Life's a pitch
The simple act of waking up and reading a newspaper with your morning cuppa has never been as exciting. Pakistan's newspapers print the most hilarious stories, varying from the absurd to the downright libellous. There was outrage when they lost the Multan Test. The umpires were accused of giving key decisions in favour of India. Some said the governments of both countries fixed the match, but perhaps the most absurd line of thinking was that Andy Atkinson, the ICC pitch consultant, prepared pitches that favoured India.
The simple fact is that very few people really understand what goes into the making of a pitch. Atkinson, who has spent 30 years doing just that, talks about 22 yards of soil with a knowledge that can only come from hands-on experience.
"You are looking at six inches of soil and when you have a solid surface, the ball bounces well off it. You are also looking to maintain the pitch with a good grass cover and a good root structure to bind it all together," explained Atkinson. "One of the ways you dry a pitch out to a good depth to make it hard all the way through is by having a good root system. And the actual moisture in the soil evaporates through the plant root out through the plant. That's how you dry it out. If the roots are short you only get dryness to a certain depth, and if the roots are lot deeper the moisture comes out from a lot deeper and therefore you get a harder and bouncier wicket - that's the theory anyway."
But what works in theory does not always translate into reality on the ground. The growth of grass is very difficult to control precisely. But if you saw Atkinson lolling about near a roller before the start of a match, you would think he had the easiest job in the world. "You've probably seen me sitting on chairs, watching, but we've been preparing a wicket ... You cannot just walk in and roll it for an hour and say it's done. It takes seven to eight days to prepare a wicket. When you flood a piece of soil that is about six inches deep, it doesn't soak it all in straight away. In countries like India and Pakistan where it's hot, you have to slowly allow that water to get in, and when you roll the pitch you can actually compact it properly."
More and more groundsmen are coming under fire for their work. As a job, it's almost as thankless as being an umpire. "Being a curator can be a pain in the neck because there are a lot of people who talk about pitches, not the top commentators and the top papers, but there are a lot of people at the next level looking for a story, and there was a lot of stuff said at Multan by people who just didn't know what they were talking about."
Atkinson has come in for plenty of stick in the local press in Pakistan, but he assures us that fussing about pitches is not an exclusively subcontinental trait. "I remember what Ian Botham used to do ... Whenever he would bowl a bad ball he would kick at the footmarks as though there was something wrong with the footmarks ..." Atkinson says, allowing himself a chuckle.
Atkinson's job is an important one. He has to work closely with local staff who maintain pitches throughout the year. He admits that things don't always go according to plan, but considers the first day's play as a good marker of a sporting pitch. "I remember [from] years ago Richie Benaud saying if you get 10 wickets and 300 runs in a day it's a good day's cricket, and we almost had that on the first day."
By the time the second day draws to a close Atkinson's job is done. He's returning home, and you can see the relief on his face. After all, Rawalpindi isn't exactly the most relaxing city at this time of the year, with heat and dust being a major irritant. But Atkinson is not complaining. "All I ever wanted to do when I was young was to be a cricketer and I found out fairly early on that I wasn't good enough. The next-best thing was to be involved in cricket at the Test level, and being a curator is as good a way of doing that as any. I've been so lucky that I've been a curator on call and have been to every place where cricket is played. It's lovely to be able to do it and get paid."
With the first Test ending in four days and two overs, the second in three days and about two hours, and the final one shaping up for an early finish, Atkinson can return home after a job well done.