A turf square is not just for Christmas

Netherlands ground

The Nigerian Cricket Federation’s ambitious plans to develop turf pitches in Lagos and Abuja has run into trouble. The first group of clay soils the Federation tried turned out to be unsuitable, pointing to the difficulties faced by emerging cricket countries as they try to raise the standard of their facilities to levels taken for granted in places where the game is long established.

It’s not just the fact that this issue only seems to have emerged when the preparatory work had already been done and the squares were ready for the surface layer; the fundamental problem is that too little attention has been paid globally to the technical questions raised by cricket’s infrastructural needs.

The ICC clearly recognises this, and as Will Glenwright observed in a recent Emerging Cricket podcast, is now offering its members more support in this specific area of groundsmanship and pitch development.

Listen to Will Glenwright describe the ICC’s facilities partnership with Nigeria.

ICC pitch adviser Andy Atkinson has been supporting the Nigerians throughout their programme, taking them through the rudiments of both preparation and maintenance. NCF technical director Dahiru Enesi states that the African Cricket Association will be running a Zoom-based course for curators. ICC Americas has just completed a similar course with Bermuda.

It’s important to acknowledge that there is much more to the provision of satisfactory pitches than ensuring that the right materials are used and the square properly laid. As the old slogan goes, ‘a puppy is not just for Christmas,’ and a turf square needs the same degree of ongoing Tender Loving Care as your child’s new canine friend.

At the highest levels of international cricket the ICC has in place a constant system of monitoring pitches, and we have seen that even as venerable a venue as the MCG can fall foul of the umpires’ assessments. Earlier this year, Atkinson flew in to Pakistan to help the PCB improve the quality of their surfaces after the ten-year gap in home internationals in that country.

But once we move below the level of the ICC’s radar it is difficult to maintain a consistently high quality, when qualified curators are few and far between (if they exist at all), clubs are forced to rely on volunteers, and national bodies do not have an effective monitoring infrastructure. The Dutch experience over the past quarter-century is instructive in this regard.

For the first hundred years or so, from the end of the nineteenth century, Dutch cricket was played entirely on artificial pitches, coconut matting at first and then, as it became available, on astroturf.

From the time that turf squares began to be laid, in Deventer and Amstelveen in the late 1990s and then in Rotterdam, Voorburg and Schiedam, it became apparent that maintaining a decent surface for cricket was no easy task.

There was no national programme for training ground staff, whether paid or volunteers, and while some assistance was provided from England, especially when major events were scheduled, it was insufficient to ensure that club matches were played on pitches conducive to good cricket.

Just how good a Dutch pitch could be was demonstrated in 2006 when Sri Lanka set a world record ODI total of 443 for nine against the Netherlands at the VRA Ground in Amstelveen, 691 runs being scored in the day. But the fact that the square is built on reclaimed marsh land, several metres below sea level, remains a fundamental challenge.

And the perils of not taking problems of pitch development seriously enough became manifest during the 2010 WCL Division 1 tournament, when the new square at Voorburg, exposed to international gaze in its first full season, was declared unfit for play, and two matches had to be transferred to Schiedam, also a new pitch.

Recognising that the issues had still not been resolved, the KNCB Board brought in a pitch consultant from England in 2014 to help with improving the overall quality of turf pitches in the Netherlands. Not all clubs were prepared to accept this advice, however, some preferring to stay with an adviser of their own choice.

But the problems remain. Although some attempt has been made to create an umpire-based pitch assessment system and many of those responsible for maintaining the squares and preparing pitches are dedicated volunteers with a growing body of experience, the challenges of Dutch weather and conditions and the absence of a proper infrastructure mean that it is still a struggle.

Some might argue that the struggle isn’t worth it, and that most Associates should forget about turf pitches altogether and concentrate on achieving the best possible artificial surfaces.

For any Associate that aspires to take on the Full Members on their own terms, however, the availability of turf pitches is essential, and it is no less important that those pitches are good enough to meet the ICC’s properly rigorous standards.

And if players are going to master the specific demands of playing on turf, then they need to develop those skills in their domestic cricket, learning to read and adjust to changing conditions in ways that mats do not require.

Nigeria is therefore absolutely right to be pushing its pitch development programme, and it deserves every encouragement and support in doing so.

Groundsmanship is both a science and an art: analysis of soil types, grass varieties and so on is becoming more and more sophisticated. Such analysis will play an ever-greater role in the establishment and maintenance of turf squares, and building a cadre of scientifically knowledgeable ground staff across the ICC membership ought to be a high priority.

But that science will always be balanced by the fine judgements which come from knowing how a pitch behaves in practice, and how it needs to be tweaked in specific circumstances to achieve the best possible results.

Turf pitch curators are too often taken for granted, especially when they are volunteers, but cricketers should know that their runs and wickets are ultimately a product of the track they are given to play on.

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