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Are playing surfaces becoming uniformly bland worldwide due to commercial considerations? Is the art of Test match pitch preparation dead? The ICC's pitches manager reflects on these and other questions
Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi
August 3, 2009
Steve Harmison recently described pitches as chief executives' wickets - designed to last five days to maximise revenue. Aren't pitches that are batsman-friendly harming the game?
It's a fact of life that cricket can only survive and grow through finance, and much of that finance comes from revenue generated by broadcast and sponsorship revenue and attendances. So if matches don't run the distance, that can hit clubs and boards in the pocket. That means there is always a balance necessary - you want the match to run its course, but you also want to give the batsmen and bowlers a fair chance to display their skills and excel.
When my first Test as a head groundsman was completed in the last over of the fourth day, the very next morning I was invited to join the CEO in his office, where he told me that because my pitch did not produce five days' play, I had cost the club £150,000. I did have to mention in my own defence that not all of the wickets to fall were the fault of the pitch!
Is there a directive to prepare pitches that will last?
The ICC has not issued any such directive since my involvement with it began in 1999. It is also incorrect to say that the ICC wants to standardise pitches worldwide. Nothing is further from the truth. The preparation of pitches for all Test matches and ODIs is a matter entirely for each individual home board to manage when they are staging a match or a series under their control.
The ICC does have control of the preparation of pitches during its own tournaments such as the World Cup, the Champions Trophy etc. During those tournaments, which are all matches of a day's duration, my role is to liaise, both hands-on and in an advisory capacity, with the local staff to ensure that the best possible conditions are provided to the players. That covers not only the pitches but also outfields, on-site practice facilities and designated training venues in each city.
You wrote recently that with the huge amount of one-day and Twenty20 cricket around the world, it seems some people have forgotten how to prepare a five-day pitch.
I questioned whether the focus on batsman-friendly pitches for one-day cricket had perhaps caused the game to forget that Test cricket should be played on pitches that give a balance between bat and ball. Having said that, I acknowledge this is not possible all of the time due to inclement weather during pitch preparation, but the thrust of that statement was that the groundsmen should try not to prepare a one-day type pitch that lasts for five days, which defeats the object of playing Test cricket.
The ICC board recently decided to impose stricter penalties on countries and venues found guilty of producing pitches considered "poor" or "unfit". It was said these would include overly batsman-friendly "featherbed" surfaces. Does this mean a lot of pitches on the subcontinent will come under the scanner?
This decision was made to cover the full spectrum of all ICC members and certainly does not aim to highlight any country or continent. Having had some input into the preparation of the document put in front of the board I can say that the reason for this proposal was to preserve the importance of Test cricket.
This does not mean that a drawn match will produce poor or unfit marks for a pitch. We recently witnessed a magnificent finish to the first Ashes Test in Cardiff. Though the pitch was generally accepted to have been slow, it allowed some help for the bowlers and gradually showed some deterioration throughout the five days.
Whether a pitch is slow or fast, it must allow some assistance for all the bowlers. Firstly, the bounce should be consistent, at least for the first two to three days, and in a perfect world the pace of the pitch should allow the ball to come on to the bat to encourage shot-making by the batsmen, and allow enough pace, bounce and sideways movement for the bowlers.
In the initial stages of a game it is normal for some surface moisture to still be in the top of the pitch surface. This is needed to ensure that the pitch does not dry out too quickly in hot conditions, and this will usually allow some seam movement in the first session or two. Clearly the judgment of how much surface moisture to leave prior to the start is a difficult one. In hot continents it is easier to judge because of normally consistent weather patterns, but in places like the UK and New Zealand, with variable weather or summer rainfall it can be a very difficult call to make.
It is the groundsman's job to provide the best pitch he can and some times it is necessary for them to play safe if the weather is forecast to be inclement during the match.
One of the major problems experienced over the last few years is that some pitches have not allowed a gradual deterioration of the surface, which makes it difficult for bowlers to take wickets and for teams to get results. I suppose that type of pitch can be described as over-prepared.
|"If the current system, of relying on members to take responsibility, applies then the ICC is criticised for not doing enough. But if it does send people around the world to look at venues, then, in addition to the significant cost, there would always be those who would criticise it for interfering in an individual board's operations"|
This is the dilemma faced by groundsmen worldwide, because making a pitch is not an exact science: what works in one place does not necessarily work somewhere else, even in individual countries.
Can you elaborate on what constitutes "poor" and "unfit" and what the sanctions are?
To receive a poor mark from the umpires and match referee, the pitch would, in their opinion, have had a significant part to play in the outcome of the match.
For a pitch to be marked as unfit several factors would have to be covered:
1. Was the surface level good? 2. Did the ball disturb the pitch surface early in the match (go through the top) and did the pitch generally continue to disintegrate? 3. Was the grass too long or thick, designed to aid the seam bowlers disproportionately? 4. Was the surface totally devoid of grass, designed to aid the spinners disproportionately? 5. Was the pitch deliberately prepared to suit the home team (and this is the most difficult to prove)? 6. Is the particular venue (pitch/outfield/practice facilities just not up to the required standard expected for international cricket)?
Let's go back to Antigua: how did the pitch get approval when it was widely reported ahead of the game there were major issues? What was the process of inspection?
The selection and preparation of any venue is entirely the responsibility of the national home board when they are hosting a Test or ODI series. That is because that is what the ICC's members want, and the ICC is a members' organisation.
Before the 2007 World Cup the ground in Antigua was inspected by myself and others from the ICC and was passed as fit for that tournament. I am not aware of what happened in the ensuing two-year period, when there was no contact from the WICB or the Antigua Cricket Association to flag up any problems with the playing surface to myself or the ICC, as far as I am aware.
One of the duties of the match referee is to inspect the pitch and recommend change(s) if he is not satisfied. Some groundsmen believe it would be a good idea for the official to arrive at least a week in advance to inspect. Do you agree?
On the face of it seems like a good idea, but the problem is that, if the official is not happy with the pitch, it would need more than a week for a new one to be prepared, and in the worst-case scenario switching to another venue - as happened in Antigua - isn't always possible. The ICC is in a no-win situation here: if the current system, of relying on members to take responsibility, applies then the ICC is criticised for not doing enough. But if it does send people around the world to look at venues, then, in addition to the significant cost, there would always be those who would criticise it for interfering in an individual board's operations.
You have said that good pitches are ones where some grass is left on. Can you describe the process?
To have a properly functioning pitch it is important to have a consistent short grass cover over the pitch surface and a deep, well-developed roots system below the surface.
When a pitch is in preparation there is a certain amount of rolling, after heavy irrigation and soaking to the depth of the pitch soil profile. Once the pitch surface has dried enough, initial rolling is carried out, and then the pitch has to be left to dry out naturally, with a further short period of rolling.
Complete drying out of the soil profile cannot be accomplished by continuous rolling; it has to be allowed to happen through a natural process called transpiration - the removal of underlying moisture up through the root system, through the body of the grass plants and out into the atmosphere through the pores in the grass leaves. In this way the soil is dried out at depth slowly and it naturally compacts and gets hard as it dries out.
It follows that if all the grass is removed prior to preparation, the roots die away and will not be able to pump the moisture out from below the surface. This leaves a pitch with a thin, hard crust, which overlies a soft putty-like soil below the surface that absorbs the impact of the ball rather than allowing it to rebound off quickly.
Another factor is how the leaves of the grass act as a lubricant and allow the ball to skid off the surface micro-seconds faster than off one without grass. If the pitch is devoid of grass, much more friction is created as the ball pitches, and the ball holds on the surface for micro-seconds longer. It must be remembered we are working in very small fractions when it comes to the pace of a ball off the pitch, but the amount of friction does make a significant difference in the deceleration of the ball as it comes off the surface.
The grass height is normally between 3-5mm on most pitches; to cut any lower will seriously harm if not kill the plant. The thickness of the surface grass cover is the key to the pitch performance and if too much is removed the pace and bounce will normally be less. I have seen this happen so many times in the last few years and it is frustrating to me because it can be avoided in most cases.
What do you believe will be the key to pitch technology in the next decade?
Things will always evolve. The biggest change required is funding for training of groundsmen and to start rewarding them with salaries commensurate with their responsibilities. The ICC Global Cricket Academy, which opens later this year, will hopefully provide an opportunity for groundsmen to get together and share information on a scale not seen before, and that will be a positive development for pitch preparation world wide.
Do you see a day when artificial pitches will be good enough to stage internationals?
No! The aim is to avoid pitches that produce standard conditions worldwide. The beauty of cricket is that every country has its own conditions. As things stand at present the technology does not provide any suitable replacement for grass pitches, and I doubt it will ever do. How do you get an artificial pitch to provide the qualities explained earlier for a Test pitch, and then expect it to return back to its initial condition without major surgery before the next game?
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at CricinfoFeeds: Nagraj Gollapudi
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