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G. O. Allen
In the Spring of 1937, at the request of the Advisory County Cricket Committee, the M.C.C. appointed a special Commission consisting of three men who have had great experience of the game, to examine and report on county cricket from every angle. That such action was deemed necessary showed that there were many people in England, of whom I am one, who were not entirely happy about the present state of affairs.
It is common knowledge that in recent years there has been a serious falling-off in the receipts of county cricket, and one naturally finds oneself seeking the reason. I do not believe, as many people do, that this is due to the increase of counter-attractions; rather is it because many of the matches have become dull to watch.
At the time of writing this article, the Commission's report has not been made public, but I am told that it will contain several useful suggestions for the improvement and brightening of the game.
I fear, however, that unless there is included in it a strong recommendation to county committees to consider the condition of wickets generally, one of the chief causes of the present financial embarrassment of many of the clubs will have been overlooked. The public of to-day will not watch cricket unless they are assured of entertainment, and it is therefore up to the executives to do all within their power to give them their money's worth.
In the past, a more enterprising form of cricket has invariably been witnessed when the wicket has been responsive and I cannot see why this should not always be the case. It is impossible for me to give an opinion as to whether the present-day cricketer is as good as his predecessor, as I was not lucky enough to have seen the old masters in action.
It would appear that genius is more rare nowadays and, what is still more disturbing, that many of the players have not got that spirit of adventure and daring which in days gone by made the game a so much better spectacle than it is to-day. The standard of bowling has probably deteriorated, but I beg to suggest that this deterioration has coincided with the advent of the all too clever groundsman and his modern contrivances.
Each wicket may well need a different preparation, but I consider that in recent years too much water, liquid manure and various forms of dope have been applied to many of them, with the result that the number of easy-paced wickets has increased each season. I am not suggesting that the wickets are necessarily better from the batsman's point of view than they were immediately before the war but I am certain that they are more lifeless, and it is of this that I complain.
In my opinion, easy-paced wickets, besides detracting very considerably from the pleasure of playing the game, tend to produce a form of cricket which is lacking in enterprise and interest. On such wickets, even the most menacing bowler loses his sting and, releasing he has little chance of attacking the batsman, in self defence adopts negative tactics; by this I mean bowling short of a length, probably at the leg stump with additional fieldsmen on the leg side, in order to try to prevent the batsman from scoring and in the hope that he will eventually throw away his wicket in desperation.
It has apparently become fashionable just recently to accuse fast bowlers, and only fast bowlers, of adopting these tactics. This is unjust, because medium-paced bowlers are as guilty, if not more so in this respect and they have less excuse than fast bowlers, who must necessarily be at a greater disadvantage when the wicket is dead.
This stalemate situation has arisen many times during the last few years, and, while my sympathy has been with both bowler and batsman, the methods adopted have resulted in the sort of cricket which no one wishes to see, and for which fewer every year are prepared to pay.
At Old Trafford, during the seasons 1934, 1935 and 1936, three Test Matches were played in which 3,546 runs were scored for the loss of 71 wickets, an average of 50 runs per wicket. It may be argued that this was due to moderate bowling, but the fact the Grimmett, a man of slight build and light on his feet, was able to dig a foot-hole at least three inches in depth while bowling 57 overs in a first innings tells a tale -- a tale, I am sure, of the too frequent use of the watering can.
The groundman who was responsible for those wickets is now in command at Trent Bridge where the wicket last season was easier paced than ever before. It looks, therefore, as if certain groundmen have certain methods and those methods are the ones which, in my opinion, are killing modern cricket.
In 1936, I went to play at Northampton in a county match and as I approached the ground I noticed an odour which, I assumed, came from a neighbouring farm-yard. On enquiry, I was told that when I examined the wicket I would realise whence the smell came. That wicket was one of the easiest upon which I have ever played and the match was a dull, high-scoring affair.
I have mentioned only a few cases of over-prepared pitches in County and Test Match cricket, but it is common knowledge amongst the regular players that there have been and are many others to which this criticism applies. Owing to my close association with Lord's, I fear I may be thought prejudiced when I say that in my opinion the nearest example of the ideal type of wicket was produced there frequently last year.
For some time it has been the policy of the authorities not to prepare the wicket too thoroughly, with the result that most of the matches have had a definite result and have produced play of an entertaining nature. I am not sure what instructions have been given to the groundman, but I believe that he has always been restricted in his use of all forms of dope.
There have been a few wickets on which the ball has lifted, but that invariably has been due to ridges which are an unfortunate characteristic of the ground.
Surprising though it may seem to many people, I have seen two of the most ideal wickets at Kennington Oval, usually considered a batsman's paradise. One was the wicket on which the England-India Test Match was played in 1936; it was fast and gave the bowlers every opportunity and encouragement.
The other was that interesting stretch of turf on which Surrey played Middlesex last season. That pitch was entirely different from the one which I have mentioned previously as it could never have been described as fast, but it always gave the bowlers, and especially the spin bowlers, a fair chance.
I hope I am not being indiscreet when I say that that pitch had been intended for the Test Match due to commence on the following Saturday. The groundsman had no alternative but to use it, as the one which he had been preparing for the Middlesex match for some unknown reason sank on the good length at the Pavilion end. In other words, Surrey played Middlesex on a wicket which was one week short of the preparation which the groundman had intended to give it. From every point of view it was a splendid match and surely affords strong evidence that a happy medium can be found.
Please do not think that I am blaming the groundsman entirely for the unhealthy state of affairs which exists on some of the grounds. That is not my intention. I am told that many of the County Committees hold their groundsmen responsible for the wickets and in such circumstances one can well understand their unwillingness to prepare anything but the most perfect wickets in case they are blamed for injuries which batsmen may receive or for wickets which do not last the full duration of a match.
It is difficult, however, to believe the story which so many of them tell: namely, that if pitches are to fulfil these requirements they must be very intensively prepared and will, therefore, generally be easy paced.
It is possible that there may be one or two grounds where the turf or foundation is such that the maximum preparation is necessary in order to produce reasonable wickets, but these grounds are fortunately few and far between.
So far my comments have been mainly destructive and no one deplores that prevalent form of criticism more than I do. Here then, are my constructive proposals.
Under the present system many of the groundsmen have too much power and that I am sure is a mistake, as some of them have become almost autocratic. I would therefore urge that all County Committees should appoint sub-Committees, who would not only relieve the groundsmen of much of their responsibility, but also outline the general policy regarding the preparation of wickets. In putting forward this suggestion I may be treading upon rather delicate ground, for the preparation of cricket pitches requires technical skill. My idea, however, is not so much that these sub-Committees should interfere with the curators' technique, but that they should be in a position to put some curb on their natural zeal when they deem it advisable.
As I have said before, each wicket may well need a different preparation, and the use of modern chemicals may be sometimes necessary, but much good would result if the period over which the preparation usually extends could be somewhat curtailed. To see that this policy was carried out occasionally would, of course, be one of the duties of the proposed sub-Committees.
The Surrey v. Middlesex match at the Oval this summer is the great example of the advantage of the shorter preparation. I am convinced that, had not the groundman been prevented from giving the pitch the treatment he intended, this match would have told a different story. No one would advocate the type of wicket which might be termed dangerous, nor the type on which the side winning the toss would be certain of victory, but the game to which I have referred proved that neither of these eventualities need necessarily occur.
I contend that a bowler will always attack a batsman when he considers he has a chance and a batsman will play a more open game when he realises that he has more to do than just stay there for runs to come. Some people may argue that if more natural wickets were prepared, the county matches would frequently not last the full three days. I do not think that would be the case, but if it were so it would not in my opinion be a disadvantage. On the last day of a match, unless there is a good chance of an exciting finish, the attendance is usually so small that it is hardly worth considering.
If finance must come into the argument, it is fair to suppose that a spectacular match lasting two days will probably bring in receipts as large, if not larger than a dull one lasting three days. I am not advocating the shortening of time allotted for County matches, but shorter matches, if ending early on the third day, must help regular players, many of whom clearly suffer from excess of cricket, and would so tend to raise the general standard of play.
In recent years several experiments have been put to the test in first-class cricket with excellent results, so surely, this scheme which I have attempted to outline is also worthy of a trial. In urging its adoption, I am not doing anything new. The Hon. R.H. Lyttelton has for a long time been pressing for this change of policy, and Mr. A.C. MacLaren, as far back as 1905, wrote an article in Wisden in which he appealed for a fair wicket instead of a billiard table.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was written before the report of the County Cricket Commission was published. The recommendations of the Commission are given in the Laws of Cricketsection of the Almanack.