Cricket: Bouncy Lloyd seeks perfect pitches

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The Independent Online
WHETHER IT was the cri de coeur coming from the national side in Australia after their two and a half day whipping in Perth, or just the overwhelming need for change, English cricket has decided to take the first steps towards modernity. Where it actually ends up remains to be seen, however, and two divisions like that other panacea, four-day cricket, will not suddenly make English players the best in the world. Mind you, being passed by 15 votes to one with three abstentions indicates that, like Viagra, the majority clearly believe it will work.

The England coach, David Lloyd, is one of them. Speaking in Melbourne after hearing the results of the First Class Forum's meeting, Lloyd felt it would better prepare English players for the rigours of Test cricket.

A long-time advocate of a split Championship, Lloyd also stressed that the key to the new format, due to begin in 2000, would be the pitches, not only those in the middle, but the ones in the nets as well.

"If the system is to maintain a competitive edge, the playing surfaces must be spot on," he said. "There must be no more parochial bias in pitch preparation and no more one-and-a-half to two-day finishes."

With England under the cosh in Australia, it was inevitable that Lloyd would point out the differences between the conditions England have experience here in Australia and those generally found at home.

"The practice facilities here are top notch," said Lloyd, ironically just after England's nets had been cancelled after rain had soaked the wickets at the MCG. "The practice pitches mirror the ones in the middle, which are generally hard, reasonably fast and with an even covering of grass. In other words, pitches that are good to bat on but reward hard work from the bowlers."

As an ideal, it is a nice one, though it fails to consider the climatic differences that allow such conditions. Australian pitches tend to be clay-based, baked hard by a hot sun.

Clay is not used in England where water tables are much higher. Instead, loam-based pitches are the norm, a type that tend to be caught between the extremes of being either too sporty, when grass is left on, or too slow and flat, when it is taken off. This makes home pitches being prepared to order a tricky problem to tackle, though tackle it the England Cricket Board must.

Now that there will be a three up three down system of promotion and relegation, the temptation to tweak pitches to suit the situation will be strong. To prevent this, a rigorous monitoring process must be set up, along with stringent pitch reports from umpires.

If decent pitches are a topic close to Lloyd's heart, so is preparation time and rest, especially for the Test players.

"Practice, preparation, rest and play. That's what they do out here," Lloyd said. "What's Mark Taylor doing now? What's Glenn McGrath doing now? They're at home with their feet up. With another Test match coming up, they are not having to worry about the next four-day match in the Championship."

To emulate that and control a player's activity levels, England's Test players will have to be centrally contracted by the ECB rather than by their counties. It is a move agreed, in principle by the FCF, and due to be ratified in March.

A potential can of worms, centralised contracts can also be waste of resources. For that reason a squad of 17 or 18 players signed up for no more than six months is the most likely option, a period that would allow the Board to make adjustments for, say, winter tours, when different personnel may be needed.

Counties have long been set in their ways, so any changes, particularly those as radical as those taken last week, ought to be applauded. And yet for many, myself included, they have not gone far enough and serious flaws of logic still exist.

The new system does not offer a significant reduction in the amount of cricket played, especially to Test players, who if anything have potentially more on their plates now that Test and one-day internationals are to be increased. But if centralised contracts are to overcome that problem, by ensuring that players rest between Tests, there seems little point in having a domestic competition without them. Like most sports, cricketers do not tend to improve unless pushed by better players, which is why domestic cricket was stronger, and England sides more competitive, when counties were allowed to field two overseas players.

And while a new point system of 12 for a win and four for a draw will perhaps help strengthen resolve, it will not transform standards drastically enough to guarantee an improvement at Test level.

That will only happen when we have a domestic competition as tough, concentrated and full of talent as the Shield in Australia. As coaches have a habit of saying over here: "Any dilution is really pollution."