Cricket: ECB make pitch for spot inspections

Iain Fletcher says the counties must be made to improve wickets
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The Independent Online
ALAN FORDHAM, the Cricket Operations Manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board, has called for the establishment of a team of experts to monitor the preparation of county pitches.

He would like four or five pitch liaison officers to have the power to turn up unannounced at a ground either on the morning of a match or the previous day. They would watch the entire first day's play and, if they considered it necessary, could convene a panel to judge the pitch and impose a penalty.

At present the ECB pitch inspectors are summoned to a county match if 15 wickets or more fall in a day, or if the umpires feel the pitch warrants inspection. The 25-point penalty applied to the home county is decided by the current inspectors, Harry Brind and Chris Wood, but there is an inherent flaw in the system - time. A flaw that Fordham recognises.

"At the moment the inspectors are called but don't arrive until late in the day, or the next day, by which time the sun could have dried the pitch out and the heavy roller would have been used once more, if not twice," he said. "This changes the pitch and because we are adamant that pitches should be judged on how they behave, and not how they look, it is difficult to impose the 25-point penalty.

"By having liaison officers watching the first day and seeing the preparation of the pitch, it would allow better judgements to be made. Pitches need to be different and pose different questions but we want them to be within certain parameters. By not knowing if they are going to be visited it would keep the counties guessing and hopefully help to eliminate the bad pitches. I'm in favour of this proposal and hope that the counties agree on it at the end of this season."

And this is where the power of the counties can be detrimental to the game. They police themselves and with the advent of two divisions at the end of the present season face greater temptations than ever to prepare result pitches.

And in last week's Independent on Sunday, the England batsman Mark Ramprakash expressed strong fears that an epidemic of poor pitches was seriously hampering the development of good players and good technique.

Fordham's plan was actually discussed by the counties last year, but was never followed through.

Fordham, a highly respected player for Northamptonshire, knows well the problems facing groundsmen and captains, but he agreed with Ramprakash's opinion that an improvement in the pitches would result in a better breed of player: "Of course good pitches produce better players and ideally we want counties to follow our recommendation that a pitch has even pace and bounce, helps the seamers early and tests the batsman's technique, and then allows strokeplay and encourages spin.

"But we don't want bland wickets and there should be some home advantage. But where do we draw the line? However, I believe that there are many good wickets being produced and some excellent games of cricket being played. Of course, the pressure that captains are under for immediate success means that pitches can be manipulated."

An example of the suspicions that can be aroused came in the match between Lancashire and Essex at Old Trafford two weeks ago. Lancashire's captain, John Crawley, had stated beforehand that his side needed to win eight of their last nine matches if they were to be in the first division of the Championship next season. The Sri Lankan Test off-spinner had just joined Lancashire, and he and Essex's England spinner, Peter Such, each took 13 wickets in the game. The Sri Lankan's match haul of 13 for 134 eclipsed Peter Such's 13 for 213 and helped Lancashire to win by 118 runs.

"When I was a player I wrote for The Cricketers Who's Who that the bottom line for success is good pitches and it doesn't matter how many divisions you have if the pitches aren't good enough," Fordham said. "That is why we at the ECB are encouraging the development of good pitches, and if necessary I hope the counties will act for the benefit of the game and all those involved in it."