CRICKET COMMENTARY : Don't shoot the groundsman

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Pace and bounce. It's all the rage. Or at least it would be if there was any of either in our county pitches at the moment. And it's no use blaming the men whose thankless task it is to prepare the wickets. The head groundsman in the sky is the only one to blame and cricket, it seems, has not been his number one priority in 1997.

In 1994 and 1996 Somerset's Phil Frost was voted Groundsman of the Year for his pitches at Taunton and Bath, but he does not expect to win it for a third time. "Our marks this year are much lower," he said. "We just haven't got any pace in the pitches because we've had no sunshine.

"There's been some funny pitches this season because everybody struggled with the weather. It's only in the last three weeks that we've really had any decent weather to get the ball to bounce a little bit. You're not going to get a decent wicket if you haven't got that thing shining in the sky. That's what makes the difference."

One or two dodgy Test surfaces this summer have sharpened the focus generally on that strip of 22 yards between the stumps. Frost has been at Somerset for 25 years and thinks the standard of pitches in county cricket has risen steadily over the past three or four years, "at least according to the umpires' marks," he says.

It is a popular knee-jerk reaction to express dissatisfaction with our wickets when either England are not winning or batsmen are struggling for runs at county level, but Frost says: "I think much too much is made of the pitch, it's too high-profile these days. It's so easy to blame the bloody thing, and nine times out of 10 it's the same for both sides. When I first started the wicket was hardly ever mentioned."

The chief area of debate still seems to be whether a return to uncovered pitches after more than 20 years would be beneficial to the game. "I'd like to see uncovered pitches because it means we wouldn't have to get wet," Frost says, not entirely in jest. "We'd just cover the ends and get out of it.

"But I think the sponsors would soon pull out if you had so much time lost to the weather. Some pitches, when they got wet were absolute nightmares, the ball just used to fly. Batsmen were batting without helmets and their technique was undoubtedly better, but I don't think that's the way to go. I know a lot of groundsmen think it is, but counties always struggle for sponsors and I think if we had uncovered wickets that would be the end of that."

As far as the preparation of the pitches is concerned, Frost believes his hands, and those of his colleagues, are unfairly tied. "I think there should be home advantage, definitely, that's what it's all about. To try and make everybody's wickets the same is not what we should be doing.

"You're not supposed to do it, and we don't really because you're not supposed to, but I think you should be allowed to. You pay a lot of money for overseas players [in Somerset's case the leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed] and I think you should be allowed to utilise what you've got. It's in our interests that the pitch turns and bounces here, and luckily enough with our square, if we get a dry, hard wicket, it does, so we don't have to do anything about it."

For another overseas leg-spinner, Kent's Paul Strang, bounce is something he probably last saw before he left home in Zimbabwe, and he must be beginning to wonder whether coming to England was a good career move after all. On Saturday he ended up with figures of 1 for 103 from 39 overs as Kent toiled in vain to prevent Leicestershire's first win for more than two months.

Thanks to a generous declaration by Steve Marsh and the docile nature of the Canterbury pitch, the county champions cruised home with six wickets to spare after centuries by their South African all-rounder Neil Johnson and Ben Smith.

Lancashire and Surrey polished off Sussex and Hampshire respectively to earn maximum points for the first time this season, but Warwickshire were unable to break Nottinghamshire's resistance after forcing the follow- on.

The closest finish was at Northampton, where the home side, second from bottom at the start, scraped home against Essex, second from top, thanks to Rob Bailey's smart run-out of Paul Grayson at the death. With another 16 runs, Essex would have gone above Glamorgan. As it is, Northamptonshire leap-frog Durham and Sussex at the bottom.

Could it be that all this talk of two divisions is already producing a more competitive Championship?

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