Cricket is a game of great cultural importance, and public interest across the UK,  Australia and beyond. 

The cricket pitch itself is integral to the game, but all too often overlooked unless it adversely affects the game. A poor pitch can take the bounce out of the ball and dulling an otherwise exciting contest. To understand this problem you need some insight into the game itself and how it is inextricably linked to the pitch. 

Building and maintaining a quality cricket pitch requires a deep knowledge of both science and horticultural practice. It is far more complicated than simply planting and mowing grass, and wonderful career opportunities await anyone who has the interest, and takes the time to develop those skills. A great cricket pitch manager can be just as important, and sought after just as much as a great cricket player.

The Pitch and Play 
The cricket pitch is intended to have a degree of predictability with regards to play in terms of bounce, pace and consistency. It also must be durable. The preparation of a cricket pitch differs depending on the type of match as well as prevailing environmental conditions. For instance, a pitch for a one day match usually has a drier surface which favours the batsman. Those for five day tests are prepared so that day one provides consistent pace and bounce of the ball, days two and three favour the batsman due to drying of the wicket, and on days four and five further drying causes less consistent bounce favouring spin bowlers. 

With regards to local conditions, cricket pitches in England tend to be greener at the beginning of the cricket season becoming harder and drier later on. Bowlers have the early season advantage because the presence of grass speeds up the pitch and batsmen fare better during late season. In Australia pitches are less green and are renowned for favouring fast bowlers because of extra bounce, although some pitches favour the spin bowlers. 

The change in pitch condition throughout a test series or playing season influences choices about playing tactics such as when to opt to bat, as well as which types of bowlers to use. 

Preparating and Maintaining the Pitch
Preparing and maintaining the pitch is an arduous task.  The pitch soil is heavy reactive clay. The clay mineral content and type influence the rate of hardening and cracking, as does the depth. Prior to play, moisture content must be accurately calculated so that it is even within the soil profile down to at least 75mm otherwise pace will be affected. Techniques such as covering the surface with grass clippings or shade cloth may be required to reduce moisture loss. Syringing is sometimes used to restore moisture content. Once the match is underway, the pitch is not permitted to be watered. During inclement weather the pitch may be covered to protect it from water infiltration.

During preparation the cricket wicket also has to be rolled whilst still moist to compact it and make it into a hard surface. This squeezes air and moisture out of the root zone, an action which goes against good turf culture practices. Thatch is removed using verticutting equipment, or through scarifying and brushing.  Mowing is done by successively reducing the height of the grass which encourages development of the root system. Prior to play, the grass is cut low at 2 to 4mm and over the course of play as the pitch dries out it becomes water stressed. Ultimately the pitch can crack and become dry and dusty. 

When a match is underway, the pitch is mowed on each day that play takes place. Debris is swept from the pitch, and foot holes made by batsmen and bowlers are filled or re-turfed.   

At each oval there are several different pitches within the centre pitch table. These are alternated so that has a recovery period of up to 8 weeks between preparation and use. This takes considerable planning, manpower and machinery. Not only that but when you factor in water, fertiliser, topdressing and pest and disease control, questions about sustainability naturally arise.  
Even with appropriate management, there is no guarantee that the cricket wicket will make for a thrilling game. It does however significantly increase the odds. 

Is Synthetic Turf an Option? 
Synthetic turf is sometimes suggested as more sustainable and sensible than living grass. It doesn't require feeding, mowing and watering like grass.  

Water run-off from synthetic pitches can contain metals such as zinc from rubber infill. Leachate from natural grass pitches contain pesticides and fertilisers. Natural grass also absorbs heat energy from the sun. Synthetic turf reflects heat warming the air. 

Synthetic turf is a petrochemical product, producing considerable CO2 emissions in its manufacture, transportation and end-of-life disposal; whereas natural grass removes CO2 from the atmosphere and is self-renewing. 

Whilst synthetic turf is approved for playing cricket, the game of cricket and its nuances has evolved with natural grass. At the elite level it's hard to imagine it any other way. Grass remains the preferred surface for cricket.

Sustainability Depends Upon Greenkeeping Skills
Creating and maintaining a good turf wicket requires a level of knowledge and skill that only comes through a good education in horticultural science and turf management, followed by years of experience. A turf wicket will only provide the best playing surface for the longest period, without being destroyed when it’s management is the very best.  Turf wicket sustainability ultimately depends upon the expertise and effort of the unsung heroes of the sport: the greenskeeper.

If you have a passion for cricket, or any other sport and want to work around that sport; perhaps a career in tutf is an option to be considered. You don't have to be a golfer to work in golf - there are lots of other jobs working in maintaining or managing golf courses. The same applies to football, croquet, lawn bowls, tennis; and of course cricket.

By John Mason Dip Hort Sc., FPLA, FIOH; and Gavin Cole B.Sc.
Horticulture Dept., ACS Distance Education.


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