Natural vs Non-turf cricket pitches: Part 1
In the first of a two-part column, total-play Ltd’s David Bates looks at the pros and cons non turf vs natural cricket pitches…
I come from a natural turf background. As a player and a cricket groundsman, I’ve always promoted a good quality natural surface – and I still do. In an ideal world, all matches would be played on a natural surface for the different characteristics it brings to the game and how variabilities highlight the different strengths of players. This is at the heart of what players – and spectators – enjoy most about the game throughout the season.
On a professional level, I’ve been involved at the forefront of the design and development of many different types of cricket practice facilities, both indoor and outdoor, and those used for match play – most recently in ECB trials for hybrid pitches. Through this I have seen the huge potential non-turf facilities offer as the game moves forward, particularly in terms of providing consistent pitch conditions at grassroots level and in developing children’s skills.
At the top level, I feel strongly that the game should be played on good quality natural pitches. However, there is a grey area where if, for whatever reason, we cannot provide good quality natural pitches a facilitator is better to provide a good standard non-turf match pitch or practice facility. This is also driven by the success of the shorter formats – where the need for the bat dominating the ball requires a more consistent surface to ensure play that is stimulating and emulates the professional game. Especially at grass roots level then, a good quality non-turf surface is more beneficial than an average-to-poor natural surface, not only from an experience perspective but health & safety.
Historically, non turf pitches were seen as the ‘poor relation’ in terms of performance – however, over the past decade a huge amount of research has gone into research and development. The ‘new generation’– including our own ‘TP’ range – give a balanced game between bat and ball while offering more consistent bounce; allowing every aspect and every player to be involved in the game. In the next column, we’ll look more in-depth at the latest developments that are making non-turf pitches an increasingly attractive proposition for grassroots clubs.
Natural vs Non-turf cricket pitches: Part 2
In the second of his two-part column, total-play Ltd’s David Bates looks at the evolution of artificial cricket pitches…
As mentioned in the first instalment, ideally all cricket matches would be played on a high-quality natural surface. This, therefore, is the benchmark when designing and building synthetic cricket pitches.
I believe the latest ‘generation’ of synthetic cricket pitches go a long way to meeting this goal as they meet the ECB performance testing objectives of providing a stable, porous pitch that has have the ability to give a good, even consistency of pace and bounce.
So, what’s changed? The base profile is critical – it must be consistent throughout and provide a smooth surface for many years – the type and depth of stone used is key, especially on certain types of ground. Up-to-date practice facilities have no internal frameworks and, in doing so, remove one potential way of creating an uneven or dangerous surface.
Shock-pads are vital for both the batsmen and bowler – those used under the bowlers’ run-up and crease provide shock absorption, whilst those beneath where the ball pitches provide consistent pace and a true bounce.
When it comes to carpets, traditionally the ‘woven’ manufacturing process has been favoured but, more recently, ‘tufted’ carpets are being offered too. The woven vs tufted carpet debate is a topic in its own right but, on a basic level, carpets manufactured either way with the correct yarn, pile height and density can perform well. The last couple of years have also seen the introduction of ‘natural pitch’ or straw colour carpets that replicate a natural pitch.
The size and design of outfield practice facilities has also changed dramatically – especially with the advent of retractable netting systems, which open up the playing area to more sports than just cricket. We call these ‘Cricket MUGAs’.
Safety issues have also been addressed when it comes to netting systems. Higher steel frameworks are popular, allowing the spinner to have more chance to ‘flight’ the ball. New netting systems create a ’tunnel’ or ‘cocoon’ within each lane to prevent the ball escaping and causing damage or injury, and many suppliers have moved to more robust netting materials.
Enclosed facilities are also increasingly popular. By extending the playing area to include the run-ups and installing additional perimeter netting not only do these systems stop the ball free leaving but take away the negative effects of a grassed area; creating a facility that can be used more throughout the entire year. In short, modern artificial cricket pitches are versatile and deliver not only on performance but longevity – making them an excellent investment for the forward-thinking club.
On the natural pitch side. The last few years have seen the introduction of ‘hybrid cricket pitches’ – this is where a strand of yarn is stitched into a natural pitch profile. The aim by introducing a synthetic element to a natural pitch is to increase durability plus add agronomic benefits to the soil profile and the grass plant. Initial feedback from trials at a professional level is very promising and so let’s see have to evolves in the next few years.
As a rule of thumb, you don’t want to touch the pitch itself until the ground temperature is up to about 5 or 6°c, which is when the grass plant comes out of its dormant state. However, there are some things you can do so you’re ready to start.
First, your equipment – February is the ideal time to get in the store sheds and check your machinery and covers. Send mowers away for a service and blade sharpening, check covers for damage and either book them in for repair or research replacements.
With the banning of the chemical Carbendazim, the management of worm casts is going to be a real battle for some Groundsmen. To prevent an uneven surface and swashing the casts back into the surface (which will create bare areas) you’ll need to disperse the worm casts before running over them with a mower or roller. Ideally, remove them with a drag mat or a dew switch in dry conditions – in addition, over-seeding the square in your preseason works will help. Use a dimple seeder if you can – if not, simply evenly cast some seed prior to rolling. The roller will push some seed into the surface to generate to the all-important seed/soil connection.
As soon as the ground temperature rises and the grass plant starts working you should be ready to make the first cut. The secret is to cut little and often; taking down the sward gradually to the summer maintenance height of 12mm or ½ an inch. If the square is in good shape you may be able to use a cylinder mower straight away, but if it’s quite long use a rotary mower for the first couple of cuts, remembering to collect and clear the clippings, before you move onto the cylinder mower. Timing is everything – wait for a dry leaf blade before you cut, make sure you have sharp blades, take your time, try to brush up the plant once it’s been cut – then wait to see what the next few weeks bring.
More bounce in the pitch…
One of the questions we get asked most frequently in cricket groundsmanship is ‘How do we generate more pace and bounce in our cricket pitch?’. A simple question, but one that doesn’t have a simple answer.
First, the ‘science bit’ – it’s all about energy. To get a ball to bounce, you need its energy to be returned to it from the surface. Think about bouncing a ball on concrete and then on mud – the hard surface will return the energy leading to bounce, but on the mud it will leave an indent; dissipating the energy into the surface. The same principle applies to cricket pitches.
The aim of the cricket groundsman is to produce a solid block of clay loam down to 100-120mm, with root mass growing through it to hold it together and moisture content at optimum level. This ensures the soil particles are held together and solid enough to return the energy to the ball and create bounce.
Sounds simple in theory? In practice, not so. In essence, bounce is all about the pitch profile. A pitch can look great but not perform well – think of historic squares that have great grass cover, but play low and slow. This is often due to profile issues that have built up over the years, which could include one – or all – of the following:
All of these factors can compromise the surface and lead to less bounce – and, unfortunately, there’s no ‘quick fix’. Even the best preparation techniques cannot overcome a weak profile and significant works will need planning into the end of season programme to help overcome the issues and improve bounce.
Depending on the severity of the problem, the Cricket Square Restoration or Profile Regeneration & Recycling processes defined as part of my Framework for Natural Cricket Table Processes could solve issues and see the pitch back in action the following season. But for more severe issues, full table reconstruction and the pitch being of action for an entire season may be the only option. Either way, the investment will be worthwhile – the secret to a great cricket pitch is its profile.
Trouble-shooting: Common cricket pitch pre-season headaches…
At the start of any new season there are a number of things that cricket groundsmen should be on the lookout for.
First of all, examine the square and assess how much growth there has been over the winter months. The ideal summer maintenance length for a predominantly Rye sward is 12mm or ½ an inch but, depending on the winter conditions, there could be several inches of growth on the square. If this is the case, aim to bring the sward down to the optimum length over 2 or 3 cuts – initially with a rotary if the growth is over 2 inches then the final stage with a cylinder mower. Please make sure that the blades are sharp. Blunt blades can tear the leaf.
Another common issue after the winter can be the ‘dampening down’ of the sward, where the grass plant is effectively smothered to the ground by the weight of the plant, people walking on it, lying snow or leaves. Raking or light power-brushing can lift off dead matted grass or any debris; allowing the plant to stand upright again and normal growth to resume.
The issue of worm casts is also likely to be prominent – especially since the active ingredient in many worm treatments, Carbendazim, was taken off the approved list and can no longer be used. To avoid the bare patches and potentially uneven surfaces that can result from worm casts being flattened onto the pitch, the solution will be raking out and over-seeding. One simply trick is to cast the seed over the square prior to starting pre season rolling. The roller then pushes the seed into the surface to create the seed soil connection. Its not has effective has a ‘dimple seeder’ but it does a job.
When it comes to assessing grass plant health, there are a number of visual clues – a light green or yellowish sward early in the year can indicate a pitch lacking in general nutrients, whilst Red Thread in the leaf blade can signify low nitrogen levels. As a general rule, in early Spring (before the weather warms up) high phosphate & potash feeds can help stimulate root growth; with a switch to a more nitrogen-based fertiliser in the warmer months. However, it is strongly advised to get a sample analysed by your local amenities supplier and a bespoke programme devised for your table.
Troubleshooting: What to do when the start of the season is unusually warm & dry…
Cricket pitch preparation is all about balance. While a gentle period of warm weather is desirable to help pitches dry out after winter, as with anything there can be too much of a good thing! Here, I look at the science behind how cricket tables dry out before advising on what to do if the start of the season is unusually warm and dry.
It’s widely known that water can drain through the soil and that it can also evaporate from the surface. However, to truly control the water level in a pitch the grass plant needs to be in great health. This because the grass plant can suck moisture from tiny pore spaces between the soil; helping to dry out the surface and provide optimum levels of dryness for ball bounce and therefore play. For this reason, we don’t cut the grass sward too short during the preparation stage – you need a decent leaf for the plant to be able to perform this role.
Therefore, moisture control needs to be tailored for individual pitches – those you want to dry out for imminent use and those you want to keep wetter until later in the season. Professional groundsmen have this down to an artform and will carefully control the amount of moisture on every single pitch from early March to the end of the season through a combination of covering and irrigation.
When it comes to an unseasonably dry start to the year, the solution is, quite simply, irrigation. A decent irrigation system is just as important as a ground covers when it comes to pitch prep, and you need to be able to control both pressure and volume. Ideally, you need the ability to water in different ways – hand watering from a big rosebud; travelling sprinklers that can operate for many hours; oscillating sprinklers to water sections and stitch sprinklers to water and flood individual pitches. Through careful irrigation, you should be able to strike the right balance and maintain a healthy grass plant so vital to high-performing pitches, even through a Spring heatwave.
Back to life…
Depending size square and the number fixtures in a season, clubs may need to bring a pitch back to life after early use for match play in the second half of the season. total-play’s David Bates talks us through how to prepare a used pitch for ‘round 2’….
If you’re looking to get a pitch ready for use a second time in a single season, the best route is to carry out a less invasive version of the end of season renovation process. Firstly you want to bring the existing grass plant back to life ASAP – so give it a good water and the pitch will start to ‘green up’ after just a few hours.
The next stage will be to clean off any dead grass and matted debris either by power brushing the surface or very lightly scarifying (just a few mm as opposed to 5-8mm depth end of season) before starting repair works. Prior to reseeding it’s a good idea to flood the pitch to get plenty of moisture back in the profile to encourage germination.
For re-seeding, either overseed into the light scarification grooves or dimple seed the with a saddle roller or mechanical dimple roller. It’s also worth lightly top-dressing to relevel the bowling creases and marks and also any undulations or damage caused by play in the centre of the pitch – but take care not to smother existing grass plant and create layers.
A good top-dressing tip to put a bagful of loam in clean wheelbarrow and hand-mix seed in gradually before spreading on top of the bowling creases and levelling out. If the depressions are deep, heel the loam in to give it some compaction or use a hand roller prior to watering.
Once these repair works are complete, the pitch can them be fertilised and covered with a good germination sheet that you can water through. After 7-10 days the grass will really start to grow – once it’s approximately ½ an inch take the cover off to allow UV light to the pitch – then follow your usual prep works to ensure the pitch is ready for its next match.
Putting a pitch ‘to bed’
In this column, MD of total-play Ltd and former first-class groundsman David Bates looks at the key signs that a pitch is ready to retire for the season – and what to do next…
The most important time of the year for a cricket groundsman is at the end of the season. Not because it’s a chance for them to have time off (!) but it’s the ONLY time of the year they can really make a difference in improving they pitches.
So, what are the signs to look out for? In general, any wear caused during the playing season – such as uneven surface levels, poor grass coverage, a build-up in organic matter or in some cases signs of a layered profile. Any of these issues can account for inconsistent bounce, lack of pace or poor grass plant health. The overcome so if these potential issues a rigorous ‘End of Season Renovation Program’ should be planned. These works can vary in operations and equipment however, this outlines the minimum process that should be undertaken to provide the foundation for next year’s playing surface:
End of season works are vital in producing good pitches and should be executed promptly after the last game to maximise the growing season!
TOP TIP: At least once a year have your square tested for nutrient levels. From these results your fertiliser can be selected to replenish any deficiencies.
With winter on the horizon. MD of total-play Ltd and former first-class groundsman David Bates shares his tips on ensuring your ground equipment survives the worst of the weather
OK, so you’ve been busy with those vital end of season works on the pitch – now’s the time to put your feet up and relax, right? Not quite – time spent now checking and safely stowing your cricket ground equipment you’ll save time – and money – at the start of next season. Here’s my hit-list of tasks to carry out before the bad weather hits…
Mobile pitch covers
– Remove PVC cover tops & printed banners and store away
– Chain frames together and secure them to reduce the chance of them moving in high winds
Flat sheet ground covers
– Lay cover out flat and clean it using a soft brush and water – avoid detergents
– Examine carefully for any damage; if damage free allow it to dry thoroughly and store, ideally in a protection bag or sleeve, in a dry frost-free place, raised off the ground and out of sunlight
– If damaged, check manufacturer’s guidelines – small repairs may be sorted on site using a repair kit but more severe damage will need professional attention. Booking it in to be fixed now will avoid the rush at the start of next season.
– High winds are the main risk to sight screens – at the very least, position in a sheltered area on site, secured away from prevailing winds
– If your model has removable mesh panels or planks it’s worth taking the time to take them off now, rather than regret a damaged screen later
Mobile batting cages
– Again, wind is the enemy. Remove the netting from the frames and store out of reach of vermin
– Store frames be in a sheltered part of the site, chaining to avoid unwanted movement
Non turf practice facilities
– Remove batting curtains, advertising banners and anything else attached to netting
– Inspect netting for any damage
– Depending on manufacturer’s recommendation, remove and store netting
– Brush surface lightly to remove debris weekly to prevent a build-up of organic matter
– Do not attempt to rectify any issues with surface levels or carpet damage yourself – seek professional advice
It’s a groundsman’s life…
Former first-class cricket groundsman and MD of cricket surface specialist total-play Ltd, David Bates, gives an insight into what makes a good cricket groundsman.
In cricket, perhaps more than any other sport, the pitch can guide any team’s advantages – or disadvantages – toward a winning performance. From the grassroots volunteers who spend their free time down at the ground cutting the grass, rolling and getting the pitch ready for the rest of the members through to the professionals at top grounds, without the groundsman the game just couldn’t happen.
At the top level, the groundsman role goes beyond sound knowledge of agronomy, soil science, maintenance techniques and mechanical methods. There’s an HR function in organising staff, budgets to be managed and the challenge of communicating with and managing expectations not only of players, coaches and managers, but also often the media.
But alongside the challenges there are plenty of rewards – a tight team is key, and with it the opportunity for banter and practical jokes abound. On one memorable morning during my tenure as head groundsman at Harrogate I came out of my on-site bungalow to see a series of strategically placed mounds all over the table. My natural reaction was horror that that we’d got ourselves a mole infestation. On closer inspection, however, it was revealed that one of my colleagues – who will remain nameless – had carefully crafted these perfect little ‘mole hills’ out of some cricket loam from the shed!
So, what makes a good groundsman? This is more than a job – it’s a vocation that requires foresight, skill and some clever guesswork when it comes to what mother nature is going to throw up next. Controlling all these factors and making informed decisions to ensure consistency are key, but over the years I’ve also found that the best groundsmen are cricketers at heart, with a good understanding of how the game should be played.