March 20, 2017

How do you feel about artificial pitches?

Unless they can exhibit the variety that turf pitches have, they risk devaluing the game by stripping away subtlety
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If artificial pitches can offer variety, it's worth thinking about using them © Getty Images

When it comes to describing pitches to a fellow club cricketer, few terms induce the grimace that "artificial" does.

Non-turf strips have something of a bad reputation. Bowlers feel they are on a hiding to nothing, while batsmen feel they have no excuse to not score heavily. To an extent, this perception is unfair, since these pitches are not always the batsman's paradise they are assumed to be.

While their pace and carry may be limited, they can permit a degree of movement. Five-wicket hauls are far from unknown. The advantage of increased playability should also not be undervalued.

At the recreational level, where so much effort goes into getting the necessary players to the ground, anything that boosts the likelihood of the game going ahead has to be a welcome development. With many clubs struggling for volunteers, the less demanding requirements when it comes to maintenance are also a significant point in favour of artificial pitches.

Reliability is also a key benefit. In 2014, Mike Selvey wrote in the Guardian of his local club opting, against his advice, to install a grass square rather than an artificial surface. A few months down the line the pitch started misbehaving dangerously. There's now no club; it would be foolish to place this solely at the door of its unruly turf, but it cannot have helped matters.

None of this is to say that artificial pitches should be the primary choice, or that they are generally preferable to grass. Natural grass pitches continue to command the affection of both players and spectators. Discovering, adjusting to, and exploiting the vagaries of individual pitches continue to make cricket on such surfaces interesting.

A young cricketer plays on rubber matting, 1950 © PA Photos

With all that in mind, how should we assess, then, the ECB's idea of playing its new T20 competition on artificial pitches?

While the reflex of most cricket lovers might be to retch at the thought of professional cricket being played in such conditions, it should be remembered that it would be nothing new. Even Test cricket, that most traditional of formats, has been played on jute matting - which is nothing if not a sort of artificial pitch. Illustrating how such a surface can reward both batsmen and bowlers, the Lucknow Test between India and Pakistan in 1952 saw Nazar Mohammad carry his bat for 124, while Fazal Mahmood finished with match figures of 12 for 94. Non-turf pitches are, in fact, so firmly a part of cricket that they even receive particular attention in the standard MCC Laws (7.5 and 10.8).

Artificial need not mean evil. Unfortunately the very words "artificial" and "synthetic" convey the notion of unhealthiness. It's only a matter of time before the term "fake" joins them. If it hasn't already happened, "fake cricket" will surely be the next lazy epithet to be wheeled out to condemn any unwelcome development in the game.

Indeed, there is a risk that the anti-artificial-pitch movement gets caught up in the misguided quest for authenticity, glimpsed in many spheres today, from food to clothing to music to theatre. It's all too easy to become attached to fixed ideas of representativeness, and thereby fail to appreciate the potential of alternatives to the status quo. Fair play, then, to the ECB, not an organisation renowned for unconventionality, for thinking outside the box.

If the misguided quest for authenticity is one extreme, then the other is the misguided quest for saleability. It appears that the major reasons why the ECB is contemplating such a move are: firstly, to procure the steady rainfall of sixes it deems to be necessary to render an attractive spectacle; and secondly, to ensure that more traditional rainfall need not jeopardise play.

What's your favourite shade of green? © Getty Images

It has to be admitted that an artificial pitch might well provide a better spectacle than some of the pitches used for T20 in recent years, including at major grounds such as Lord's. The desire to improve the experience for spectators isn't a fault. Nor is the wish to minimise lost playing time, although it should be observed that often it is the outfield rather than the pitch that delays restarting play.

No, the reason why artificial pitches for T20 are a Bad Thing™ is because they sell the game short, robbing it of its potential. If the competition is truly about attracting new audiences to the game - a worthy aim - it makes no sense to deliberately devalue that game. Cricket relies on variability for its interest. Identical artificial pitches represent the ultimate form of homogenisation. Stripping the game of another layer of subtlety - and despite what its critics may say, there is plenty of subtlety in T20 beneath the surface - would be foolish, counterproductively reducing its ability to obtain new fans while simultaneously alienating existing ones.

If, on the other hand, we could construct artificial pitches that vary throughout the game, and which can be produced according to differing specifications, cricket would be enhanced. Single-use surfaces that provide both high variability and high playability could be the future, especially for temporary venues such as Olympic stadiums - should cricket ever get that far.

For the moment, however, for anything other than recreational cricket, artificial pitches deserve no more than a grimace.

Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK. @LiamCromar

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • AlexfromPessac on March 23, 2017, 20:28 GMT

    In the professional game and at clubs with a groundsman artificial pitches have no place, a reasonable turf pitch being always preferable to astroturf. However, here in France (and I think in other European countries) they are a necessity because with no groundsmen a turf pitch would be a minefield. A good astroturf pitch on level concrete is a good surface but if you face 85 mph bowling it can be dangerous and painful...

  • Vorticon on March 23, 2017, 14:47 GMT

    Artificial wickets can vary greatly depending on what is underneath them. I've played on total minefields and 1970s WACA style artificials at various times.

    As a bowler, I hate them just because I can't wear spikes and transitioning from grass to turf in your bowling stride is awful. If the ground is even slightly wet or muddy, you can't go through your bowling stride properly because the dampness on your soles can cause serious injury if you slip.

  • CopOneInTheNuts on March 23, 2017, 8:35 GMT

    Having trained on synthetic with bowlers firing in at 140+. I'll take my turf wickets any day thank you. Facing a bowler with genuine pace on synthetic will make you rethink the subject and how ludicrous the notion is.

  •   cricfan69564930 on March 22, 2017, 0:33 GMT

    testcricrox i like your thoughts on using a different ball and avoiding injuries and removing the expensive protective gear needed to face the ICC sanctioned leather bone breaker..

  • cricfan97265593 on March 21, 2017, 23:43 GMT

    We can discuss all day precisely where to draw the line with artificial pitches. I played on them (and cement) until about age 16, so they certainly have their place. Many clubs and schools simply can't afford to prepare turf. But can we all agree on one thing: TURF ONLY FOR TEST CRICKET!

  • Calypso Kid on March 21, 2017, 20:12 GMT

    @TIMMUH -- It's an interesting question you raise how so many village sides in England can maintain a turf pitch. The heavy clay marl that we use in Australia seems to be very high maintenance and require a lot of water and rolling. Pitches in England and NZ seem to be more sandy in content and resilient in wet weather. They also seem more playable when under-prepared (very low and slow, rather than nasty variations in bounce like in Oz). I've often wondered whether a more English/NZ type soil might be a better bet for lower grade turf cricket in Australia.

  • unknownuser on March 21, 2017, 12:27 GMT

    I think artificial pitches should used in t20 and maybe odi cricket because the true potential of natural pitches is not shown in those formats.

  • TestCricRox on March 21, 2017, 6:02 GMT

    my 5c worth...the key here is to provide a balance between the bat and all trades of leather flingers....keep all interested- keep them thinking they have an even chance be it the first ball or the last ball... tinkering with the pitches is not the only solution, changes have to be made to the ball as well, surely with all the science and tech a combination of the ball and pitch can be found which gives the required revs as output for the spinner or the level and steepness of bounce for the quickie corresponding to their efforts put in for the revs and the bounce, and also something in it for the batsman-ie it comes on nicely. at the very least am guessing a different type of ball will eliminate some of the injuries to batsman and fieldsmen or some of the protective gear resulting in freer movement and more output....

  • Timmuh on March 21, 2017, 5:48 GMT

    Artificial pitches have their place, and that place is in places where the cost of maintaining a set of turf pitches makes it impractical. Sadly, I've only ever played on artificial because bush league clubs sometimes can't get the council to moe the outfield - much less maintain a playable pitch square. (I don't understand how every village in England seems to be able to maintain a turf square and an old fashioned pavillion. It is mostly just high end clubs and private schools have that luxury here in Australia. Maybe its easier in damper climate?)

    I could almost see it used for professional T20, where the whole point is mindless slogging, but as those games generally played in stadia which are used for other formats its difficult even there.

  •   cricfan69564930 on March 21, 2017, 5:36 GMT

    lots of good comments below..i think the variation of cement finish and matting options would provide variety between different club wickets...could spice up the matting by throwing a small amount of sawdust,sand,or fine gravel over the wicket...costs likely to be lower to maintain a synthetic wicket-that is an informed guess...variation to bowling available using different type of ball i.e.-two piece ball for swing..bowlers can get wickets if they use subtle change of pace or change ball grip..the evenness is better for t20,which is crickets most popular format....i don't see unsurmountable disadvantages to artificial wickets

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