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And Don't Forget the Groundsman

Pelsall Cricket & Sports Club

Nothing shapes the character of a game of cricket more fundamentally than the pitch. Making a good one is hard work, requiring patience, endless rolling, a careful eye on the weather and a mixture of technical know-how, experience and good luck. Even when all goes well and a pitch is 22 yards of perfectly level, firm closely cropped turf, things can go wrong. A couple of seasons ago at Worcester the start of a Championship match was delayed because the starting handle had fallen off the motor-roller and had been pressed deeply down into the pitch on a perfect length. More often the weather intervenes and groundsmen, like farmers, are never satisfied. Nor, for that matter, are players. If a pitch is too damp or green, the batsmen complain louder than the seamers rub their hands. If it is too dry only the spinners are happy, and there are too few of them, especially at the highest level of cricket. If a "hard, fast belter" is produced, bowlers of all types say it is impossible to get anyone out. If there is too much bounce the pitch is described as dangerous. If there is too little, it is impossible to play shots and the bowlers are equally unhappy. John Mortimore used to say of the Bristol wicket in his day that "the only bowler it suits is a medium-paced dwarf".

In 1981 England fell into line with the other countries by covering pitches at all times during matches when no play was in progress (except in fine weather in the intervals) thus depriving the game in England of some of its traditional variety and unexpectedness. Something of the mystique of reading a pitch was thus lost. Gone, temporarily at least, were the days when Wilfred Rhodes and Emmott Robinson of Yorkshire could disagree about the exact time when a wet pitch would start to take spin under the influence of hot sun. It was on such a pitch that, in 1956, Jim Laker had taken his 19 wickets in the Old Trafford Test against Australia. It was England's nearest equivalent to the old "Brisbane sticky" which used to occur first at Brisbane's Exhibition Ground and then at the Woolloongabba Ground, where tropical storms could make a mockery of a match. On one dramatic December day in 1950 Freddie Brown declared England's first innings at 68 for seven (Mutton not out eight) and Hassett counter-declared at 32 for seven (Bailey four for 22, Bedser three for nine) setting England "only" 193 to win. Hutton, going in at number five made 62 not out, but the rest of England could score only 60. This was one of the times when, minutes after the storm broke, the stumps were swept away on a tide of water and floated to the boundary fence. On another occasion Sid Barnes, that incorrigible practical joker, took advantage of a hailstorm at the Gabba to amaze the England team still further by mounting the balcony above their dressing-room and dropping an enormous block of ice purloined from the refrigerator!

English cricketers tend to be suspicious of Australian "curators", as the Australian groundsmen are called, and the feeling is reciprocal. There was some evidence that the pitch was illegally watered during the Melbourne Test of 1954-55, although after The Melbourne Age had published Percy Beames's story the allegation was denied. Australians, similarly, were convinced that the Headingley pitch was especially prepared for Derek Underwood in 1972, the occasion when fusereum disease spread on the Test strip because it had been covered during the wet weather preceding the match. On the 1974-75 tour England's players were firmly of the opinion that more grass than usual was being left on the Test pitches to suit the speed of Lillee and Thomson. The truth is that, at least in recent years, it has become common practice for groundsmen to sfiave off all the grass if the home sides have no fast bowling strength, as England have not had in recent years, and to leave it on if they have. The most blatant example of this was at Calcutta in 1976-77 where the groundstaff were clearly to be seen, on the day before the game, down on their hands and knees rubbing out the last vestiges of grass with what appeared to be scrubbing brushes. If it was intended that the pitch should help the Indian spinners the plan was misconceived because it gave more assistance to England's faster bowlers, and the greater guile of Indian spinners on good pitches was wasted.

The most recent addition to Test match grounds is the Recreation Ground at St. John's, Antigua, where most of the hard work is done by prisoners from the gaol which stands on one side of what only a few years ago looked no more than a village ground. Hence the anguished reply made a few years ago to an English journalist's question: "How many years have you been looking after this pitch?" "Five years, man, and I've still got five more to do". The fact that the Antigua pitch is so good merely proves what any groundsman, however humble, will tell you, namely that it takes very hard labour to prepare a good pitch. Rolling is the essential base and it cannot be skimped, although the bent backs which always marked groundsmen in the old days were gained more from constantly searching their turf (outfields as well as pitches) for weeds and lifting each one that appeared out of the ground with a knife. Nowadays fertilizers and weedkillers take some of the backache out of the job, but although the end product may look prettier it is seldom so effective. It is because they work so hard that groundsmen do not appreciate complaining cricketers. It was said of one of the Welsh county grounds, which shall be nameless, that the players were in far greater danger of catching silicosis than the miners. John Warr, indeed, remarked of a Welsh pitch that it needed a hoover not a mower. It was at Ebbw Vale that Norman Hill of Nottinghamshire, inspecting the pitch with Tony Lewis before the toss, remarked of the top dressing: "Blimey, that's good-quality coal". In the same match, which the bowlers enjoyed more than the batsmen, Lewis angrily censored Peter Walker for getting out to a careless shot. "It's alright for you", replied Walker (who was born in South Africa), "but when I tapped that pitch with my bat a moment ago, somebody tapped back from down below!"

You cannot play cricket without a pitch and thank goodness for the men—paid or voluntary—who prepare them. Theirs is one of the game's more thankless tasks yet it has its consolations and, no doubt, days when all the effort seems to have been worthwhile—when a pitch gives some help to the faster bowlers early in the game, permits plenty of runs for stroke-playing batsmen and some turn at the end for the spinners. Then everyone happily leaves the field of play: except, of course, the groundsman. The bowler's footmarks must be resown and another strip prepared. What a game!

Reproduced with the kind permission of J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

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