Shortly before the end of last year, there came forth from Lord's two decisions, independently made and announced yet inextricably linked, which together could have a profound effect on cricket in England, particularly at county level. Firstly, it was announced that the Test and County Cricket Board's Inspector of Pitches for the previous twelve years. Bernard Flack, would be retiring and would be replaced by The Oval's own dapper wizard of the wickets, Harry Brind, a younger and therefore more energetic man. Not long after, from the Board's winter meeting in early December, emanated the news that counties would run the risk of being docked 25 points if they contravened the Board's directive on the preparation of pitches suitable for first-class cricket, and offered instead surfaces which - consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or otherwise - were plainly the opposite.
It was a move by the TCCB to recognise and do something about what has become a major, if sometimes over-emotive, issue in our domestic game; even in fact in the international game. For example, at Old Trafford last summer, the West Indian captain, Viv Richards, accused England of preparing a poor, turning pitch to suit themselves. There were denials, of course; and even if the accusation had been true, much good the policy did England. But, warned Richards, don't have a go at West Indies if Sabina Park is knee deep in grass. Similarly, countries touring India and Pakistan in recent years have been confronted with pitches taking turn very early in a Test match.
But in England it is the County Championship pitches which have given rise to the most adverse publicity. Largely because some groundsmen are more skilled than others, and not least because of the vagaries of the British weather, there has always been a difference in the qualities of surfaces provided. It has been regarded as an acceptable variable in the game; particularly so in the days of uncovered wickets. What is generally felt to be unacceptable now is the deliberate preparation - or under-preparation as it usually is - surfaces specifically to ensure a result in county matches. It is not a new phenomenon. But in recent years, the practice appears to have become more prevalent.
What we need to understand initially is what is being done to pitches to make them so unacceptable, and also why counties have felt the need to take such measures. Conversely, we might ask what constitutes a good pitch in the first place. And from that arises the question of whether it is a bad thing anyway to provide pitches which, for all their faults, do at least produce some interesting cricket. Finally, if it is a bad thing, what can the counties, Harry Brind, and the TCCB Pitches Committee do about it?
On what constitutes a good pitch, the TCCB Pitches Committee is clear. Its 1983 report, soon to be revised, gives recommendations on the preparation of pitches suitable for first-class cricket. It opens with the following objective: At the commencement of a match, the pitch should be completely dry, firm and true, providing pace and even bounce throughout the match. In an ideal world, therefore, given trouble-free weather, a pitch should be at its freshest at the start, encouraging the pace bowlers while being consistent enough not to discourage the batsmen. As the match progresses, natural wear and tear should allow the spinners to play an increasingly prominent part. There should be an even but not excessive covering of grass, always bearing in mind that the true function of grass on cricket pitches is not to send seam bowlers into fits of ecstacy, but for the roots to bind the surface together. Preparation should begin ten days before the match, with careful watering and rolling by increasingly heavy rollers. The result - a belter, ready for play, ideally, the day before the start.
Frequently, though, and increasingly it seems, these standards are not being met. The weather plays its part, of course. A groundsman rarely has the luxury of ten days of fine weather to control his preparation. As often as not, as soon as he has watered copiously, as the directive suggests he should in a dry spell, the skies will open. But this, holes in the ozone layer and spacemen notwithstanding, has ever been so.
What is different, and consequently more insidious, is the frequency with which the standards are not met deliberately; and when not deliberate it is a sad reflection on the decline in some quarters to gang-mower, nine-to-five groundsmanship. Broadly speaking, a pitch can be affected deliberately in one of several ways. The most obvious of these is to raise the mower blades. This tactic, generally coinciding with the arrival of an overseas fast bowler, is so commonplace now that it seems almost churlish to single out any one county. But if Courtney Walsh can work the sort of miracle on my lawn that he managed, for example, at Cheltenham, I'd happily double his salary. An alternative to this is to remove any trace of grass whatsoever, even to the extent of scarifying the surface with the blades. Couple this with an absence of rolling - even a bit of discreet forking has not been unknown - and a pitch will turn from the off. At Calcutta in 1976-77, England were greeted with the disconcerting pre-match sight of groundstaff scrubbing the pitch with wire brushes! Just occasionally, the two techniques will be applied together - grass and rolling in the middle for the seamers, and the ends shaved.
Such pitches, however, are generally the product of skilled groundsmen. So, too, can be those which are left discreetly damp, but more often they are a camouflage for incompetence. The damage such surfaces can do to the game as a spectacle has been seen in the major one-day finals, when the match is virtually decided in the first hour. Early starts, with the inherent problem of dew, play their part, but not to the extent that so many games should be won by the side batting second.
It is true that Lord's, by virtue of the amount of cricket played there, particularly the number of show-piece games, has special problems. The groundsman simply does not have the time to prepare pitches as well as he might. It is, in these circumstances, hard to get the watering right. Yet - and this is speaking from experience - in the latter part of the 1970s, both the county and one-day pitches there invariably began sodden, dried out during play and then disintegrated. The top-dressing was wrong. Containing too little clay, it was incapable of holding the pitch together. This suited Middlesex, but essentially it was a disaster. The pitches for the one-day finals began damp not because the watering had been timed badly, but to stop them falling apart in front of a full house and television audience.
It is also true to say that at Lord's the authorities recognised that the pitches in general needed revamping, and MCC embarked on a programme of relaying, which appears now to be paying dividends. It is a course of action which many other grounds will find necessary. Quite simply, through constant use over the years and a gradual build-up of top-dressing from the original base, some pitches have become tired. An over-emphasis on rye grasses, which while strong-rooting tend, if not carefully managed, to grow in clumps, has not helped. They are a major cause of the variable pace in pitches and of the variable bounce which has resulted in the prevalence of hand injuries that plague the modern batsman.
If the poor quality of many pitches can be attributed to a combination of neglect and old age, and is thus beyond the control of administrators, might there perhaps be some justification for deliberately prepared result pitches? To put things in perspective, it might be worth quoting from the Editor's Notes in a previous Wisden. "It is a far smaller evil," Sydney Pardon wrote, "that the ball should jump up now and then, than that matches should be played under conditions that in fine weather give little hope of a definite result in three days..." No-one asks for a dangerous half-rolled wicket, but in three-day matches it is essential to have a pitch with a little life in it.
Considering this was penned in 1909, it shows a keen grasp of some of the problems facing the modern batsman in county cricket without, understandably, appreciating the overlying reason behind them. In the modern world, good cricket is insufficient on its own. The game survives on commercialism at all levels. To the counties, success on the field, which means winning, is paramount nowadays. Sponsors wish to be associated with a club not only for the prestige this brings but also because winning, however it might be achieved - and much success now can come from mediocrity - is often erroneously interpreted as excellence. Preparing pitches that aid this end is the easy option. Worcestershire now are a case in point. Few would argue that, at full strength, they are capable of winning any game they play. On good surfaces they would still be a decent bet for the Championship. Instead, just as Nottinghamshire have in recent years, they back their batsmen to give them enough runs, knowing that their bowlers can, by and large, outbowl the opposition on the pitches prepared.
One rationale given for four-day Championship cricket was that it would obviate the need for such practices, but in reality the four-day game will not change the attitude. If side A knows it can beat side B on a result pitch, it will continue to prepare the pitch accordingly, irrespective of the scheduled duration of the match. In fact, leading on from Sydney Pardon's theme, the possible alternative of flat, nothing wickets is equally if not more disheartening to players and spectators alike. Sporting pitches can provide magnificent entertainment, and if batsmen may disagree - occasionally they get things out of perspective, attributing their own incompetence to a supposedly poor surface - then they need also realise that they are employed in the entertainment business.
But the nub of the matter, away from commercialism and results, is whether the standard of the game is declining as a result of poor pitches. Already spinners are a protected species because of the preponderance of damp, green pitches which encourage seam bowling. Because pace and bounce are uneven, batting techniques have suffered. Quite simply, if cricketers are to perform their art to the full and, more importantly, learn with confidence, pitches have to be better than they are now, not only at first-class level but right through the system. You can see the problem, though. If we cannot get it right at Test level, what hope is there, say, at junior level?
The answer, in my view, has to be artificial surfaces, the technology of which is improving by the year. The vagaries of the pitch are one of the intrinsic charms of cricket, but players - batsmen and bowlers - should be allowed the chance to develop the skills needed to cope with this in some security. The day must surely come when, as a leader, one of our domestic competitions is played on artificial surfaces.
In the interim, the job of protecting our pitches rests with Harry Brind and the TCCB Pitches Committee. Brind's is a fair appointment; he is skilled, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. In the hope of raising both the quality of pitches and the standard of groundsmanship, his brief is to be educational - conducting seminars and counselling - as well as policing. But if the need arises, it is hoped that the justice of his committee will be swift. The job may not be easy, for the system is by no means without pitfalls. What, for example, if several pitches are reported on the same day? Then again, imagine a Nottinghamshire v Surrey cliffhanger, on a slightly flirty Trent Bridge pitch, with Surrey needing to haul back 25 points from Nottinghamshire to clinch the Championship title. Who polices the policeman? The answer, of course, is that Brind will make sure his own pitches at The Oval are above reproach and will expect the same of others. The 25-point penalty is designed to be a deterrent; but not to the extent that a regression to blandness becomes the order of the day. No-one will be thankful for that.