March 20, 2017

How do you feel about artificial pitches?

Unless they can exhibit the variety that turf pitches have, they risk devaluing the game by stripping away subtlety

If artificial pitches can offer variety, it's worth thinking about using them © Getty Images

When it comes to describing pitches to a fellow club cricketer, few terms induce the grimace that "artificial" does.

Non-turf strips have something of a bad reputation. Bowlers feel they are on a hiding to nothing, while batsmen feel they have no excuse to not score heavily. To an extent, this perception is unfair, since these pitches are not always the batsman's paradise they are assumed to be.

While their pace and carry may be limited, they can permit a degree of movement. Five-wicket hauls are far from unknown. The advantage of increased playability should also not be undervalued.

At the recreational level, where so much effort goes into getting the necessary players to the ground, anything that boosts the likelihood of the game going ahead has to be a welcome development. With many clubs struggling for volunteers, the less demanding requirements when it comes to maintenance are also a significant point in favour of artificial pitches.

Reliability is also a key benefit. In 2014, Mike Selvey wrote in the Guardian of his local club opting, against his advice, to install a grass square rather than an artificial surface. A few months down the line the pitch started misbehaving dangerously. There's now no club; it would be foolish to place this solely at the door of its unruly turf, but it cannot have helped matters.

None of this is to say that artificial pitches should be the primary choice, or that they are generally preferable to grass. Natural grass pitches continue to command the affection of both players and spectators. Discovering, adjusting to, and exploiting the vagaries of individual pitches continue to make cricket on such surfaces interesting.

A young cricketer plays on rubber matting, 1950 © PA Photos

With all that in mind, how should we assess, then, the ECB's idea of playing its new T20 competition on artificial pitches?

While the reflex of most cricket lovers might be to retch at the thought of professional cricket being played in such conditions, it should be remembered that it would be nothing new. Even Test cricket, that most traditional of formats, has been played on jute matting - which is nothing if not a sort of artificial pitch. Illustrating how such a surface can reward both batsmen and bowlers, the Lucknow Test between India and Pakistan in 1952 saw Nazar Mohammad carry his bat for 124, while Fazal Mahmood finished with match figures of 12 for 94. Non-turf pitches are, in fact, so firmly a part of cricket that they even receive particular attention in the standard MCC Laws (7.5 and 10.8).

Artificial need not mean evil. Unfortunately the very words "artificial" and "synthetic" convey the notion of unhealthiness. It's only a matter of time before the term "fake" joins them. If it hasn't already happened, "fake cricket" will surely be the next lazy epithet to be wheeled out to condemn any unwelcome development in the game.

Indeed, there is a risk that the anti-artificial-pitch movement gets caught up in the misguided quest for authenticity, glimpsed in many spheres today, from food to clothing to music to theatre. It's all too easy to become attached to fixed ideas of representativeness, and thereby fail to appreciate the potential of alternatives to the status quo. Fair play, then, to the ECB, not an organisation renowned for unconventionality, for thinking outside the box.

If the misguided quest for authenticity is one extreme, then the other is the misguided quest for saleability. It appears that the major reasons why the ECB is contemplating such a move are: firstly, to procure the steady rainfall of sixes it deems to be necessary to render an attractive spectacle; and secondly, to ensure that more traditional rainfall need not jeopardise play.

What's your favourite shade of green? © Getty Images

It has to be admitted that an artificial pitch might well provide a better spectacle than some of the pitches used for T20 in recent years, including at major grounds such as Lord's. The desire to improve the experience for spectators isn't a fault. Nor is the wish to minimise lost playing time, although it should be observed that often it is the outfield rather than the pitch that delays restarting play.

No, the reason why artificial pitches for T20 are a Bad Thing™ is because they sell the game short, robbing it of its potential. If the competition is truly about attracting new audiences to the game - a worthy aim - it makes no sense to deliberately devalue that game. Cricket relies on variability for its interest. Identical artificial pitches represent the ultimate form of homogenisation. Stripping the game of another layer of subtlety - and despite what its critics may say, there is plenty of subtlety in T20 beneath the surface - would be foolish, counterproductively reducing its ability to obtain new fans while simultaneously alienating existing ones.

If, on the other hand, we could construct artificial pitches that vary throughout the game, and which can be produced according to differing specifications, cricket would be enhanced. Single-use surfaces that provide both high variability and high playability could be the future, especially for temporary venues such as Olympic stadiums - should cricket ever get that far.

For the moment, however, for anything other than recreational cricket, artificial pitches deserve no more than a grimace.

Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK. @LiamCromar