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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The pitch story: Beauty & the beast

How curators can alter the nature of a wicket by using different kinds of soil, rollers and varying the amount of water.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Mumbai | Published: December 18, 2015 1:19:36 am
A liberal use of the heavy roller, with a rather miserly sprinkling of water can make a pitch a batting paradise. A liberal use of the heavy roller, with a rather miserly sprinkling of water can make a pitch a batting paradise. (File photo)

Doctored pitches are back in news especially after the grassy wicket produced in Hamilton for the second Test between Sri Lanka and New Zealand set to start on Friday. This has come on the back of the controversial Nagpur Test played on a sandpit where South Africans were buried.

Unsurprisingly, this is turning out to be the age where most teams do well at home and generally lose away. And pitches have played a part in exposing visiting batsmen’s skill sets. The Sri Lankan coach Jerome Jayaratne was of the opinion that Hamilton track had 18mm of grass on it on Thursday. That is some serious layering of grass, and no wonder the track was undistinguishable from the rest of the square.

How easy is it to prepare a customised pitch? Is it such an scientific art that one can even prepare a wicket that suits off-spinners more than leg-spinner to suit your team’s strengths? The Indian curators, that The Indian Express spoke to, reckon it can be done. Here are various kinds of tracks and the ways in which it can be prepared. It largely pertains to Indian conditions, and the type of soil available here.

THE SANDPIT

(Also read: Underprepared or undone; or best, the pitch at Nagpur)
Generally ordered for by a captain, who probably doesn’t quite trust his spinners to run through the opposition without incessant extraneous help; even if it means that his own batsmen get caught in a dangerous game of Russian roulette when it’s their time to face the music. Also in high demand during the last round of the Ranji Trophy league encounters.

How it’s made: To begin with, use preferably a used wicket — one which has had a match played on it recently. Cut off the water supply to the pitch four or five days out from the opening day of the Test match, leaving it dry and parched. But keep rolling it with a light roller — the 500 kg or 250 kg one, preferably. The rolling will ensure that the cracks widen and the soil is loosened. You will see dust flying off the surface when the ball lands on it very early on Day One, and the ball will misbehave off the cracks.

Some curators also try and give these sand pits an ostensible face lift by adding some amount of dead grass that is cut from the nearby square or sawdust and rolling it on to the surface. But it’s unlikely to bind the pitch together for more than half-a-day. And all it takes for the sawdust to disappear — if the ball hasn’t already taken care of it — is for one house-keeping session from the ground-staff where they sweep the surface to get rid of debris.

THE RANK TURNER

A traditional fare that has existed in India for years, and which captains go for when they feel the need for the proverbial home advantage.

RECIPE: The preparation remains pretty normal for the first few days, maintaining the 3-4 mm grass on top. But four-five days out, the mower is used to shave the pitch bald or zero-cutting as they call it. Then you start watering it less but adequately to ensure it doesn’t go too dry and only a light roller—say a 500 kg one—is used on it. It is imperative to maintain half-an-inch of moisture though even on Day One. That ensures that the ball grips and turns off this surface from the early going but it doesn’t misbehave. Captains are encouraged to use spinners with the new-ball too for these wickets often turn more than the under-prepared ones. Like the 2012 Wankhede pitch, the pitch will not be a complete nightmare for batsmen and will give them a fair opportunity till well into Day Two when the moisture completely dries up and the top surface becomes loose.

Some curators can get it wrong when they use the ‘brush’—the kinds used to wash utensils—and scrape off the grass two days before the match rather than systematically shaving it off.

THE DESIGNER TRACK

These are pitches which are made-to-order depending on the strengths of the home team — right from whether their lead spinner is a leggie or an offie or a left-arm spinner.

RECIPE: Most curators will indulge in selective watering. They start with making the pitch entirely firm but then ensure that the parts of the wicket on either side of the stumps are kept dry. The middle stretch of the wicket is watered and rolled sufficiently enough to keep it firm and ‘true’. So while the visiting team’s fast bowlers keep attacking the stumps hoping for that part of the pitch to break up like the areas outside off and leg stump, it never happens even as the Indian spinners make the most of the abrasive or rough part of the wicket. Or like in 1998 when the curator ensured that the square patch on a length outside the right-hander’s leg-stump was kept firm so that the threat of Shane Warne was negated.

GREEN DEVIL

Not much in demand in India, unless the curator decides that the pitch has to be a sporting one. Remember Nagpur 2004 or Ahmedabad 2008.

RECIPE: Start by maintaining 6-7 mm grass on it. Heavy watering is the way to go, and you have to maintain 3-4 inches of moisture below the surface. On the first day you use a 2-tonne roller to bind the surface nicely and ensure it will remain hard. Then for the next few days you use the 1-tonne roller. The day-time is used to dry the wicket by using the roller thrice or four times in a day for half-hour from 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm. Then you water the pitch at 5 pm and leave it. On occasions during summer, you have to water the pitch once in the afternoon to ensure the grass stays alive and use a light roller. The last few days you come down to a 750 kg roller. Reduce the grass to 3-4 mm and bind it with the soil, so it gets kind of attached with the soil and makes the pitch firmer. The moisture is maintained at half-an-inch for Day 1 and once the covers come off every morning the moisture rises to the surface giving it a fresh green look. The mower is used every morning to cut off the daily growth, but the 3-4 mm grass that is bound with the soil is deep-rooted and ensures there is seam and bounce.

The Bombay Crumble

This is a once-in-a-lifetime pitch that was prepared to bring the Aussies to their knees after they had finally won the series in India in 2004. There wasn’t more than two days of cricket, and India did win but after part-timer Michael Clarke had taken 6/9 with his left-arm spin.

RECIPE: The curator started off by scraping the pitch and making it dry before making a mixture of khaad or organic fertilizer and soil and rolling it on top of it. He started watering and rolling it with a light roller. So basically he had created an artificial surface —like a thin carpet — on top, which had no chance of binding with the original turf below. Within half a day, the add-on surface had come off literally with the ball landing on it, revealing the akhara below. The rest is history.

THE BATTING PARADISE

Where batsmen rule the roost and bowlers are reduced to being the lackeys. The standard fare for ODIs and T20s.

RECIPE: These involve a lot of rolling with the 2 tonne roller. But unlike with green wickets, the watering has to be lighter so that there isn’t excess moisture below the surface and the wicket does remain slightly dry. The grass quotient doesn’t always matter, as you can keep up to 3-4 mm on it, and roll it in. The pitch is rolled four times a day with light watering in between these sessions. The pitch will remain flat with the ball coming on nicely to the bat.

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