Those 22 yards

No, this is not about dhotis or lungis or sarees or any kind of dressing apparel but about a stretch of earth which on a certain day or days is the focus of attention of many billion eyes. Even a potter would find the complexities in preparing that bit of clay mind boggling, but then again when millions of dollars is at work and billions of people are watching a cricket match, with such extreme fervor, one has to be careful. In today’s cricket, the batsmen, bowler, the keeper get a lot of attention and recognition. Previously insignificant characters like umpires, manager, coaches, physio’s and so on are also finding avenues to make a name for themselves, so also score keepers and the video men. How about the turf guys? They are the only ones who can answer the question of if the placid looking turf would shoot the ball up to the batsman’s family jewels or instead get it to scud to his shin. Now and then you see the badly attired guy run to the pitch with a hammer or a handful of saw dust. Is that all there is to preparing the pitch? Some watering, rolling with a heavy or light roller, or some tasteful grass mowing? How  and when does this become an exacting science? Let’s take a look.

Well, needless to state that it is a difficult surface to create and manage, simply because it has to remain true over a period of time for a good cricket match to be played. It should not be a dead surface, for then, a strip of concrete would suffice. It should be somewhat variable in character over time supporting the different types of bowlers as the day goes by or as humidity increases or decreases. A firm pitch provides the right bounce for a batsman to play his shots and the bowler to bounce the ball in. A pitch that deteriorates with time and breaks apart to create a dusty surface would provide the gripping surface for spinners to tweak their balls and confound even the most experienced batsmen.

Then comes the challenge of players, teams and their management to understand the various types of pitches that are available or made available for a match. But naturally, the team knows their home pitches very well and know how they behave. But when they travel, it becomes a problem. You do not know what to expect. Usually you can see Gavaskar or Ravi Shastri or somebody like that walk up to the pitch and mope and poke around and make grand announcements that it is a hard pitch which will suit the pace bowlers or that the spinner is going to have his day that day. How would they know? Sometimes the team knows what to generally expect when they go on tour to say Australia and prepare for those pitches. Sometimes the Australians expecting just that under or over prepare the pitches to throw a spanner literally into the visiting team’s works. All that adds fun to the game.

So let us get to the basics. The surface is usually made of heavy clay and compacted heavily till it is close to concrete in feel. But for a surface to provide the right purchase for a pace bowler, you need it to have some grass. Growing grass on such a clay surface is no joke. In fact I can testify that growing and tending a lawn on simply normal home soil (with some clay underneath) itself is a tough task, especially in hot climes. I can imagine how difficult it is on a tight surface like a cricket pitch. Once all that is done and the first match is played, you can imagine the battering it takes with players and their heavy boots running up and down, the shooting forces of the rock hard cricket ball on certain areas as well as the batsman digging in at the crease areas with his spiked shoes and his bat. After such a match, it has to be readied again to be ship shape for the next with only a small gap. Usually they have parallel pitches in big arenas so you can alternate between matches, but this is more recent. On could now assume that with so much at stake on the very quality of the surface, the tending to it becomes an exacting science and that there are some rules and methods prescribed to get this done. And with that background, let me introduce to you the man who hides behind the scenes, the cricket pitch curator.
He is the one who has the challenging task. For a test match, he has to ensure that the pitch supports both the batsman and the bowler, and that the match lasts the period stated, i.e. the five days and ensure crowd satisfaction. Yes, of course country sentiments do come into play and a certain amount of deterioration is planned so that the team batting last on a dry pitch, faces ferocious spin. So the toss is very important, for the team batting last suddenly faces a turning ball if the opposition has a good spinner. Imagine the likes of BS Chandrashekar (my all-time favorite) bowling at Chepauk on the fourth day. Nobody in his right mind will outlast Chandru on such a day. But remember even though he was a genius, he still needed a crumbling pitch on the 5th day afternoon. If that happened on the 3rd or 4th day and both innings were completed a day ahead, then the venue losses money, hotels loose revenue, the sandwiches planned for the 5th day go waste, suppliers do not hit their revenue forecasts and they all look at the curator for answers. The spectator also feels cheated for he had planned to take leave and watch the hard fought match over all the five days. If the home team loses the match due to the vagary of a particular pitch, they again zoom in on the curator. But it is not always that the wishes of the team and the administrator match in such cases and the curator is the guy with the hot potato in his hands. Every now and then a batsman on the rampage or a bowler who has his special day wreaks havoc on such clever planning and take the pitch out of the playing equation, but then, by and far the pitch is the mainstay in the equation.

And so a lot of words have entered the lingo of a cricket commentator, he is the one who describes a pitch as ‘ugly’ or if it is true and ensures an evenly matched game, a ‘beauty’. How does the curator ensure the right surface? K Parthasarathy, the curator of the MA Chidambaram stadium explains - "We start by making the entire pitch firm. After that we water it selectively. The areas on either side of the stumps were kept dry, and so turned out to be loose. The line of the stumps was watered and rolled, so it stayed firm through the Test. I kept the square patches outside the leg stump, on either side of the wicket, really hard. It was difficult to get turn from that part as there would be no rough there."

Now does the above statement give you some idea of the strategy? The opposition had a particularly good leg spinner who had to be countered or else the match would have ended prematurely. It is not that a good spinner would not find a way out, in fact he would adapt immediately and change line length, spin type and pace to trick the batsman in such cases, but in this case, ShaneWarne just could not rip his leg spinners and spin India out. 

Notwithstanding all this, batsmen and bowlers do take some liberties of scoffing up the protected area of the pitch with their shoes and bats to loosen the surface somewhat and it is the umpire’s task to put a quick stop to it. In the old days the pitches were never covered and the game was really a gentleman’s game, but well, with big money and ungentlemanly spirit all around, it is different these days. Pitches are covered after the day to protect it from rain and dew, but then again as you can imagine this is where the trick is, the moisture on the pitch or lack of it can aid or make life difficult for a pace bowler.The curator is also responsible for the proper rolling, sweeping, covering (and uncovering) as we mentioned earlier, mowing, patching up and taking care of it during bad weather.

An so we have mainly bouncy pitches in Australia, somewhat fickle pitches in England, a mixture or dusty and flat or green top pitches in India, Pakistan Bangladesh and Sri Lanka supports mostly spin whereas the West indies usually produces balanced pitches. Pitches in South Africa are sometimes a mystery, with some very bouncy while others not so.

As you can imagine, it has become an exacting science and there is even an institute of groundsmanship which lays down guidelines for preparation of pitches. With that in mind, let us see what the laws dictate.
Interestingly before the match rules dictate - Neither umpires nor players are involved. The groundstaff, or equivalent, select and prepare the pitch. However, even before the toss, the umpires must ensure that the pitch is not too dangerous for play to take place and the captains must be allowed to inspect it, unless conditions prohibit doing so. During the match - All players have a responsibility to avoid damaging the pitch as far as that ideal is compatible with the movements necessary in playing the game. The umpires, however, have over-riding responsibility for its care and maintenance. The captain of the batting team of course gets an opportunity of using rollers on the pitch, light or heavy for upto 7 minutes.

So let us summarize, and understand some key phrases. Flat pitches favor batsmen whereas wet or green pitches favor shooters, skidders, and generally supports pace. A green pitch has longer grass retaining a little extra moisture and favors bowlers simply the ball can be made to behave erratically on such grass. Then we have a sticky wicket - a pitch that has become wet and is subsequently drying out, often rapidly in hot sun which again causes the ball to behave erratically, particularly for the slower or spin bowlers. But this is not so common these days. Finally we have dry pitches (you cannot water a pitch during a match) which favor spinners and are also termed as under prepared pitches. This kind of pitch is also termed as a 'dust bowl' or in some parlance, a 'minefield'. Spin bowlers obtain a lot of traction on the surface and make the ball spin at ‘right angles’ as Sidhu would joke. But remember also that the only other time the ball moves laterally is when it swings, and this is more related to weather and other ball surface dynamics, not necessarily the pitch.
Changing the pitch during a game has happened on certain occasions, and in such cases, umpires are to decide whether the pitch is fit for play, and if they deem it unfit, with the consent of both captains can change the pitch.

So preparing a pitch for a series is not the easiest. Sometimes the captain, the board of cricket and the curators are at odds with each other as it happened recently between MS Dhoini and Prabhir Mukerjee. Sometimes it is all done in unison and the intention is to jointly outfox the opposition and not to have five dreary days of slogging. 

There are a lot of tricks to creating a perfect pitch and experience with the grass and clay of a place provide the answers. The grass could for example be Bermuda, but the best clay may be from Pakistan, but for the grass to grow, the clay cannot be so impermeable. It is important to have grass grow on the super hard surface and not just grass on a soft surface which would then not elicit bounce. A drainage layer under the surface clay allows for a compacted sub-base. Curator parker in Australia for example supports the laying of giant plastic covers to heat and protect the ground, and encourage grass growth during the winter. According to them, a steady regimen of topdressing, cutting and rolling from the finish of the football season may produce a pitch that is flat and fair and durable. They use Rye grass to provide the right surface and the characteristic straw color.

India presents a challenge through according to Daljit Singh (Chairman Pitch committee)- He says that it is not easy having uniformity in pitches throughout the country since the climate and conditions vary in different regions. "We must be honest about this because the kind of bounce we will get in Kolkata will be different from the bounce we get in Mohali. The amount of side spin you will get in Chennai will be different from the side spin you get at Kotla. India is a vast country; in fact it is like a continent and the weather and soil is different in every region. The wear and tear is also different and the methods used to produce pitches are also different," he said ( rediff article )

But then, new trends come up like portable pitches – MCG in Australia pioneered it in 2000 or so, the portable cricket pitch technology, involving a lightweight steel frame, pitch construction method and installation machinery that makes the installation, removal and performance of the portable pitch system workable. The key benefit from the new technology is that it allows for more mature grass and root systems to develop, untouched by sand or other debris from the football season. The revolutionary system, which involves growing and nurturing cricket pitches off-site and “dropping” them into the center of the arena at the start of the cricket season, is probably very important for stadia that have to support all round the year use for various sports.

Finally what is a sporting track or a lively pitch? That is what we actually need - pitches that brings the fast bowlers into action, assists stroke play and then offers help for the spinners. Perhaps we will have more of them in India someday.

There is always somebody who want to go to great depths to study such matters. For such people I recommend “Studies on the oblique impact of a cricket ball on a cricket pitch – A paper by Davis james, Matt Carre, Stephen Haake”. Or read this article 

If you do want to see how the pitch is laid and prepared, see these videos. 1 & 2

If you want to see an atrocious pitch in action, see this

I cannot end it without telling you some of the history about the ashes (Source- Wikipedia)

The Ashes legend started after the ninth Test between England and Australia, played in 1882.During that tour the Australians played just one Test, at the Oval in London. It was a low-scoring affair on a difficult wicket. Australia made a mere 63 runs in its first innings, and England, led by Monkey Hornby, took a 38-run lead with a total of 101. In their second innings, the Australians, boosted by a spectacular 55 runs off 60 deliveries from Hugh Massie, managed 122, which left England only 85 runs to win.The Australians were greatly demoralized by the manner of their second-innings collapse, but fast bowler Fred Spofforth, spurred on by some gamesmanship by his opponents, refused to give in. "This thing can be done," he declared. Spofforth went on to devastate the English batting, taking his final four wickets for only two runs to leave England just eight runs short of victory in one of the closest finishes in the history of cricket. When Ted Peate, England's last batsman, came to the crease, his side needed just ten runs to win, but Peate managed only two before he was bowled by Harry Boyle. An astonished Oval crowd fell silent, struggling to believe that England could possibly have lost to a colony. When it finally sank in, the crowd swarmed onto the field, cheering loudly and chairing Boyle and Spofforth to the pavilion.

Reginald Brooks published the obituary of English cricket consigning it to the ashes. The following winter's tour to Australia was billed as an attempt to reclaim the Ashes. Ivo Bligh the British captain retaliated by stating that his team will bring back the ashes from Australia and he did (though there is controversy there). A small terracotta urn was presented to the England captain Ivo Bligh by a group of Melbourne women (if the legend can be believed) after England's victory in the Test series. The urn is reputed to contain the ashes of a veil, ball, bail or, indeed, an old Aboriginal cricketer, symbolizing "the ashes of English cricket". Fittingly one of those ladies Florence Murphy became his wife. This urn became the symbol of England and Australia's cricketing rivalry and the present series is testament to the intense feelings and various matters of controversy associated with it.


giri nambally said…
Heyy how u dey?welldone and super writing !

Feeling a bit low,could have mentioned abt the birth place of cricket in india:thalassery/stadium /love for cricket!!
Maddy said…
thanks giri..
glad that this perked you up. yup i will post an article soon on Tellicherry and cricket.stay tuned..