Sticky wickets make for more engrossing cricket, 1986

Covering by degrees

England's cricket authorities moved so cautiously in the matter of pitch covering the more than a century separated the first move in 1872 and total protection. The start was made at Lord's with pre-match covering of the prepared pitch. The game then spent 38 years digesting the implications of that before the protection of pitch ends during playing hours was introduced in 1910. Nearly another 70 years passed before the ultimate point, for good or ill, was reached with authorisation of total pitch protection against rain at all times for Test matches in 1979, and for all first-class games in 1982. Now, a further four years on, many counties are again of the opinion that it is a better Championship when pitches are partly open to the elements.

Overseas progress toward full covering was so much quicker that England's touring players first experienced all-dry Test match pitches in Australia in 1954-55. Australia had already legislated, by then, for all-embracing protection in state matches.

Between 1872 and 1985 administrators in England were not always consistent. The regulations issued were sometimes vague, even contradictory, and hedged around by such cumbersome phrasing as prior to the commencement. Moreover, although the same representatives sat on both the Advisory County Cricket Committee and the Board of Control for Test Matches at Home, before the TCCB was formed, the two bodies were apt to take diametrically opposed courses. This inevitably made life awkward for umpires, who were bombarded with Instructions for Umpires, Additional Instructions, Further Additional Instructions and Special Instructions, plus Notes for Scorers and Umpires.

In 1907, for example, the Further Additional Instructions stated that Counties should be advised to instruct their groundsman not to cover a pitch within 24 hours of a County match. Was that an advice or an instruction? Again, in 1924 the Advisory Committee moved to help insolvent counties with covering legislation designed to produce more play in wet weather. The regulation issued, however, must have been confusing to groundsmen and umpires. It stated that total covering may be adopted from 11.00 am on the previous day until the start of a match, and went on to say that subsequently the ground may be again protected when necessary. If that seemed to give the go-ahead for full pitch protection against rain, even during the hours of play, it was promptly contradicted. The regulation went on to deal further with the playing hours, laying down that only an area of eighteen by twelve feet could be covered at each end, not extending more than three feet six inches in front of the popping crease. In the late 1930s the area restriction was removed to allow much more of the bowler's run-up to be protected. Later still, the projection in front of the crease was increased to four feet.

Not only did the Board of Control tend to move in the opposite direction from the Advisory Committee; at times it moved in both directions at once. While its Rule 28 stated that the covering practice in vogue at each ground should be adhered to, it stipulated, in 1928, that for the Tests against West Indies the pitch shall not be completely covered before [my italics] or during a Test Match. This was repeated for the New Zealand Tests the following year, still without Rule 28 being amended

Before the Second World War, limited pitch covering did not materially change the character of the game in England, though total protection before the start increased the importance of winning the toss and hence first innings. Before pitch ends were covered in 1910 there was no question about who should bowl on stickies. With the ground in that condition only slow bowlers could enjoy a secure foothold. If the pitch was fit to play, umpires and players largely ignored the soggy state of the surrounding ground, as they were still doing, at times, many years later. In 1952 Jim Laker slipped while fielding on wet ground at Old Trafford, after bowling only two overs in the third Test against India, and dropped out of the attack. It was different abroad, where grounds generally dried more rapidly. During the 1936-37 MCC tour of Australia Verity was kept from the spinner's traditional Tom Tiddler's pitches while Voce and Allen bowled fast and with success. Even after restrictions on the covering of run-ups were lifted, the quicker bowlers still had to be careful when following through beyond the three feet six inches mark or the four feet mark. When, finally, unrestricted covering was introduced, all hazards were removed for such bowlers - but there were now no more stickies for them to exploit!

After the second war, cricket continued to move cautiously in the matter of covering. The 1947 Code contained the first actual Law on the subject. Law 11 stated The pitch shall not be completely covered during a match unless special regulations so provide. The three feet six inches stipulation remained, but no limit was set to the ground behind the stumps which could be protected. In 1958 Special Instructions for Umpires in first class matches laid down that if both captains and umpires were in agreement that a pitch was already so saturated that more rain could substantially delay resumption, then the whole pitch could be covered. The umpires then had to decide when to uncover. To expect such agreement was the height of optimism, for the trickiest decision, which umpires had to make frequently, came after captains had disagreed about pitch and ground fitness following rain. A year later the ICC - then the Imperial Cricket Conference - decided to allow complete covering as soon as a decision was taken to abandon play for the day.

The voluminous Regulations for First Class Matches, 1962, carried one astonishing entry. At the end of the section on Test match covering came: In 1963 the pitch to be covered only at weekends or perhaps when saturation point is reached. Cricket, as may be seen, was still some way from making up its mind on the matter after nearly a century of deliberation. Indeed there was hope among some and fear among others that the whole process might be reversed. In 1966 the Advisory Committee, nothing support in the counties for a move back to uncovered pitches, decided that, while allowing weekend and night pitch protection, there should be discretion for home counties to adopt less covering. But in 1969 it was back to a standard regulation.

The march towards full covering seemed to have been resumed, but in 1971 there was a hiccup. The Test match conditions were unaffected, but for others first-class games only covering of the ends was allowed, at the times including nights and weekends. However, total covering throughout was eventually authorised in 1979, 107 years after the first move in this intricate and wavering affair.

Sir Donald Bradman is numbered among those in favour of protecting pitches, a formidable advocate convinced that cricket is a game to be played exclusively on dry ground. Most batsmen who have not experienced the challenge of a sticky dog probably feel the same way. That total covering enables play to be resumed more quickly after rain and so provides more play is certain, though whether quantity can compensate for some loss of quality is not so certain.

Today, supporters of a fielding side in one-day cricket are excited in a tight finish by each ball bowled without a run conceded. Spectators used to be similarly thrilled by each ball successfully countered by a skill batsman fighting the turning, lifting ball on a drying pitch. None present at The Oval on August 17, 1926, can ever have forgotten the feat of Hobbs and Sutcliffe in defying Australian spin on a pitch made spiteful by a thunderstorm the previous night. In particular there were heart-stopping overs of kicking off-spin from Arthur Richardson, most of them played by Hobbs, from which just one single was scored. An ordinary side could have been dismissed entirely that morning. Yet England's openers played through to the comparative calm of the afternoon and scored 172 together. I very much doubt whether such resourceful batting skill as shown that day could ever be developed by players batting only on the dry.

That the regulations have been changed so regularly indicates the strength of conflicting views about whether or not to cover. Those in favour argue that more play becomes possible when grounds are protected. The opposition prefer less, but more gripping, cricket on pitches made testing by rain. Both as player and spectator I am in the uncovering lobby. In the former capacity I treasure the memory of batting against George Macaulay and Verity on a sticky at Oxford, and lasting long enough to savour the excitement.

When looking back, I find that many of my watching highlights relate to games played on the wet, including the Hobbs- Sutcliffe epic at The Oval. In Brisbane in 1950 we marvelled at the craft of Len Hutton in similar conditions as he hit 62 not out while England were being routed for 122. Verity's match at Lord's in 1934, when he took fourteen for 80 in one day, also brought out the best in the obdurate Woodfull, who held up Verity for two hours and scored 43 in a total of 118. That match, heading for an inconclusive result, was reborn by rain. After two of the four days England had made 440 and Australia 192 for two. No excitement was anticipated until, on the Sunday night, rain fell.

Cricket on the wet is more engrossing to me than on the green-tops, which succeeded the sticky as the bowler's best friend when total covering was introduced.

© John Wisden & Co