Learn about the grass and cricket
Chess on grass. This expression refers not to a grandmaster found guilty of smoking illegal substances but is a means of conveying the complexities of cricket. It is the captain who is moving the pieces at his disposal, while the character of the turf on which the game is played is very often the determining factor in the outcome of a match. acceptable in the middle of the nineteen the century.
It is not surprising that cricket evolved from a pastime of shepherds on the downlands of south-east England. The grass was kept short by grazing sheep to provide a suitable surface. It is interesting to note that a flock of sheep was kept at Lord’s in the early days with the express purpose of mowing the grass. They were confined to a special pen on match days, but, sad to relate, the quality of the outfield they produced would not be acceptable nowadays. In fact, it was not deemed acceptable in the middle of nineteenth century.
In the days before the heavy roller and mowing machines, the actual wicket would be cut using scythes, or even gangs of small boys individually picking off the long stalks of grass. With sheep grazing the outfield, and providing natural, organic fertiliser in abundant quantities, it might be thought that a true surface would be prepared. That is, once the evidence of the sheep had been removed by the ground boys prior to a match. However, John Lillywhite, who played for Sussex and Middlesex at the time, reported that Lord’s “only resembled a billiard table in one respect and that was in the pockets”.
When grounds were developed by owners, such as Thomas Lord, the wickets would be variable at best. It is reported that gravel and other stones were often found on the pitch, as the owner would simply hire casual labour to prepare the ground for matches. One of the first specialist groundsmen was a David Jordan who was rewarded with what was, in 1864, a decent wage of 25 shillings a week by MCC to look after Lord’s.
His efforts during a decade of employment were not always appreciated, for when he was replaced by Peter Pearce, a newspaper carried an article that noted how good pitches at Lord’s were at one time an exception but, under the care of the new groundsman “the playing portion of the arena is in faultless condition.”
The first machine for mowing the grass was patented in 1830 by Edwin Budding of Stroud. He based his idea on a machine used in the West Country designed to take the nap off cloth. Of course, it was many years after that before motor-driven machinery became available and so horses were used to pull the mowing machines and mass-produced heavy iron rollers, which did not come into use until the 1870s.
To avoid damaging the turf, these horses were fitted with specially designed leather boots. Catalogues of equipment for tending cricket grounds were still featuring horse-drawn machinery up until the outbreak of the Second World War. Some of these animals became characters in their own right. There is a tale that the resident horse at Trent Bridge, on noticing that the particularly inept number eleven batsman was making his way to the wicket, would actually take up his position between the shafts of the roller unaided. The animal knew that it would be but a short interval before it was required for work between innings.
As well as mechanisation, there was an increasing input from the world of science when it came to the preparation of cricket pitches. Long after the sheep had been moved from cricket fields, natural, organic fertilisers were virtually the only ones available. It was often said that the best pitches came from cows. Cowpats were not actually applied to the surface, but they were put into sacks that were in turn soaked for days in tubs of water and occasionally agitated.
The resulting sediment at the bottom of the tub was then applied to the wicket to act as both a top-dressing and a fertiliser in one go. The process produced some wonderful pitches when given time to work and then rolled out, but it did not do to lick your fingers if you were a spin bowler!
The introduction of chemical fertilisers and artificial dressings was frowned upon by the authorities as they became more widely used. In 1901 it was the MCC who contacted all county clubs with a warning that it is undesirable, in the interests of cricket, that the wickets should be prepared artificially any way other than by water and roller: That could not happen today as chemicals, dressings and all types of processes designed to produce a better underlying structure are used to make a cricket pitch.
Even with these additional aids at his disposal, watering, rolling, and mowing are still at the heart of the groundsman’s art. Like everything else in cricket, the important thing is balance. It is difficult to get right, especially when the weather can intervene at any moment to tilt it hopelessly out of kilter, while the groundsman can rarely please everyone. It is either too flat for the bowlers or not fair to the batsmen. And nowhere do pitches have the same pace and even bounce as they used to, if we listen to those who were playing a few years ago, when others no doubt made the same comment.
The only answer would seem to be artificial pitches. In some countries cricket was always played on matting, and practice wickets in nets were often concrete or some other hard surface that bore no relation to conditions in the middle. In recent times, there have been instances of wickets being prepared away from the ground on trays that are then lowered into position using cranes. Furthermore, great advances have been made in producing artificial pitches that look and play like turf but without the need for such specialised maintenance.
They are particularly useful in places where resources or climate do not allow proper turf pitches to be kept up to standard. It is much better to learn to play on a good artificial pitch than a poor turf wicket or net area where nobody will acquire the skills of the game. Artificial pitches also take away the regional variety of cricket. England and New Zealand historically offer green, seaming pitches, Australia, the West Indies and South Africa have been noted for fast, true pitches, while dry, dusty turners can be found on the sub-continent. Pitches are responsible for the character of a country’s cricket.
Nowadays, there is even a type of plastic pitch that can be rolled out and put down on football pitches, in car parks, or any piece of open ground where there is room for cricket. The game has been played on ice and on sand, but for proper cricket, there is nothing quite like an immaculately prepared stretch of natural grass.