On the preparation of wickets

AC McLaren

It was only recently that steps were taken to prevent some of our groundsmen from using other materials than the heavy roller and the watering can in their preparation of cricket pitches. The groundsman had brought the art of preparing wickets to such a pitch of perfection that the poor bowler had little chance of success in fine weather, with the natural result of huge scores and drawn games, or rather unfinished games. Last season this super-excellence of wickets was not so manifest, since there was less talk about drawn games owing to more matches having been finished than formerly in a run-getting season. Many of us have, for the last four or five years, been convinced that the one and only way to improve our game, or possibly to bring it to the standard of excellence of a generation back, was the expulsion of those shining billiard table pitches which would play as well on the last as the first day of the match-pitches which must always be a temptation to even the unselfish batsman to take too long in getting a sight of the ball and, with that accomplished, to be too long at the crease for his runs. There are plenty of men on every side to-day who know how many they ought to get before the last man is sent back, and the moment when it is necessary to force the game which will be converted into a win provided all will play the game to enable the bowlers to have time to dismiss their opponents, who have to play the by no means easy losing game. Selfishness on the cricket field is seldom seen except when the wicket is perfect, and one man alone is sufficient, provided he be selfish, to undo all the good work of the other ten. Here is the man who is a nuisance to the game, and who causes people to suggest alterations in the implements of the same, when the abolition of the perfect wicket would be the means of ousting this player from the side, without a change in his methods, for the bowler seldom fails against this type of player except on the perfect wicket. Until five years ago, any batsman who could make his century in a county match, was, in my humble opinion, a good player, but owing to the too perfect wicket of the last few seasons, making it impossible for good bowlers to hold their own against only moderate batsmen who lay themselves out for runs, my appreciation of certain centuries of late years has been considerably less. More runs are made to-day, not because the batting has improved, but owing to the fact that the wickets have been over prepared-results, there have been fewer good bowlers annually, with a corresponding increase of good batsmen-enabling the good player to knock the ball about with such demoralising effect that, when the fair batsman comes along, the bowler has no reserve power left, resulting in this player to-day making far more runs than he would have done ten years or so back. Large scores undoubtedly improve one"s confidence, hence we have a lot more good batsmen than used to be the case, making it far more difficult for our bowlers than formerly, when there were fewer matches and not so many good batsmen on one side, to say nothing of the absence of the unnatural wicket that we have seen in the past few seasons. Good batsmen have not to fight for their runs, which come along more easily than used to be the case. The greatest mischief caused by these too perfect wickets is the compulsory cricket on the third day of the match without the remotest chance of a finish. This is the time, above all others, when our bowlers get ruined, having to bowl for some four or five hours without that enthusiasm so necessary if one is to be successful. This gruelling work, with no fitting reward at the end of it, is quite as fatiguing as the work meted out, at times, to some of our good bowlers who have to bowl so many hours at the nets to whatever duffer comes along. The after effects of these performances are so telling that it is not long before some of these bowlers acquire a mechanical sort of style with no variation whatsoever, making it impossible for them to become bowlers in the true sense of the word. It is absolutely necessary for us to finish more games if we are going to bring out any bowlers, and this will never be accomplished if our groundsmen continue to make such perfect wickets as are seen to-day. The very lengthy list of matches which Yorkshire, Surrey, and Lancashire have to get through is bound to tell, in fact, has already told its tale on the bowlers of the above counties. By the first week in August the Lancashire bowlers were bowled to a complete standstill, and this could also be said of the Yorkshiremen, whilst one does not require telling what overwork has done for Surrey. I have read that no one wants to see Australian cricket in England, but it can always be said of Australian cricket that the interest is kept up to the last, no matter how many days be required to bring a match to a conclusion, there being no sign of slackness on the part of the players, although they play in some matches which last double the time of ours and are decided under tropical conditions. The excellence of the Australian attack in England has been due, in no small measure, to the fact that our Colonial friends have never been sickened of bowling by playing season after season in matches, out of many of which all interest is taken owing to the fact that, long before the last ball is bowled, it becomes patent to all that no definite result can be possible. Although the bat has the mastery of the ball on the good Australian wickets, yet the very paucity of first-class matches causes the lengthy games to be welcomed, good cricket being witnesses throughout, which is more than can be said of some of our first-class matches. Here it is as well to point out that the perfect Australian wicket is not one wit better than the perfect English wicket, indeed, many of us prefer to bat on our good wicket, which allows us more time to watch the ball. The following are, in my opinion, the best batting wickets we have. Trent Bridge, fearfully overdone with marl, giving bowlers no chance whatsoever; Canterbury, when Lancashire played there, a naturally perfect wicket with no artificial aid; ditto Taunton and Bath; Oval, very good wicket, used to be artificially doctored, making it impossible for the bowler to break or bounce the ball; Leicestershire, another wicket far too good, over-marled; Birmingham, a naturally perfect wicket; Derby ditto; Worcester, naturally perfect wicket; Leyton, a perfect wicket, but naturally so; Hants. perfect. Other wickets there are which are not so heart-breaking from a bowler"s point of view, such as:- Lord"s.-A peculiar wicket often playing better on the second than on the first day; not infrequently breaks up on third day.,Brighton.-Good, but nothing like so perfect as formerly, breaks up at times. Yorkshire-Grounds good without being too good. Lancashire.-Possessed of life, enabling bowlers to send in a good one occasionally. A little marl has been added; generally considered a good sporting wicket. Gloucestershire-Good wicket at Bristol; at Gloucester bad.

The southern wickets, in many instances, have more than a week"s preparation, being well rolled and watered continually, whilst such a thing as a coarse piece of grass or weed is almost unknown. One frequently sees two other wickets prepared besides that upon which the match is being played. These, being in reserve for the following three days, will receive attention every morning and evening of those days upon which a match is taking place. Now these wickets, natural ones too, are too good for our cricket as it is now played, and that our cricket is not so exhilarating to watch as formerly the poor gates of to-day tell us, for the British public likes a finish, which will not be seen as often as it should be, not even with a vast amount of improvement in catching, which is as good as it ever was, at any rate in the last fifteen years. The same state of things is bound to exist until the wickets in fine weather receive considerably less attention at the hands of the groundsmen. I was much impressed last season by conversations with many of our bowlers concerning some of the perfect wickets upon which they had to bowl for half of their matches. For the most part these men stuck to their work against big odds very well indeed, and one could scarcely help feeling sorry when they good-naturedly grumbled at the perfect wickets. Success, no matter how little, inspires a bowler with a certain amount of confidence which improves a man considerably, but repeated gruellings without wickets will certainly have the opposite effect and cause a bowler to wonder if he ever could bowl at all. These men ought to be considered, for if they are not, the public will not come to our matches as formerly. The bowler of old had not to bowl against so many good batsmen in one match, had no chance of getting stale owing to the far fewer matches of those days, and lastly the wickets were nothing like so uniformly perfect. In Lancashire that gloss so frequently seen on southern wickets is not even noticeable from the pavilion before our matches start, because the wickets are not over-rolled. Our groundsman has also tough weeds to contend against, finding it impossible to get all of them up, thus causing a ball to kick up at times, with the result that batsmen play a rather more forcing game than they would do provided they could trust the wicket, as a batsman can when playing on three out of every four of our grounds. I consider that Old Trafford provides an ideal wicket and one for our three day matches about which no bowler should grumble, since his chance is about equal to that of the batsman. My last request at the end of last season was that our wickets should for the forthcoming season be as near to the standard of last season"s as possible. The over-preparation of a wicket is a distinct handicap to a good side, since it will often save a moderate side from defeat. Had Lancashire played upon the same billiard tables at Old Trafford as are met with at Trent Bridge, we certainly would not have had half so good a record as we actually did put up, likewise our wickets would not have suited Notts-a very uneven batting side. In my opinion, an ordinary county ground which is properly looked after, can produce an excellent wicket with but a couple of good rollings, whereas five out of six groundsmen are not satisfied until the wicket has been so thoroughly watered and well rolled day after day that the turf is as hard as adamant on the day of the match, with no earthly chance of the pitch breaking up. Is it surprising that our bowlers get sick of a hard season? The flighty bowlers such as Hirst, Hargreave, Hallows, Blythe, and J. Gunn, are the only type of bowlers to get good wickets on hard going, and their flightiness vanishes more or less as soon as the ball loses its gloss. Braund and Bosanquet, of course, may get anyone out, but the latter especially is more than expensive when it is not his day out, and that must always take a considerable time for a captain to find out, especially when he knows the length bowler with the overdone off-theory style will be of little use to him. These length bowlers have been absolutely compelled by the very excellence of the wickets to bowl well outside the off-stump on the chance of getting the batsman to cut at a wrong one, about the only possible way of sending a good man back when facing this type of bowler, who would certainly bowl straighter if the wicket would occasionally render him sufficient assistance to permit him to break the ball enough to beat the bat. If we only gave our length bowlers a fair wicket instead of a billiard table, spectators would see freer cricket from batsman who prefer to thoroughly tire a bowler out and then wait for instead of making their own opportunities, for the man who goes in for defence has a very poor show against a Jack Hearne spinning the ball on a hard wicket. With less perfect wickets to play upon, the game would not last so long, nor would it be robbed one bit of its science, which assuredly it will be if ever stumps are lengthened or widened and bats lessened.

© John Wisden & Co