Understanding the Cricket Pitch

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Young cricket fans like me would be aware of the many uncertainties of the game.

How tenuous edges become the difference between a duck and a century; how holding the ball at different angles makes it behave differently; how subtle field changes can change the course of a one-sided match; and how the mindset matters more than vigor.

The hubbub among the experts we see on our televisions remains confined to these topics. What slips the attention, more often than not, is the cricket pitch. The ‘22 yards’ as they call it, its technicalities and nuances and how it outshines every other uncertainty in the gentlemen’s game has been largely overlooked.

To understand the cricket pitch, we’ll first need a definition. In layman’s terms, a cricket pitch is a central strip of a cricket field between the wickets. Spread across 22 yards length and a 10 Ft width, it is a flat surface covered with extremely short grass.

A bowler hurls or delivers the ball here while the batsman (or bats-woman) plays accordingly.

The cricket pitch is where all the action happens.

At the toss, it is the look and composition of the 22 yards that makes a captain decide to bat or field first; the combination of the teams – playing an extra spinner, speedster or an all-rounder; and the par score for the batting side – whether the game is high scoring or low scoring.

If you have also felt stupefied after listening to those in the TV talking about the pitch being green, sticky, hard, or dry, here is the key to understanding each one of those and how these conditions affect the game and its players.

Green Pitch

If the 22 yards have fresh and longer green grass than usual then it is called a green-top or simply a green pitch. These types of pitches are generally found away from the Indian sub-continent and especially in England, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Green pitches enjoy substantial moisture content. This makes the ball slip and skid through which in turn makes the fast bowlers appear quicker than usual. The natural grass augurs well for both swing (movement in the air) and seam (movement off the pitch) for the pacers. 

When a green-top wicket heats up, moisture rises into the air, forming a density difference and thus aiding the physics of swing bowling. 

While speedsters find paradise on a green-top, the paucity of grip makes the spinners almost redundant, at least in the initial days of a test match.

Also, on a green-top, according to an insightful report on the preparation of the cricket pitch by Cricinfo, “the ball seams more readily because the difference in the friction between the seam and the playing surface and the non-seam and the playing surface is higher on a greentop than a non-greentop.”

The balance between the bat and ball at its best on a greenish surface while it also holds the pitch together for long periods of time. This makes them the ideal choice for test matches. This balance and durability also make them the perfect choice for domestic first-class matches which are shorter and require quick results.

Teams have a propensity to bowl first on a green-top to maximize the conditions. In anticipation, some teams also strengthen their attacks with an extra pacer or an additional batsman.

There couldn’t be a better recent example for a green-top than England’s only Test match against Ireland in July 2018. The veteran Tim Murtagh displayed a master class of swing and seam bowling, matched with his impeccable lengths to reduce England to 85 all-out. 

On a pitch, in-differentiable from the rest of the ground, hope had gleaned for the Irish but it wasn’t to be.

In the absence of their premiere speedster, Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad went a step ahead of Murtagh. They bowled in tandem right from the beginning and bundled Ireland for just 38 in 15.4 overs. Again on the back of fuller, swinging deliveries.

Dry and Dusty Pitch

Unlike green-tops, dry and dusty pitches are endemic to the sub-continent which is manifest in the panoply of off-spinners available here. The wickets in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka lack moisture and are generally teeming with cracks and dents.

These brown surfaces aid slower bowlers more than pacers. They lack grass and moisture is trivial. The friction between the ground and ball is more so the leather ball grips better, turns sharper making spinners a handful for the batsmen.

As the test match proceeds, these cracks become more profound and the surface weary and dusty. However, if you exclude the quality spinners, batting in these wickets is easier than bowling as a whole. 

Here unlike the grassy pitches, the ball comes at the bat slower, bounces lower and there is not much swing or seam available.

Pace bowlers mostly rely on the initial bursts with the new ball and then on the reverse swing that starts only after a cumbersome number of overs have been bowled. 

On these surfaces, most teams tend to play an extra spinner in place of a batsman and almost always fancy batting first and make their opponents bat last on what turns into a minefield in the 4th innings.

An example? None other than Nagpur, 2015. On a dustbowl of a track, India played 3 spinners in Ashwin, Jadeja, and Mishra against the touring South Africans. 

Spinners from both sides cumulatively took 26 wickets out of the total 40, and the Proteas ended 124 runs short but not before a gallant blockathon by Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis.

Dead Pitch

“Dead Pitch” is a euphemism used for flat wickets with no real grass or moisture. These are rolled vigorously which removes most of the grass cover and gives them dark tinge. These pitches are the best suited for the batsmen as they don’t assist pacers or spinners. 

These are also mostly found in the subcontinent but are adopted worldwide for ODI and T20 matches and domestic T20 leagues.

Every ODI game with 350 scored and 351 chased can’t be but a dead tracker. In test matches, Sri Lanka has even made over 900 runs in a single innings against India in a Test match!

An example would be the famous but monotonous Alastair Cook double-century in the 2017 Ashes. The MCG pitch was flatter than the nearby highway and aided no spin, swing, turn, or uneven bounce. The match expectedly ended in a draw and invited much scrutiny from cricket lovers.

Other Terms

Other words in the pitch-lexicon include hard and sticky wickets. The former is mostly seen in Australia. These have little or no grass cover but are firmly intact and aid steep bounce off the surface. These pitches aid fast bowlers and spinners (who rely more on over-spin) equally.

South African pitches are generally hard with patches of green on good and short-of good lengths. These make for a lethal combination of pace and bounce and as the game progresses, the dusty patches make the ball fly or shoot low erratically making it almost impossible for the batsman to trust the bounce.

The Gabba or Brisbane Cricket Ground in Australia has had the truest of fast, hard, and bouncy wickets in the recent memory. If you don’t trust me check for yourself one of the fiercest spells from one of the fiercest bowler – Mitchell Johnson in the 2013 ashes. 

Ask the Pommies who batted in this test match and you still might see a twinkle of fear in their eyes.

The term ‘sticky wicket’ is a widely used metaphor for a precarious situation and that is exactly what batsmen find themselves in on a sticky pitch. These are damp and contain an excess of moisture. 

These are often the ones left uncovered to face the ire of rains which makes the ball stick at one point and fly-off the other turning it very difficult for the batsmen to judge the pace and bounce.

India’s Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium (now named after Arun Jaitley) has been known for its slow and sticky wickets.

This was manifest in the IPL 2019 when it turned out to be a favorite hunting ground for the slower bowlers. Pace dependent teams struggled while spin-dominated XIs enjoyed some convincing victories throughout the season.

Effect of Rain

The impact of rain on a game also depends immensely on the pitch-type. A grassy pitch, when exposed to more moisture, makes it easier for the batsman to play on-the-up as the ball skids through the surface and comes to bat at an even pace. 

On the other hand, excessive absorption of moisture can make the wicket sticky and unpredictable.

Effect of the Roller Used

Rollers are probably the most ignored part of the game. Every ground has the facility of a pitch-roller available that most of the club-cricketers must have labored on in their junior years.

In test matches of the day, after every innings, the batting side gets to decide the type of roller – heavy or light – to be used on the pitch for precisely seven minutes.

It is the duty of the grounds-man or the curator to ask the batting captain who responds with either raising a flat palm high in the air or low to the ground to signal a heavy or a light one, respectively.

Heavy rollers are used to prepare a pitch from its primitive stage. It eradicates most of the cracks initiated by the previous session. If the batting side is poor at playing spin, the captain chooses a heavy roller so that spinners do not get much purchase. 

Instead, the hardening of the pitch assists pacers with a new lease on the bounce.

The extent of moisture is the key here. On a moist track, heavy roller spreads dampness dotting here and there that further reduces the bounce by making the wicket sticky. 

On the flip side, the light roller settles the scratches and cracks from the previous inning without affecting the fundamental nature and the bounce off the pitch.

I hope that the next time you watch a cricket match the pitch-reports would be a lot easier to understand!

Written by - Rudransh Khurana

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