Flat earth society stage a comeback

Stephen Fay hears why cricket pitches are likely to be a batsman's truest friend this summer
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The Independent Online

Steve Birks, the groundsman at Trent Bridge, is getting a lot more use out of his mowers and rollers this spring. Batsmen will be relieved to learn this. Last summer the square was notoriously soft and green, giving more help to the seamers than they deserved. The umpires in Nottinghamshire's game against Yorkshire referred the pitch to an ECB disciplinary hearing, and it is no surprise to learn that the ECB's county pitches table for 1999 places Nottinghamshire bottom.

Nottinghamshire, who took the unprecedented step of asking the club solicitor to present their case against an immediate points deduction for that poor pitch, have been shamed into cleaning up their act. Birks has received fresh instructions. Instead of preparing a pitch designed to help seamers, he must do his own thing. Consequently, Birks reports, Trent Bridge wickets this summer will be "pretty flat". "Now we will see what the batters can do," he says.

Shoaib Akhtar is about to join the staff, but Birks is confident that the fiery Pakistani will knock a few heads back without any help from him. The mood is the same at Hampshire, where a sound batting wicket got the county fifth place in the table of merit. (It was published on Wednesday in Wisden, with Somerset top, followed by Leicestershire and Surrey.) Shane Warne may be coming, but the Southampton pitch is staying the same: "I haven't felt the need to go down that road," says Nigel Gray, Hampshire's groundsman.

To help other county groundsmen to stick to Gray's high standards, the first-class counties voted in December to bring in a more authoritative inspection and discipline system for pitches. Last Friday the first six pitch liaison officers met at Lord's. The group, which includes senior figures such as Mike Denness, Raman Subba Row and Peter Walker, were learning about theapplication of new powers.

What the reforms mean is that the pitch liaison officers can turn up unannounced on the opening day of a Championship game and make a judgement about the wicket without waiting for a call from the umpires after 15 or so wickets have fallen on the first day. Points will be deducted for poor pitches, although the number has been reduced from 25. This sounds contrary, but the idea is to impose a smaller, eight-point penalty for a poor pitch (12 for a second offence) to encourage disciplinary hearings to impose punishments more regularly.

Another reform increases maximum batting points by one to five, and reduces bowling points to a maximum of three. The motive is to shift the balance of power from bowlers to batsmen. This may strike bowlers as odd, but the truth is that, since four-day cricket was introduced, more games than ever have been ending within three days. The trend was well-established by 1998, when 48 of 102 completed Championship games ended within three days, four of them inside two. There was a case to bring in pitch liaison officersthen, but when they were first proposed in December 1998, the counties said they were too costly.

The pressing reason for acting last winter was the fierce reaction of the county captains when they met at Lord's in September to analyse the season. They were unanimous: the pitches they played on in 1999 were awful, the worst for years. The imminence of promotion and relegation had encouraged some counties to prepare pitches that exaggerated their strengths. And the damning news from the pitches table of merit is that four of the five worst squares are at Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Headingley and Edgbaston.

Dennis Amiss, Warwickshire's chief executive, reports that the Edgbaston groundsman, Steve Rouse, has also spent the winter making the square more friendly towards batsmen. Last season, Rouse and Amiss worried about the pitches cracking, and Rouse left moisture in the ground to counter this. The result was a Test match that lasted less than three days, and a report by the umpires about the pitch in the Sussex game. Since then, different varieties of fine grasses from the Sports Turf Research Institute at Bingley have been sown. Amiss says they have already produced a nice growth of grass, and that Rouse is already rolling to make flatter wickets.

Better pitches ought to mean more games lasting four days - and, therefore more Saturday cricket, but the ECB's ultimate ambition is to nurture a generation of England batsmen who do not think their job is done if they last through one of a day's three sessions. If England's cricket is to improve, the batsmen will have to know how to bat all day. To learn, they need true wickets. Perhaps they will get them, at last.