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George Dobell at Old Trafford
August 8, 2014
Rain ruins play on day two at Old Trafford
Just a day after the Old Trafford authorities were being praised for producing the best pitch of the international summer in England, boos rang out around the ground.
The source of the crowd's frustration was understandable: a sharp but relatively short shower had not just interrupted play, but caused an abandonment. What promised to be another exciting afternoon of cricket instead became an ever more farcical succession of inspections and further delays.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can probably conclude now that play should have been abandoned as early as 4pm. By then, a ground that had taken some heavy rain over the previous weekend had experienced an unusually brutal downpour that left standing water all over the outfield. It started at around 2.15pm and ended, after flirting with spectators for a while, at about 3.40pm.
But, with the best of intentions, the groundstaff and the umpires decided to do what they could to restart play. A few years ago, such a deluge would have ended play for the day without anyone batting an eyelid, but expectations have changed significantly. New sand-based outfields and drainage systems have vastly reduced delays after rain and there is, however it may seem, more respect for spectators than was once the case.
More than that, the desperation to make a success of hosting such major games, results in grounds taking risks and short-term decisions.
Again, with the benefit of hindsight, the groundstaff might have been well advised to simply allow the drainage the time to do its work. But, understandably, they felt a need not just to help nature on its way, but to be seen to be helping nature on its way.
So out came the super-soppers - the tractor-like devices that soak up water from the outfield - and they went to work at the Brian Statham End, in particular, which is the lowest part of the ground and where the puddles were at their deepest.
That was probably a mistake. For, after a weekend when Lancashire were forced to take similar action to ensure a NatWest Blast T20 quarter-final was able to take place on the ground - the match was scheduled for Friday, but eventually took place on Saturday evening - the area was already boggy and damaged. The further usage of relatively heavy machinery may have removed some excess water, but it also churned up the area to such an extent that it began to resemble a field of cabbages more than a cricket outfield.
In truth, the soppers are largely cosmetic devices and are used as much as public-relations ploys as they are for practical purposes. Certainly in circumstances like this, they tend to present as many problems as they do solutions. The outfield just became worse and worse and an area stretching around five metres into the playing surface at that entire end of the ground became genuinely unplayable. While cricket remains a little indulgent of such matters - talk that such conditions are "dangerous" is not helpful - it would have been farcical to try and play international sport in such circumstances. Eventually, play was abandoned at 5.40pm.
It does not mean the ground's drainage is inadequate for the longer term. Lancashire installed a similar drainage scheme to most of the major grounds in England in 2008. Only Lord's, with its greater income and incomparable business model, was able to afford a more effective system.
But, at the end of last year, the club was obliged to pull down two new stands - the stands either side of the media centre at the Brian Statham End - and rebuild them, which appears to have created a temporary area of weakness.
While the stands were being built, in 2012, one of the contractors, Sabre Structures Ltd, went into administration. That caused a delay that could have rendered the stands unfinished ahead of the 2013 season and the lucrative Ashes Test, so the club installed support columns as an intermediate measure to allow the stands to be used and enable the ground to host the international cricket that is so vital to its future.
These support columns resulted in an obstructed view for some spectators, however, and were always viewed as a temporary solution. So, after the Ashes Test, the club strengthen the tiers with the installation of additional structural steel which allowed the removal of the support columns.
The problem with that, though, was that it resulted in a significant amount of heavy machinery on the outfield at that end of the ground. As a result, the grass had to be re-laid at the start of this summer and it has not knitted as well as it has done in other areas of the ground. That weakness was exploited by the ferocity of the recent rain.
Talk that the incident could jeopardise the ground's future as a venue for major matches is hyperbole, though. The pitch at Old Trafford has actually put some of those at other venues to shame and, while the episode is not ideal, talk of denying them future games seems harsh in the extreme.
There is a fear, however, that the boggy areas - and they really are in very poor condition - might render play difficult on day three, even if Manchester enjoys a dry night.
Afterwards Mike Watkinson, the Lancashire director of cricket, apologised, but insisted the circumstances were extreme. "We apologise if people feel let down, but these are extreme circumstances," Watkinson told the BBC. "It was an extremely heavy downpour and most grounds would have struggled.
"We've had a massive downpour and water has congregated in the low point of the ground. It's an area that we have used for construction purposes. It has high-performing drains. What it hasn't got is turf that has knitted together over seasons like the rest of the field. It's quite a new area.
"If we have got anything wrong, it was to go with the water hog instead of letting it drain naturally. You can understand our groundstaff being as proactive as possible. It looks a bit of a mess. We accept that. Last Friday evening we were under water for a Twenty20 game. But there is no reason at all it won't dry out over night.
"You would hope it is not held against us [when allocating future major matches].You hope that people look at the cricket has been played so far in this game, the quality of the pitch, the way its produced some great bowling and good batting.
"There has been entertaining cricket with a real momentum and better players have prospered. I hope they have not been bothered about five metres of a sandy puddle that has affected an hour's cricket."
In a perfect world, grounds might not host international cricket until they are finished and tested and perfect. But in the real world, the club's need to finance their redevelopment schemes and they need to host regular international cricket to do so. While that is the case - and the ECB could implement a better system with a little thought - teething problems like this are probably inevitable.
It is not a scandal. There is nobody deserving of blame or shame. It does not merit the sobriquet "watergate" however tempting it might be to use it. It was just bad luck. Lancashire experienced a perfect storm: it rained very hard on an area of weak ground and, for all the goodwill in the world - perhaps partly because of all that goodwill - it wasn't possible to restart play. It's frustrating, but it happens.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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