Dr David James: The real star of the Ashes is the pitch

As our England players take on the Aussies in a battle to regain the Ashes, cricket is set to dominate the headlines and remind us that the modern game rests as one of the most popular and competitive sports in the world.

Yet it is also one that depends, perhaps more than any other sport, relies on science. In particular on the quality of the playing surface. A good surface will allow consistent bounce of the ball, with the ball coming off the pitch at a fast enough pace to make the game lively. I started my scientific research into the game back in 1999, embarking on a PhD which was supported by the England and Wales Cricket Board. My investigations into how the ball bounces have helped cricket players to understand how to play the surface to their advantage, and will perhaps eventually lead to making Flintoff's bowling all the more deadly.

Quality pitches are a major factor in ensuring that players are competitive at an international level, whilst making the game more exciting for spectators. However, cricket pitch performance can also have significant financial implications. During the summer of 2000, English cricket endured a series of Test matches against the West Indies that consistently finished early. As a

consequence, the ECB's annual revenue was reported to have dropped by £1.5 to £2 million through lost ticket sales and television rights. The blame for the premature Test match finishes was attributed almost entirely on the poor performance of the cricket pitches in question.

Unfortunately for us Brits, it all comes down to the weather. In order for groundstaff to prepare a hard, fast and lively pitch, they need a nice bit of sunshine and not too much rain. The Australian climate is a groundsman's dream and it lends itself to an aggressive style of cricket played on fast, hard pitches.

The 'magic' ingredient for creating a hard pitch is clay, and in Australia the cricket pitches have up to 75 per cent clay in their topsoil. In stark contrast, pitches in England and Wales rarely have more than 35 per cent clay. The reason for this is that whilst clay can set into a very hard surface, perfect for fast and aggressive cricket, it can also become very waterlogged in cooler, wetter climates. In Australia this isn't a problem because their abundance of sunshine allows their clay rich soils to bake dry. However, the UK's temperamental weather means that our groundstaff have to use far less clay in their pitches, to avoid a lifeless bounce.

One of the main aims of my research is to raise the standard of cricket pitches in the UK so that when our players head abroad to take on the likes of Australia, they are better equipped to come home victorious. For years I have worked alongside groundstaff in England and Wales to help them to produce pitches that can perform to the highest standards without using clay.

For over four years I have helped to film and analyse bowlers delivering the ball onto the turf to assess the performance of the pitch. Each pitch was then prodded and probed, tested and analysed. Equipment was developed to measure its friction, hardness, pace and bounce. Soil core samples were taken from each pitch and analysed in the lab to measure things like clay content, wetness and grass cover. All of this information was carefully studied to understand what the key factors are in the preparation of a top quality pitch. The result? For generations, groundstaff had to rely on their experience and 'rules of thumb' to cope with the English summer's difficult conditions, but for the first time, the UK's top groundstaff now benefit from scientific knowledge, which helps them to make the right critical decisions.

Dr David James is a Lecturer in sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam University and is supporting the Science: So what? So everything campaign.

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