Cricket has changed so much over the years. Bats are different, white balls are prevalent, outfields are smaller, and then there’s the coloured clothing – some of which is so garish it hurts. England even win now and again these days – something that never used to happen when I was knee-high to a James Taylor.
One thing that hasn’t changed significantly, however, is the pitches. They might have got a tad slower in recent times, but they’re still green, made of grass, and 22 yards long. Which has got me thinking …
Is anyone else surprised that the ECB hasn’t championed the use of artificial wickets in white ball cricket? After all, it ticks most of the money men’s boxes: it’s easy to use when the weather’s inclement, it doesn’t get roughed up, and it’s usually very good for batting on – which means runs aplenty. You can almost hear Tom Harrison purring from here.
The lack of artificial pitches in professional cricket is even more surprising given that they’re ubiquitous in club and school cricket. Plus, of course, most nets use astroturf or something similar.
The advantages of artificial grass for local clubs are obvious: the wickets don’t need preparation ahead of each fixture so it saves man-hours and money. As many professional clubs are also a bit cash-strapped at the moment, I’m amazed they haven’t cottoned on too.
Although first class cricket is obviously a different kettle of fish and shouldn’t be messed with – I wouldn’t want anyone to spit out their cornflakes when reading this – I’m amazed that artificial strips aren’t used for T20 at the very least. After all, if the emphasis is on pure entertainment (and we’re constantly told that it is) then surely it’s a no-brainer.
Perhaps counties could prepare proper wickets for championship games but then have a strip somewhere on the square that’s reserved for hit and giggle? I’m not suggesting that I’d like to see this happen myself – I’m a bluff old traditionalist as many of you will know – but I’m amazed that it hasn’t been tried.
As they already use drop-in pitches in various places around the world, why not try a pitch that you only have to drop in once? Although some might argue that cricket on astro-turf isn’t ‘proper’ cricket, I’d counter that by arguing that T20 isn’t proper cricket anyway.
Part of me wonders whether they’re saving the use of astro-turf for the shiny new city-based T20 in 2019? I can it see it now: the Leeds Looters against the London Laugh-a-Minutes on an artificial wicket in the Olympic Stadium.
Joe Root (bizarrely representing the Southerners after being drafted by a cockney tycoon) wins the toss, looks at the pitch, and decides to bat both first and second: “The pitch looks good to me, Athers, and we don’t expect it to change too much as the night goes on … or indeed for the rest of the decade”.
Although I personally haven’t played competitive cricket at a good level for a few years, I do have some experience of artificial surfaces. And most of it has been good experience. Indeed, I’ve scored a lot of runs on astroturf strips.
I played a season in Guernsey – where there’s a thriving cricket community with six divisions and plenty of coverage in the local rag – and enjoyed it immensely. Because there’s plenty of competitive league cricket played, but only a handful of grounds, all the wickets are astro-turf. It’s a really practical solution.
I also recently played a game at St Margarets near Twickenham on an artificial wicket. I enjoyed the true bounce, the ball coming on to the bat, and the fact one could drive on the up without worrying about deliveries getting stuck in the surface (often an occupational hazard in village cricket).
Don’t get me wrong. I realise that astro-turf isn’t for everyone. But if you’re a good back foot player it’s an awful lot of fun. Although orthodox finger spinners can struggle sometimes, the wrist spinners appreciate the generous bounce, and the seamers enjoy seeing the ball carry through to the keeper. It’s a lot more fun than playing on slow, low and invariably wet club wickets. And there are certainly plenty of those in England!
One day I can imagine whole fields being made of 3G grass. I’m not sure how this would affect the natural deterioration of the ball – there’s conventional shine and reverse swing to think about – but the technology is certainly coming on.
A few Premiership rugby clubs, including my team Worcester Warriors, use a woven artificial surface and the feedback from players has been promising. If you can play rugby (including the scrum of course) on artificial surfaces then I’m sure cricket wouldn’t be a problem. Things have come a long way since Luton FC’s notorious plastic pitch.
Although cricket fields are obviously bigger than rugby and football grounds (so it would cost more to install one) costs could be recouped by making the stadiums multipurpose. For example, a county could host other sports and hold concerts etc without damaging the surface.
If these surfaces can help struggling counties to break even then perhaps there’s a serious discussion to be had. Or perhaps I’m just off my rocker? They say the grass is always greener …
Written in collaboration with Lawrence Lawns