon enough the celebratory beers started to exert the same sort of pressure on their bladders that Mitchell Johnson a few months later applied to their sensibilities. Several senior members of the team relieved themselves on the square, and once the news inevitably leaked, moral apoplexy ensued, not least in the Australian press, who seized on the incident as evidence of the moral and physiological superiority of their nation's cricketers. A subsequent apology from the offenders stated they had got "carried away with the euphoria of winning such a prestigious series", which, thankfully for pitches and the easily offended everywhere, is a situation the present England team is unlikely to have to deal with anytime soon.

So there you have the lot of the cricket pitch. Desecrated by man and beast and treated like a urinal by even the game's most illustrious players. It's a torment it bears generally without complaint, only in rare instances - such as in the case of England's Jamaica Test of 1998, or their trip to Antigua 11 years later - feeling aggrieved enough to actually take revenge on its ungrateful assailants by presenting itself as unplayable and requiring a match to be called off.

Indeed, there are possibly signs that a newfound respect for the playing surface is upon us, as last year a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks visited Lord's and blessed the square. This is frankly the sort of meditative reverence we need to see more of in honour of our game's spiritual turf if the sport is to survive into the future. After all - as we're so often told about all sports - it's the grassroots that are important.

James Marsh writes Pavilion Opinions. He is also a Tefl teacher whose students learn superlatives by being shown Graham Thorpe videos