Cricket: Grounds for concern over Saturday show

John Collis talks to the county men whose priority is the four- day wicket
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The Independent Online
All cricket enthusiasts will be trusting their county groundsmen even more than usual this year, with the decision to make Saturday - the day for working members and school children - the final day of most Championship matches.

The main object of the change, one suspects, is to gain another day in which to peddle hospitality packages to people whose love of cricket doesn't quite stretch beyond office hours. The justification - reasonable taken in isolation - is to divorce real cricket from the Sunday fancy-dress parade. At least one can surely be confident that everyone's interests - players, groundsmen, treasurers and spectators alike - are exactly the same. Whereas the occasional blank Monday could be shrugged off, an empty Saturday hits at the heart of county cricket. With a new authority, the English Cricket Board, in charge, have the groundsmen been issued with sterner instructions to create four-day pitches?

Philip Frost, the present Groundsman of the Year, tends the tranquil acres at Taunton, which traditionally offers a flat track and batsman- friendly boundaries. The figure 405 on Graeme Hick's bat is a permanent reminder of a fruitful visit in 1988, while older members will recall how Arthur Wellard and Harold Gimblett used to pepper St James's churchyard from one end and the River Tone from the other.

"The instructions from the Board remain the same," Frost said. "A four- day wicket. In the last three seasons I've aimed at a better balance between bat and ball here. If we want a real flat one I can do it, but I tend to leave it a bit grassier, a bit quicker. I do sometimes wonder if the players can always manage four days. It's easy to blame the pitch, but I've noticed not many players blame themselves."

Two awards in three years suggests Frost is getting the balance right, though. And he notes that, in an area with a great deal of weekend club cricket and a high proportion of retired people, Saturday has never been the best-attended day in any case.

However, somebody forgot to tell Hick about that bat-ball balance. In a 50-over practice match at Taunton two days ago he scored 178 at five an over.

From the sedate Victorian lady of Taunton to the tempestuous child at Chester-le-Street, where Durham's Tom Flintoff is working on year-on-year improvement to his new square as well as on the day-to-day task of providing wickets. "The practice matches have suggested that the pitch is in good shape."

Durham did experience quite a few early finishes last season, but Flintoff reasonably suggests that this should surely not be laid at his door. The one guarding the dressing-room might be more appropriate. "There's only one way for us to go in the Championship, and David Boon is already hard at work on it."

At Canterbury, the assistant groundsman, Mike Grantham, confirms that instructions remain as in previous seasons. "Hard and dry" is the motto. "Saturday finishes don't change our preparation, since we were already aiming at a good four- day wicket."

And so what the Saturday crowds will be hoping for is that each game comes to an exciting climax on the final day - let's say at about an hour into the evening session, shall we?