What’s the ideal club cricket pitch and what are the visual signs to look out for at the toss? Rich Evans investigates.
As you drive into the ground and park up on the tarmac, your eyes scope out the playing area before homing in on the wicket – that thin piece of strip, hopefully distinctly creamier than the green outfield that surrounds it. You lug your kit bag out of the car boot, shake a few hands, plonk your bag down on the boundary edge and begin strolling towards the middle. The pitch lures you in. Its complexion fuels a variety of theories, but despite our infatuation with it, the average club cricketer has very little knowledge of pitch conditions. What do we really know, beyond, ‘It’s a green-top, it’ll seam’ and ‘It’s a dust bowl, it’ll turn’?
“There’s a huge lack of knowledge in club cricket about the pitch. I’ve spent 50 years in the game and I’m still fighting perception,” says Chris Wood, pitches consultant at the ECB.
As soon as you arrive you are getting visual signals and forming preconceptions. John Dodds, Scarborough CC’s groundsman, concurs: “The presentation is worth its weight in gold. You always get better feedback for a wicket that looks nice as soon as you enter the ground.”
We cricketers can be rather facile at times. When we purr over a ‘great wicket’ it’s usually a batsman’s paradise – a flat, pale track, with very little sign of grass – but what really makes an ideal club cricket wicket? Wood, formerly a groundsman at the Shenley Cricket Centre in Hertfordshire, says: “Any club cricket or recreational pitch from school upwards has got to be safe – that’s key. You’re looking for regular, even bounce. The last thing you want for club cricketers trying to develop their game is unpredictable bounce. It’s pure guesswork. A poor pitch will make an average player look good. But a good pitch will sort the men from the boys. If you’ve got good bounce, good carry, a bit of seam movement and a bit of turn, that brings every aspect of the game to the player to develop their skill-sets.”
For Dodds, it’s all about pace and bounce at ‘Scarbados’. “Fast pitches make good cricket wickets and keep the crowd interested. Scarborough tend to get the biggest county crowds anywhere in the country. People are saying, ‘We can’t take our eyes off the game, there’s always something happening’, whether it’s for slow bowlers or quick bowlers.”
Scarborough’s North Marine Road, which often hosts Yorkshire CCC, has scooped the ECB’s award for the best outgrounds pitch four times in the last five years. “Experience – that’s the secret,” says Dodds. “I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I don’t see too much difference between a good club wicket and a good county wicket, but the lower down the club spectrum you go, the more difficulty players have on quicker pitches, so I’ll put them on an older wicket, which is a bit slower.”
As a skipper, you’ve done the ritual inspection of the pitch but the last 15 minutes have been spent trying to locate bails and new balls, phoning the guy who’s always late, filling out the teamsheet and trying to organise a gentle warm- up. You arrive at the crease once more, 20 minutes before start of play, a little flustered. You make small talk with the opposing captain, before flicking a coin. He guesses wrongly. It’s your call. What do you do: bat or bowl?
“If it’s green and damp – if there’s been a lot of rain in the build-up to the game and there’s a lot of moisture – bowl first,” says Dodds. Wood, who has advised England players what to do at the toss, says: “It’s about knowing the forecast, knowing the conditions and having local knowledge. Each ground has its own idiosyncrasies, which are passed down through conversations with players who have played there. If it’s a good straw-coloured surface that’s dry and firm, then you might want to get your runs on the board. If you think it’s a poor pitch and will only get worse then you may also want to bowl later. In late-April, early May and September, you get a lot of morning dew. If there’s a bit of dew early doors then you think, ‘Right: I’d like to bowl on this’.”
Wood describes the “visual signs” captains should look out for when examining the pitch. They include: is it too green or is it nice and straw-coloured? Is it patchy, is it smooth and is there uniform grass cover? Is the grass cover too dense or too bare? How level is the surface and does it have any saddles (raised popping creases due to poor maintenance)? How much moisture is on the surface and are indentations likely? Are there any little divots or pot-holes? This is only scratching the surface. Wood applies a wealth of detail to his theories.
Dodds talks about the advantage of producing a distinctive pitch. “At club level, we play some games on the county pitches and I’ll always tell our captain to bowl first on those,” he says. “That’s purely because in our area there’s no one else who plays on these types of [quick and bouncy] pitches. That’s worth two or three wickets with the new ball if our bowlers bowl in the right areas. But, apart from that, if the pitch is well maintained, then it’s always bat first.”
According to Dodds, “the biggest single thing that clubs don’t do is get enough water on the pitch and roll them out – it’s amazing how much water pitches need, especially when it’s dry”. He acknowledges that Scarborough is lucky when it comes to facilities and equipment, but he offers some advice for recreational clubs. “A decent cutter and ideally a scarifier are the top two pieces of equipment any village cricket team should have,” he says. “You can do so much with them. There are clubs in our area who can’t afford roll-on covers – or they get vandalised. A sheet is alright, but if it’s on for any more than 24 hours it will affect the surface. Even just covering the run-ups on a Friday night will get more games on.”
“For any cricket ground it’s essential you have a good, working heavy roller,” adds Wood. “That’s the most important piece of equipment. Then you need a pitch cutter of good quality with at least 10 blades to give you more cuts per metre. Then you need a pedestrian rake/brush combination to comb the grasses out.”
So what are the biggest challenges facing club cricket groundsmen? “The weather’s the biggest challenge,” says Dodds. For Wood, it’s “knowledge, experience and equipment”. Club cricket’s dwindling volunteer pool is also a factor.
“You think: ‘I enjoy spending a bit of time at the cricket ground’, so you go down and put a bit of effort in,” says Wood. “Then you play in a side and they’re having a right go at you because there’s no bounce and everyone’s struggling on it – and they let you know! And you think, ‘Sod this!’ I can walk on the pitch and tell what it’s going to do, but that’s taken a lifetime. Getting through to club cricketers so they appreciate you is a bloody hard job!”
The next time we complain about a pitch – and let’s face it, we all do it – let’s spare a thought for the poor groundsman, without whom we wouldn’t be playing at all.