Cricket: Counties discover common ground

Stephen Fay hears how the pitch battle was resolved
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The Independent Online
REPENTANCE WAS high on the agenda when the first-class counties met at Lord's on Thursday. A year ago they contemptuously rejected the very idea of outside interference to improve the pitches they play on. This year they accepted a three-point package designed to improve playing surfaces. The counties have finally understood that running English cricket now requires some sackcloth if we are ever to win the Ashes.

The morning after the meeting of the First-Class Forum at the England and Wales Cricket Board's headquarters at Lord's, county secretaries were singing from the same hymn sheet. "There was a genuine feeling that we have got to do something about pitches, and to be seen to be doing something," said Steve Coverdale of North-amptonshire. Only two counties had voted against the reform proposals.

There was no argument at all about the problem. When county captains met, under the auspices of the ECB, at the end of the 1999 season, they dec-lared that the pitches they had played on during the summer had been a disgrace. This was particularly true of the counties at the bottom of the pitches table, which is prepared each year by the ECB on the basis of umpires' and captains' reports. Dennis Amiss, Warwickshire's chief executive, said: "We've all felt that, since the idea was mooted in 1998, wickets are still generally deteriorating."

Last summer four of the bottom five pitches in the table were occupied by Test match grounds: Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Headingley and Edgbaston. Last Thursday, they had the grace to accept the criticism. Amiss says that next summer the Edgbaston groundsman will be taking care to adhere to the rule about pitches starting dry. The poor pitch on which Warwickshire played Sussex at the end of last season, when both were anxiously trying - and failing - to stay in the Championship's top division, helped make the case for reform.

Last summer a record number of county matches ended in three, or even two, days. Since the idea of four-day cricket was to produce better Test players, there is no point in it at all if the games do not last the course. Consequently, three proposals were accepted last week:

1. A number of pitch liaison officers are to be appointed, with powers to make pitch inspections at the outset of a Championship match.

2. Fewer Championship points are to be deducted for poor pitches, but the penalty is to be applied more regularly in order to make the deterrent more effective.

3. Since flat covers tend to retain dampness on a square, groundsmen must now place a layer of coia matting under the covers to allow the surface to dry out.

As an incentive to produce pitches that suit batsmen, an extra batting point is to be awarded for teams scoring 450.

The concept of pitch liaison officers originated in the ECB's cricket department. Alan Fordham, the Northamptonshire opener who has become cricket operations manager, wanted quicker and better decisions about the quality of pitches. His proposal surfaced at a bad time, however, at the 1998 meeting of the first-class counties. They had been asked to fork out funds for the liaison officers immediately after hearing that they would receive an increased share-out from the ECB of only five per cent in 1999. (Eventually, the counties were mollified when the increase was doubled to 10 per cent.)

Fordham calculates that to have three PLOs in the field will set each of the 18 counties back by about pounds 2,000. Clearly, it was the timing rather than the principle or the cost of the proposal that led to its rejection in 1998. This year, the mood had changed utterly. The pitch- inspection package was accepted despite a budget for 2000 that proposes to limit the rise in the counties' share-out to five per cent. "It's been an enlightening process. The counties are beginning to recognise the economic climate," says Richard Peel, the ECB's Director of Corporate Affairs.

The cost to the ECB of central contracts for Test players (which will start this season), and the diversion of substantial sums to improve the Test match grounds, have cut the proportion of the ECB's income available for redistribution to the first-class counties. A five per cent increase in 2000 will be the smallest rise for five years.

The England team may have been in the doldrums, but the finances have been sound. Players' wages have risen sharply, and millions have been spent on capital projects such as indoor schools.

But the significance of last week's meeting will eventually be judged, not on the balance sheet, but on the quality of our cricket. Better pitches and a shift in emphasis from bowling to batting points could alter the balance of power between batsmen and bowlers. "The way the game is played might change," said Coverdale. Not before time.