The perennial question of pitches

THE number of matches being finished in two or three days in Test cricket will no doubt raise the perennial question of whether synthetic surfaces should be developed to replace traditional turf.

Obviously, the mere mention of such a dramatic change raises the hackles of the traditionalist even though the falling standards in preparation of grass surfaces threatens the quality of cricket.

Such pursuits come from all areas not only from those involved with the first class scene.

I remain a great traditionalist, but being brought up in Australia where over 90 per cent of all cricket is played on turf has not given me the same reverence for natural wickets as say in England.

I am often fascinated by the love affair so many have with turf, particularly those who play week after week on grass wickets that resemble a mine field, where every ball is likely to explode and do the unexpected.

I have little doubt that the greatest single danger facing cricket is the declining standard of turf wickets.

Irrespective of what the purists and the old timers will tell you, it is impossible to produce good cricket on inferior surfaces.

I have heard all the stories of memorable batting deeds on sticky wickets and I applaud the batsmen's skills.

I have also researched extensively and found the number of great innings played under such conditions were as rare in the past as they are now.

Poor turf wickets don't allow batsmen to develop their skills and are detrimental to bowlers because more often than not the wickets produce the results rather than the skills or hard work of the bowlers.

Already we can see this reflected in the later age when young batsmen are entering first class cricket.

My own career reflects pretty much the difference between now and then.

Being brought up on good practice wickets and perfect centre strips, I was able to gain the confidence, and hone my technique to be elevated to first class cricket at the age of 16.

While I was just a little younger than the norm, there was a galaxy of teenagers representing their respective States.

Every Sheffield Shield team had at least one and in New South Wales we had many, such as Norm O' Neill, Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson, Ian Craig (another 16-year-old) Brian Booth and of course the 17-year- old Doug Walters.

In those days, it was said if you don't make a State team by the time you were twenty, you probably wouldn't play first class cricket.

Today I feel sorry for the youngsters who are forced to try and learn the game on terrible practice pitches and sub-standard centre wickets.

If the first class wickets are not right, you can understand what the lesser ones are like.

No matter how much talent a youngster has, he cannot develop the high technical skills or the confidence it takes to reach higher levels at a young age.

Little wonder then that most of our batsmen these days are not teenagers when they make the first class scene.

Bowlers are just as affected. If a batsman has to wait and see whether or not the ball will do the unexpected once it hits the pitch, how can the bowler be expected to put in the hard work needed to hone his skills when he knows that all he has to do to pick up wickets is hold the seam up and bowl straight.

Undoubtedly, this is why the game has been dominated for so long by fast seam bowlers.

Anil Kumble, Harbajan Singh, Shane Warne and others have evened the balance of late, but here again we must not make it too easy and produce "Bunsen Burners," turners, for it is just as vital for spinners to learn the vital lessons of flight, length and variation of spins so that they don't just rely on the helpful pitch.Whether synthetics are the answer we will never know until they are fully developed and tested.

That they must be tried I am positive of and particularly in the one-day game.

Television companies are becoming very restless with shortened and rained off matches.

They have paid huge dollars for the TV rights and expect to get the full cricketing time they have paid for.

Synthetic pitches will not save rainy days but they will certainly allow cricket to resume sooner.

I have somewhat of a vested interest in synthetic cricket surfaces and have been involved in their development for a number of years.

After having preached the need for either an improvement in turf wickets or the production of a synthetic substitute, I was challenged to put up or shut up.

However, this has not affected my views and I trust my judgment in this matter.

To me the ideal surface is a true perfect turf wicket.

No greater enjoyment can be had than playing on such surface. If it is not possible to produce and the game is being threatened by an inferior surface then we must look for a substitute.

The general argument against synthetic surfaces is that they do not provide variety and would thus take away some of the skills from the game.

This criticism was levelled when tennis faced the same synthetic/natural grass dilemma.

Subsequent events of course have shown that a consistent synthetic surface has in fact dramatically improved the standard of tennis.

It is my belief to offset this argument that variable synthetic surfaces will be developed to cover this. For instance, in a five-day match, a fast wicket, slightly helpful to the fast bowler could be used for the first day.

This could be replaced for days two and three by an ideal batting strip. A surface for day four could spin a little while day five could be a spinners' delight.

These surfaces would be laid over a specially developed and on a permanent base such as concrete.

This is how the ideal turf Test wicket should play, in reality I have only seen two or three which have played in such a fashion. With further research, surfaces such as this can be developed in synthetics.