Dissatisfaction with English pitches, 2001

Back to grass roots

David Green

Writing as one who first played county cricket 42 seasons ago, and has remained close to the game in one capacity or another, I cannot recall a time when English pitches have caused such dissatisfaction. Despite much-trumpeted advances in knowledge of soils and grasses, and the development of more sophisticated equipment for groundsmen, squares are widely considered unsatisfactory and attract blame when England's Test side performs poorly.

As far back as I can remember, the playing authority - in earlier times, MCC - would keep an eye on pitches. Should a square arouse concern, Bert Lock, the long-serving groundsman at The Oval, would be despatched to offer remedial advice. Now and then, first-class cricket at a particular ground might be suspended while improvements were made - or cease altogether in extreme cases. More recently, harsher measures have been deemed necessary. Championship points have been deducted for poor surfaces; pitch police have been introduced. In 2000, former players such as Tony Brown, David Hughes and Phil Sharpe, operating under the leadership of former England captain Mike Denness, became what were euphemistically called "pitch liaison officers". Their brief was to check that pitches were only lightly grassed, so as not to favour seam bowlers, hard and dry to provide pace and carry for the quicker bowlers, and wearing sufficiently towards the end of the match to help spinners.

PLOs were deemed necessary because two things were happening. First, too many pitches were starting damp. This was one way to ensure that they lasted four days, and that points deductions were avoided. But it also meant that, although seam bowlers received encouragement on the first day, the surface did not wear enough for spinners to gain any purchase. Second, the introduction of substantial prize money for high places in the Championship, along with the presence of high-profile, highly paid coaches, who had to deliver success to keep their jobs, led some counties to produce pitches that were over-helpful to bowlers. And, with the two-division County Championship, promotion and relegation also entered the equation.

It has, of course, been the practice throughout cricket's history for sides to prepare pitches that suit their bowlers. But pitches of regular bounce, which turn or seam, are a different matter from those on which one ball threatens the ribs and the next hits the base of the stumps.

Monitoring should eliminate deliberate "fixing" of pitches. Of more concern to David Bridle, head groundsman at Bristol for 35 years, has been the tendency towards central control of pitches, which he feels has increased over the past 20 years. "There seems to be more and more pressure towards a uniform type of pitch. First Surrey loam was pushed, then Ongar loam. Also, the coarser rye-grasses were recommended ahead of the fine fescue grass favoured in the past." Rye-grass, if not cut close, offers greater movement off the seam. "The problem is that Ongar loam doesn't bond with all soils, and when there's no bond the surface cracks like crazy paving. Wehave too many different types of soil in this country for standardisation to work." Denness, however, rejected the idea that standardisation was being imposed, insisting that a menu of treatments had been set out from which groundsmen could make their choice.

Bridle, among a good many others, was also worried about the effect on squares of covering by flat-lying tarpaulins for extended periods, often for days at a time. "This appears to me to be hindering the strong, even growth of grass needed for cricket. It has also crossed my mind that covers keep off an awful lot of rain, which would have soaked the squares in pre-covering days. Maybe the cracking that occurs at Headingley and elsewhere is due to squares not getting enough rain."

Such doubts about the long-term value of covering pitches are shared by many who played or watched cricket on fully uncovered pitches. Yet the case for covering is a strong one. Prior to 1970, county pitches remained uncovered after the start of mid-week games, though for matches beginning on Saturday the pitch was covered from Saturday evening to start of play on Monday morning. (This was in that blissful age when county matches were all of three days, started on Wednesday or Saturday, and cricket followers knew where they stood.)

The game, however, was undergoing changes. The need to restore its finances had led to the introduction of the Gillette Cup in 1963 and the John Player League in 1969. Sponsorship was the buzz-word. And so that cricket's new benefactors, along with their corporate guests, would have as much play as possible, it was decided that pitches would be covered overnight, and in addition that covers would be brought on as soon as play had been called off for the day. This, an entirely commercial decision, saved pitches from a good many soakings, but inevitably made life that much harder for spin bowlers.

With Test match pitches in England by now fully covered, and sponsorship increasingly important in balancing the books, the move to full covering in the Championship, made in 1981, was predictable. It was also argued that the other cricketing countries covered their pitches, that covering would mean faster, truer surfaces, which in turn would improve our cricket, and that the leg-spinner - that elusive butterfly of English cricket - would come into his own. In other words, all would be well.

In fact, three-day cricket and covered pitches did not mix. There wasn't time to play out games properly; a plethora of last-day chases ensued, with cheap runs frequently being fed to batsmen to set up a target. It was hardly the way to develop Test cricketers.

The powers that be, realising something was wrong, returned in 1987 to uncovered pitches during the hours of play. Only this time, instead of covering just the bowler's landing area, as had been the case from time immemorial, they covered his run-up and his follow-through as well. Not surprisingly, fast bowlers rather than spinners operated on rain-damaged pitches, and a number of cricketers still in the game today had enough nasty experiences that year to put them off uncovered pitches for good. Covering was resumed and, to obtain more proper finishes, four-day matches were introduced, at first as an experiment, then to the exclusion of three-day. This seemed a better bet. An extra day's play would, in theory, give pitches more time to wear. But, on the surfaces now being prepared, this has not often happened. Instead, the ball tends to skid off the pitch, albeit at no great pace, rather than causing it to dust. These circumstances have led to a perceptible slackening in batting techniques. With the ball scarcely deviating for the seamers, and spinners finding it hard to relinquish the flat trajectory required in the three limited-overs competitions, it became possible to score reasonably heavily without positive footwork, and without always watching the ball on to the bat.

Those who have not experienced fully uncovered pitches should realise that they were only rarely physically threatening to a batsman. Fast bowlers, because they could not keep their feet, generally could not operate on wet pitches. For slow bowlers, however, and particularly for finger-spinners, such a pitch, as it dried, would form a slight crust from which the ball would "pop" towards the splice of the bat or the glove.

In these circumstances, good footwork and judgment of length were essential for survival. The bowler, meanwhile, needed the strictest control because, with four or more close catchers, there were big spaces to thump the bad ball into. True, a hard pitch might "fly" for a few overs after a shower, but the odd smack in the ribs has always been part of the game. In good weather, there was little difference from today except, vitally, that pitches left open to wind, dew and early sun had a good deal more life in them. Moreover, they generally started as true as the groundsman could make them. There was little point in making "result" pitches when there was a good chance of the elements making them awkward anyway.

However, for all the variety and spice uncovered pitches brought to the English game, they are now among the deader ducks. The compilers of the 1997 MacLaurin report, "Raising the Standard", canvassed old players and umpires about covering. The report acknowledged their overwhelming vote to uncover, but discounted it by saying that, as modern pitches "might be dangerous when wet", covering would remain. Mike Denness has admitted to me that no one actually thought of wetting one to find out what might happen.

English cricket, then, seems likely to remain dominated by bowlers who rely on swing, seam or a combination of both. In fairness, there were signs last year that, on pitches starting absolutely dry, there can be sufficient encouragement for spin on the fourth day. Even so, with England scratching about for one spin bowler of Test quality, it bears recalling that there were times when they picked three in the same side. At Kingston in 1953-54, they won the Fifth Test with an attack comprising Bailey, Trueman, Laker, Lock and Wardle to level the series 2-2. Tony Lock and Johnny Wardle competed for the England slow left-armer's position for a decade, with bowlers of the quality of Sam Cook and Malcolm Hilton hardly getting a look-in. Jim Laker was a great off-spinner, but he had strong challengers and at different times gave way to Roy Tattersall, Bob Appleyard and Jim McConnon. More recently, Derek Underwood, one of the finest bowlers of his time, lost his place, albeit temporarily, to Norman Gifford, then to Phil Edmonds.

Such days are not likely to return under present pitch-covering regulations. Because we miss the contrast and the technical challenge that spin provides, and because batsmen in today's domestic game are plainly missing it, too, this is a matter of regret for many of my generation.

David Green played for Oxford University, Lancashire and Gloucestershire between 1959 and 1971; in 1969, he was one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. He writes on cricket for the Daily Telegraph.

© John Wisden & Co