A lot to be done to improve the quality of pitches

One of the great joys of my cricketing career has been the opportunity that it has given me to travel and enjoy the beauty of various countries and marvel at the skills of our forefathers.

One of the great joys of my cricketing career has been the opportunity that it has given me to travel and enjoy the beauty of various countries and marvel at the skills of our forefathers.

Workers prepare the ground at Nairobi Gymkhana, before the start of the World Cup matches in Kenya. "It seems the groundsmen have lost the art and skills of preparing good pitches," says the author. — Pic. AP-

I have always been amazed by the beautiful and huge buildings that were built long ago and I am mystified how they were built in what we assume was primitive times.

In the end, I have come to the conclusion that many, many skills and methods have been misplaced or indeed just forgotten in the passage of time. On a much smaller scale, I think the same thing has happened in the preparation of cricket pitches.

This feeling came to my mind yet again, when a Pura Cup match was abandoned on the second day, between West Australia and Tasmania, at the Bellarive ground in Hobart recently. Twelve months ago this strip was considered the best Test batting wicket in Australia. But now a match had to be abandoned because it was too dangerous for the batsmen to play. Why?

If this was just an isolated incident, you can dismiss it as bad luck. Unfortunately, poor quality of pitches are becoming all too common and in recent times we have seen India play in very poor batting conditions throughout their tour of New Zealand, and a few years ago an England-West Indies match was abandoned on the first day due to poor pitch condition.

That too many Test matches are over in three or four days and some in just two days show the quality of pitches in which matches are being played. This is of course crazy and disastrous for cricket.

India has had this problem in recent times and this has often led to a charge that pitches are being prepared to home country's advantage. Too often this is being accepted. It seems the groundsmen have lost the art and skills of preparing good pitches. I have no doubt that much of England's current woes can be due to specially prepared pitches. Almost every country has dabbled with "special" pitch preparation, not necessary for Test matches, but certainly for their domestic competition. This to the disadvantage of cricket overall.

England, in a bid to improve their cricket a few years ago, introduced four-day county cricket. They thought this would improve the quality of the game. This didn't work as it should be, and instead of a match running the full four days, they were over in two or three days on batting mine fields. England and other countries have gone to a stage now that they prepare flat surfaces that will last the full distance. The good old skills of groundsmen have generally been lost and new scientific approach is being tried on ideas and theories, which just haven't been tested properly.

England is a classic example and some years ago, the ECB decided that all grounds should use the same soil and grass. It has been a disaster, because the clay content of the soil was far too high and thus inhibited the grass from growing and when it did, it only sprouted on the surface in clumps, which made it nearly impossible for the ball to bounce evenly.

Most groundsmen in England are now frantically trying to kill this grass off and replacing it with grass more suitable to local condition and soil in the area. Interestingly only one club in England, Somerset, withstood the pressure from Lord's, and refused to plant the "new grass" or use their recommended soil. That is why Taunton is still the best wicket in England.

Australia has run into trouble in recent times, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne with their experiment on grass. All the experts decided this "new grass" was the way to go and their laboratory test proved it so. Wrong. Unfortunately, it appeared that no Tests had been made using the new `wonder grass' with hard pitch soil. As a result the grass couldn't penetrate the surface to the depth needed to survive. Australia's harsh summer and the wear and tear, due to hectic cricket schedule, take its toll.

I could never understand these experiments when there was nothing wrong with the good old fashion, which had served Australia so well for over 100 years. Undoubtedly, the major worry about cricket pitch preparation is the lack of common sense and the diminishing skills of groundsmen throughout the world.

Grass, soil and special growing substances have been experimented with and in many areas it is used to the disadvantage of the ground.

The SCG, the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the WACA in Perth have all had major problems because of fiddling with wonderful surfaces. This has turned them into inferior cricket pitches.

I have two lasting memories from my youth. In grade cricket the groundsman was the last person to leave the field prior to the start of play. And at the end of the day as we leave the field, the groundsman will be walking towards his beloved playing square.

These days, pitches are prepared on Friday afternoon for a Saturday match and the groundsman is not seen again until Monday.

The shortage of quality groundsmen had become so acute that several years ago a Vietnamese gentleman who attended the roses in a park was elevated to groundsman even though he had never prepared a cricket pitch in his life.

Come Saturday his first cricket pitch was ready for play, the umpires took less than an hour to abandon the match due to the poor condition of the pitch. My other memory was going to practice at the Sydney Cricket Ground and noticing that the water sprinklers were always going full blast on the main areas. The ground at that time was undoubtedly the best in the world.

Ten years after I retired I was asked to make a comeback during the Packer Series. I was amazed how the ground had deteriorated. It was dry and dusty with a space covering of grass.

No hoses were in sight, and computers were being used to decide where to water the ground. Such is the progress, I suppose, but give me the old timers if you want regular wonderful cricket surfaces.

Poor quality pitches are the greatest dangers to the development of the game. If you cannot have a flat surface, bowlers and batsmen cannot hone their skills.