Pitches are the problem

INSIDE CRICKET
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The Independent Online
I never thought I would feel sorry for groundsmen. As a spinner, I have never been helped by them. But the criticism they are getting for these two-day and three-day finishes in the County Championship is unfair. Usually, it is not their fault.

Indifferent batting is the real culprit. I have seen plenty of it already this year on the circuit, Test matches included. It is a pity that more players do not play like Michael Atherton, who is so good technically.

If a bad pitch is to blame for an easy finish to a four-day game, it is as likely that the captain is responsible. Nowadays, a skipper looks at who the opposition are and has the wicket prepared to suit his own bowlers without giving the visitors any help. The conversation goes along the lines of either "leave a bit of grass on it, they've got a couple of good spinners", or "cut it right back, we don't fancy their seam attack". The groundsman can only do what he is told.

Some of the indifferent batting today is a result of this. Captains demand a surface that will produce a result, which usually means a surface that gives the bowlers a chance.

These "sporty" wickets do not have the sort of even bounce and pace that encourages classic stroke-play. Instead, you get batsmen who go in with the attitude that they are going to get a wicket-taking ball sooner or later, so they might as well have a dart - if it is in the right half, give it a go - while they are around.

Robin Smith in the first innings at Lord's was a classic example. The pitch is not one on which you can build an innings, so he decided to play an attacking shot before Carl Hooper was even back at his mark. He turned a stock ball into a yorker.

If we want to produce county batsmen for the Test team with the patience to build an innings, they have to learn their cricket on the right sort of pitches. Four-day cricket needs pitches with a bit of pace and even bounce, so that batsmen have the confidence to play cross-bat shots, and spin after two days in order that players develop back-foot defensive and attacking technique against the turning ball.

The Lord's wicket is more than 150 years old, which makes it hard to produce exactly the sort of surface that is needed. Old pitches sometimes do not have the bounce to encourage the bowler to bend his back and the batsman to play with confidence. The Oval pitch was relaid to counter this problem and is now closer to what is needed, but it is not perfect. How often do the spinners get a decent bowl there?

This seems to have been lost on the powers that be, who in the past sent Harry Brind, the former Surrey groundsman, round all the counties, to advise them on how to produce an Oval-style wicket. It was a waste of his time. You could not produce an Oval wicket at Northamptonshire's county ground, even if you wanted to.

What is really needed is for groundsmen to be employed by the Test and County Cricket Board, so that they know the basic requirements - a pitch that has even bounce, some pace on the first day, and will turn from lunch on the third day - and do not have to answer to a captain determined to get a result, come what may. Then, they can produce the pitches English cricket needs and if the wicket is poor, we can blame them for it.

Derbyshire have called a crisis meeting after a poor start to the season. As long as I can remember, Derbyshire have been in some some sort of crisis, the bad times punctuated only by the odd one-day success. Remember, they nearly folded two years ago, although this time the problems appear to be in the dressing-room.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the pitches have always been pretty poor at Derby, where the wickets are exactly the sort which produce long-term problems for the county and do nothing for England. What's the betting the groundsman takes the blame for their current sticky patch?

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