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Clippings From Our Fanny

Welcome to our feature in which we present little bits and pieces from our Fanny who comments on all sorts of issues in cricket!

Of low skidders and heavy rollers

Copyright 1998 by Hot Off The Internet and Miss Frances Bush.
This work may not be reproduced or distributed without permission.

Cricket is a game rich in debate - the relative merits of Waqar and Wasim, Test matches and one-dayers, jam tarts and Swiss rolls can keep cricketers locked in discussion for weeks. But few things generate as much comment, informed and otherwise, as the 660 square feet of rolled turf on which the game is focused. No other sport - well, possibly tennis, but who cares? - can depend so much on the behaviour of such a small strip of ground, and the terms in which that strip is discussed can be, to say the least, bewildering to the uninitiated. I hope this will help.

Let's look first at what the pitch is there for. From the bowler's hand to the batsman's bat, the ball travels about 58 feet. The bowler is aiming to land the ball on a spot on the pitch say 10 feet in front of the batsman. Against a fast bowler, who may be propelling the ball at 130 ft/sec or more, the batsman has about 1/3 sec before the ball hits the pitch, in which to judge the length and line of the ball and decide what shot to play. Once the ball has pitched, he has less than 1/10 sec until it hits his bat, enough time to make only the smallest of corrections. That's why the pitch is so important: a pitch on which the ball behaves predictably is easy to bat on; one that makes the ball bounce too much or too little, deviate sideways or slow down markedly on pitching is a different matter.

That's not to say that an easy batting pitch will produce the best game of cricket. The game is about the balance between bat and ball, and a pitch that offers the bowlers little hope of taking wickets will tend to produce high-scoring but sterile draws; Nottinghamshire's ground at Trent Bridge has been doing just that for years. Ideally, the pitch should reward bowlers for the effort they put in: a fast bowler should not see his attempted bouncer turn into a slow, waist-high longhop, while a spinner should be able to turn the ball sharply enough to trouble the batsman, but it should always take a good ball to get a good batsman out.

So what makes a good cricket pitch? Firstly, it should be even; not necessarily level - the square at Lord's famously slopes to one side - but the surface should be free from bumps and holes that would make the ball behave erratically. Then it should be firm; not rock-hard, but sufficiently resilient for the ball not to leave pitch-marks in the surface. It should be thinly but evenly grassed: too much live grass gives too much help to seam bowlers, but a bare pitch, without grass roots to bind the soil, will soon crumble to dust. Finally, it should be dry, because a damp pitch, like a green one, is too seamer-friendly. Ideally, the captain winning the toss should want to bat first, but the toss should not be crucial to the outcome of the match.

What I saw on my holidays

That may not sound like much to ask, but it's remarkably difficult to achieve, as anyone following England's 1997-8 Test series in the West Indies will have noticed. Pitches tend to get slower with age, so ground authorities periodically have them dug up and relaid. A new pitch, though, can take several years of watering and rolling to settle down and play consistently. With hindsight, then, it was crazy to try to play a Test match in Jamaica on a Sabina Park pitch that had been relaid only weeks before: there had not been time to compact the subsoil, and without that there could be no hope of a reliable surface on top. As we now know, the match was called off after less than an hour, because the pitch was too dangerous to play on.

The two matches that followed in Trinidad were unsatisfactory for a different reason. Those pitches - one of which, admittedly, the ground staff had had barely a week to prepare - offered too little pace and bounce, but too much sideways movement off the seam. Gus Fraser bowled superbly for his 20 wickets, but it's significant that Courtney Walsh hardly bowled a bouncer in either match - he knew that it would simply have been a free hit.

The pitch for the Fourth Test in Guyana was substandard too - understandably, since Guyana is in the grip of a drought, and the pitch was very dry. West Indies won the toss and had the best of the batting conditions, and England's batting crumbled almost as fast as the surface.

Barbados produced the best pitch of the series, and what would, but for the rain on the last day, have been the best match too. There was some life for the West Indies' fast bowlers on the first morning, but then England's Thorpe and Ramprakash made a superb recovery, in a style that would not have been possible in Trinidad or Guyana. The pitch had all the attributes of pace and consistent bounce, and brought the best from the players.

Perhaps the most remarkable pitch of the tour was the one for the final Test in Antigua. This too had been relaid only weeks before the match, but it played sufficiently well for West Indies to make 500 in their first innings, having bowled England out for only 127. They had some help from the groundsman though - he'd been afraid the new surface might crumble, and had watered it the day before the match. That night, it rained and he had to keep the pitch covered, so that when the match began, it hadn't had time to dry. West Indies again won the toss and asked England to bat and, between the showers, Ambrose and Walsh made life very uncomfortable for the England batsmen as the ball bit into the damp surface.

Is that a greentop shirtfront you're wearing?

Er, no. But cricketers use all manner of peculiar expressions to describe pitches. I've put as many as I could think of in our Dictionary, but if you come across any I've missed, try to relate them to the set of desirable attributes I described earlier. For example, a 'cart track' hardly sounds like a smooth, evenly-grassed surface, and it isn't. (My great-nephew played on one recently where, he says, he could feel the bumps through the soles of his boots. He took four wickets, inflicted several bruises and generally had a wonderful time.) On the other hand, a 'featherbed' is a batsman's paradise, where he has all the time he needs to choose his shots. And a 'bed and breakfast' pitch is even better - a batsman can book himself in and expect still to be there the next day.

Hey, Mr Groundsman, this pitch won't start!

Now that TV cameras get everywhere, no day's coverage of a Test match is complete without a Pitch Report, in which an ex-player turned TV pundit squats on the strip and points out the cracks and the dusty spots and speculates on how they will affect the day's play. In the Caribbean it was Michael Holding, before him Geoff Boycott. First to do the job, though, was Ray Illingworth, who developed the peculiar habit of sticking his car key into a crack and wiggling it, presumably to gauge how likely the crack was to widen. Boycott adopted the technique, but Holding was without key this winter; perhaps he was afraid he might lose it altogether.

I hope that helps, but if it's any consolation, most cricketers don't know much about pitches either. In any case, they can't afford to be fussy - you play on what's there or you pack up and go home.

-- Miss Frances Bush, Spinster, Tunbridge Wells

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