Champions Trophy May 26, 2017

Hard, flat and true

England's one-day pitches have become distinctly more batsman-friendly over the past few seasons, and that has played a vital part in the national team's new approach
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Brave new world: In the home summer following their 2015 World Cup debacle, England made their first 400-plus ODI total © Getty Images

"If England win the ICC Champions Trophy - and they really could; they're that good - I'd like to think the groundstaff around the country will have played a small part in their success."

That's the view of Gary Barwell, the head groundsman at Edgbaston, the scene of the tournament's final in 2013 and one of the semi-finals this time. He feels that over recent years the List A surfaces in England have become "the best in the world". Especially once you take into context the volume of cricket required of surfaces in England and the challenging weather conditions in which they are prepared.

While you might expect Barwell to fight the corner of his colleagues, he may have a point. Certainly there is evidence to suggest that England's limited-overs resurgence has been at least partially enabled by the improved surfaces on which they are playing.

Take what now appears to have been the watershed 2015 series against New Zealand. Within a few days in June, England established their first 400-plus ODI score, their highest ODI chase and the highest match aggregate of an ODI in which they had been involved. Whether it was Trent Bridge, The Oval or Edgbaston, England were given the surfaces that suited their new-found aggressive approach with the bat.

Domestic batsmen in England are increasingly becoming accustomed to surfaces that enable them to hit through the ball. It's not just the England side that has changed; it's whole of English cricket

Nor was it a one-off. They broke one of the records set that series - their highest ODI total, 408 for 9 at Edgbaston - in August 2016 when they thrashed 444 for 3 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge. It is, at the time of writing, the highest ODI score ever made, though there seems a decent chance that by the end of the tournament it may have been surpassed.

It's not just England, either. Opposition teams are also scoring heavily in England and Wales, meaning that since the 2015 World Cup, nowhere in the world has seen ODIs with such a high run rate (an average 6.15 runs per over). That compares to the two years up to the World Cup, which saw ODIs in England (and Wales) rank only sixth in the global table of highest average run rates (at 5.21 runs per over). India led the way at the time with an average run rate of 6.05 runs per over. While run rates have increased pretty much everywhere, nowhere have they risen as dramatically as in England. There have been 19 totals of 300 or more in just 22 matches since the World Cup (up to the start of the series against South Africa); by comparison, there had been only five such totals in England (and Wales) in 43 ODIs up to the last Champions Trophy in 2013.

It was a change mirrored in domestic cricket. On June 6, 2016, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire plundered 870 runs in a List A game at Trent Bridge; only two fewer than the record for the format established in Johannesburg by Australia and South Africa a decade earlier. Two days later, Nottinghamshire shared another 794 runs with Warwickshire. Pitch marks - the marks given by umpires at the end of each match - have improved to such an extent that Trent Bridge averaged 5.96 last year. Six is rated very good (the highest mark), five is good and four is above average. "I can foresee a day when a groundsman getting a mark of 5.9 is rated only 18th in the country," Barwell says. "We're all getting better and there is more expectation of what we can provide."

English domestic one-day cricket has witnessed ever higher scores over the last few seasons © Getty Images

This year the domestic 50-over competition has been played earlier in the season. While the aim was largely to create something of a window for the T20 tournament, it has also allowed the competition to be played on fresher surfaces. So while last year's winners, Warwickshire, played the quarter-final, semi-final and final on used surfaces - a factor that may well have helped a side that included the spin of Jeetan Patel and the accumulative Jonathan Trott - this year's surfaces have tended to offer a little more pace and a little less assistance to spinners. The result? Domestic batsmen in England are increasingly becoming accustomed to surfaces that enable them to hit through the ball. It's not just the England side that has changed; it's whole of English cricket.

Why? Well, the ECB has targeted success at the 2019 World Cup as crucial for the growth of the game. So, while 50-over cricket was once the poor relation to the other formats - T20 was seen as more glamorous (and lucrative) and first-class cricket more noble - it has now been given far greater priority.

It's not just the pitches, of course. It's no secret that after their humiliation at the 2015 World Cup, there was a realisation that the mindset of the England side had to change. So out went the safety-first, accumulative style and in came younger players, developed in the age of T20 and better prepared to adopt the aggressive approach of the age. It was a change that most other international sides had made years previously and one that continues to develop in all formats of the game.

While 50-over cricket was once the poor relation to the other formats - T20 was seen as more glamorous (and lucrative) and first-class cricket more noble - it has now been given far greater priority

That mindset change, combined with better (and often bigger) bats, improved strength and conditioning, better drainage which has resulted in pitches retaining less moisture, smaller boundary sizes and the adoption of two new Kookaburra balls in ODI and English domestic cricket - they hardly swing and tend not to get too soft later in the innings - has created a situation where run-rates are increasing fast. It's a global trend, but nowhere is it more pronounced.

But for that approach to work, you need surfaces to suit. You need to allow the likes of Jason Roy and Alex Hales pitches where they won't be punished for poking at deliveries that could leave them; where you don't need the likes of Alastair Cook and Trott to negate the moving ball and set a platform.

Barwell expects his Champions Trophy pitches to be similar to those seen at Edgbaston in this year's domestic 50-over competition: high scoring with little seam or spin and minimal swing. As he puts it: "We don't get the interference or instruction people seem to think, but one-day pitches in England right now are the best in the world. Well, if you're a batsman."

It is intriguing to hear Barwell say he anticipates little spin. The 2013 Champions Trophy final was notable for the amount of turn India gained in the second innings. While Barwell disputes the suggestion the surface was simply too dry - "It only turned in the second innings after the surface became damp; we were trying to get that game played in wet conditions as there was no reserve day" - he does admit he has learned lessons from the experience.

England's bold approach has been at the heart of their ODI reinvention, but batting-friendly pitches have also played their part © Getty Images

"I was in my second year of the job here," he explains. "And yes, it was a big event for me.

"Early on in the tournament - in one of the warm-up games - an umpire warned me that I'd watered one of the neighbouring pitches too much and that, for an ODI, they would have thought of delaying or even abandoning play.

"That really surprised me and the thought of having 24,000 people here and disappointed because I'd screwed up was at the back of my mind. So I did everything by the book. I was cautious with my watering and yes, by the time we got to the final, the pitch was dry.

"Would I do the same thing again? No. I'd do what I know has to be done to create good pitches and I wouldn't listen to anyone who told me to do anything differently."

There are other challenges for these groundsmen. With broadcasters insisting on stadiums using pitches in the middle of the square for all televised games - and there could be around 20 days of televised cricket from Edgbaston this year - the amount of use on those few strips right in the middle is exhaustive.

"We don't get the interference or instruction people seem to think, but one-day pitches in England right now are the best in the world. Well, if you're a batsman"
Gary Barwell, head groundsman at Edgbaston

As a result, they have increased the number of international-quality surfaces at Edgbaston. There are now nine pitches that can accommodate international, televised games, which gives Barwell the luxury of watering surfaces required for later in the tournament even the day before major matches. While there will be some reuse of pitches, Barwell is confident the standard will remain consistently high.

"And they're the same everywhere," he says. "All 18 groundsmen around the county circuit are as good as one another and I think, in terms of pitches, you could play these games at any ground, from Chester-le-Street to Hove, and get great wickets. We share knowledge and experience and, on a basic level, we have good equipment.

"So, yes. We're ready. And yes, I think you're going to see some pretty similar scores to the domestic 50-over matches earlier in the season. Only once did a team fail to score 300 in the first innings and even then, it was only by 19. It's a really exciting England side and I think we've given them the surfaces to show the world how good they are."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nitin on June 1, 2017, 6:16 GMT

    I am just waiting for the Team India to play on this surface. I see at least 4 innings they will score 450+ runs against the other 7 mediocre team. Mark my word!

  • Prasad on May 30, 2017, 19:20 GMT

    So, can we now start calling the English team 'Flat Track Bullies'. And ohh, before talking of swing and seam movement remember captain Morgan cry like a baby after the last ODI against SA where, at the sight of some lateral movement, the English Flat Track bullies were making a beeline for the pavilion.

  • Sunny on May 30, 2017, 14:25 GMT

    @cricfan2031698462 India has a pretty good attack this time. Since the previous Champions trophy which they won the bowling has got better. It is the batting which has been scratchy and lost them games in these 4 years. No team has bowled well on flat pitches.NONE. Not even the Saffers. only Starc led Aussies look decent if the conditions are tough for bowlers.

  • Sunny on May 30, 2017, 14:19 GMT

    The pitch in the previous champions trophy final did not turn. There was rain around throughout the curtailed match. England lost most of their wkts to pacers and their only good partnership came after spinners came on. These facts are somewhat contrary to what has been written in this article.

  • GeoffreysMother on May 28, 2017, 7:21 GMT

    A thoughtful and well researched article. I'm sure for many 'new to the game' - which is what the ECB is aiming for- will enjoy the big scores and domination by the batsmen. Like a few here, I think I prefer games where there is greater reward for good bowling and less for having a big bat. I suppose though the danger is these games might not go the full 50 overs, spectators feel cheated and those crucial late in the day beer sales are not maximised!

  • Peter on May 27, 2017, 21:13 GMT

    Well said Shane-Oh & Jose_P... I am also lamenting the impact to the bowler with what is being dished up as 'pitches'. Every bowler will suffer if they are even the tiniest bit off their game, even bringing their A game will only slow proceedings. You can talk all you want about seam requirements in England, but with these pitches on offer, that negates any bowler with those aspirations. Perhaps weather conditions may help with swing early in the innings? The team that will win will be the one that will maintain their share of fortune with their powerhouse batting & that will change consistently as you can never maintain the same standard ad nauseum.

  • Andysi2416478 on May 27, 2017, 14:56 GMT

    India will not win beacuse the genius selectors picked Dhoni, Yuvraj and Rohit. These three will fail. Ashwin has not proved match fitness either. India will not defend CT.

  • Andysi2416478 on May 27, 2017, 14:37 GMT

    One should not complain about the pitch whether it is flat or not. If ICC approves the pitch please play.

  • Andysi2416478 on May 27, 2017, 14:24 GMT

    @MIDFIELDER1.

    Two matches and you are spot on.

  • Hamza Salman on May 27, 2017, 12:00 GMT

    I wonder what one Sir Isaac Vivain Alexander Richards would have accomplished on the pitches we see around the world now. He was deadly destructive even when batting with tailenders on seaming English pitches.

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