Learning about nets in cricket – uses, types and purpose

Nets feature prominently in cricket terminology. Net run rate is increasingly used as a means of dividing teams who finish level on points in a tournament. Net profit, or loss, is a crucial component of the balance sheet when clubs publish their accounts at the end of the year. Neither, however, is anticipated in quite the same way as the nets in which the players hone their skills during practice.

Throughout the modern history of the game, nets have been used for this purpose. As facilities have become more sophisticated, so the variety of nets has increased so that there is a type of net to suit nearly every situation. There are nets with artificial wickets, nets that can be rolled out to use on the edge of the square and nets indoors. When good, all of them provide an excellent place in which coaches can work with players to help them make advances in their game. If they fall below the required standard, they can be a positive danger, both physically and to confidence.

Cricket can be a dangerous game at the best of times, with a hard ball being propelled or hit at speed. On poor surfaces, this can become highly dangerous, but this is only one respect in which nets can pose a serious threat to safety. The old days when little attention was paid to the quality of turf net pitches have hopefully gone for good. Many a promising young player was lost to the game with confidence shattered by balls, often delivered at pace from considerably less than 22 yards, that would leap alarmingly from a length or creep along the ground. Neither batsman nor bowler learns anything useful in such conditions. Even artificial pitches need some sort of maintenance, while they also need to be of sufficient dimensions. In order to keep down the costs of construction, there are examples of artificial net pitches that come to an end barely beyond the length of a short ball. There is nothing worse for a batsman facing a quick bowler who drops the ball short and finds the edge of the pitch construction. From there it can fly in a totally unpredictable fashion.

That is not the extent of the dangers inherent in nets. Especially when sited indoors, the lighting can be totally inadequate for cricket, as can the background. There might be holes in the dividing net between bays, or the anchoring at the foot of dividing nets can be loose, allowing the ball to pass underneath. Frequently these dividing nets do not extend far enough, so failing to protect bowlers and others at the non-striker’s end from balls driven back by the batsman.

It is not always the bowlers that need protection in such circumstances. The story goes that in his early days with Derbyshire, Devon Malcolm was distinctly quick, but somewhat erratic. The county captain at the time was Kim Barnett who was not a little disconcerted by a particularly rapid ball from Malcolm that, in poor light, whistled past his nose without bouncing. Barnett just managed to get out of the way as the thunderbolt from Malcolm crashed into the back netting. He was not wearing a helmet, but then why should he have been? He was in the spinners’ net alongside the one in which the wayward Malcolm was operating!

When the indoor nets at Derbyshire were first built, they were considered to be a great advance in facilities. This was despite the fact that they consisted of nothing more than a roll of green linoleum laid on a concrete base, all within an elongated Nissen hut. At the official opening of the new facility, Donald Carr took advantage of his position as captain to take the first knock.

He was delighted by the way the ball came nicely onto the bat off the lino and was enjoying himself going through an array of strokes. It was at this point that one of the great seamers of his time, Les Jackson, arrived to bowl. Having creamed all the others around, Carr faced Jackson’s first ball that jagged back off the seam and struck him a painful blow on the inside of his thigh. He played three balls from other bowlers before Jackson loped in again to bowl with his slingy action and got another ball to jag back to strike him in the same place.

As he rubbed furiously at his smarting inner thigh, Carr decided that he had been batting for long enough and it was time to let someone else have a go. He spoke to Jackson as he passed, asking how it was, when everyone else was unable to get any deviation, he was getting it to dart all over the place. “Because it’s a green wicket, skip” was Jackson’s laconic reply.

Bowling on a concrete base is not ideal, especially for pace bowlers. There is no ‘give’ in concrete or similar unforgiving landing areas at the bowler’s end. It has been suggested that the increased incidence of back and leg injuries in young quick bowlers is the result of much bowling on such surfaces. Similar dangers occur when turf footholds are badly worn and uneven.

For all the dangers, however, well managed and properly maintained nets can be a huge help to players and coaches alike. They give the opportunity to experiment, to work on various aspects of play and to prepare a player for the real thing to come out in the middle. That is, providing he is the type of player who enjoys playing in nets. Some simply do not enjoy the confines of the cage.

On the tour of India in 1984/85, England’s Graeme Fowler was in such poor form in the nets before the Madras Test that he swung at his discarded helmet with his foot, planting it in the side of the net as if he was a footballer from Old Trafford rather than a cricketer, before going for some throwdowns on a patch of outfield. Fortunately, he left his frustrations and form in the net and proceeded to record his highest Test innings of 201 in the match that started next day.

Ian Botham was another who did not really take to net practice. Even as a youngster on the Lord’s ground staff, he liked to go for all his shots rather than concentrating on any defensive skills. After yet another great swing of the bat, the coach, Len Muncer, admonished Botham by saying: “No, no, no. Just look at where your feet are.” The young Botham’s riposte was: “Never mind my feet; look where the ball is” motioning in the general direction of Baker Street.