x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

ICC's right pitch for the underclass curators

Curators from around the world got a much-needed chance to air their woes at a two-day meeting in Dubai.

The challenge of formulating sporting pitches in extreme climate conditions such as Dubai can be a daunting one.
The challenge of formulating sporting pitches in extreme climate conditions such as Dubai can be a daunting one.

Simply written down, the following quotations from curators, could be taken to be a kind of long-held fury released.

"They started criticising from the first day, that this will not last, it's diabolical, unfit for cricket," said one. "The match finished on the fourth day with the winners chasing nearly 300."

"We've been having trouble with dead pitches, flat pitches that don't do anything and there's various things behind it," said another.

"But the perception by media, they concentrate on the negative aspects."

And finally, there were these two. "We're there to be, how would you say it, one of the excuses if someone has a bad day, same as the umpire giving a bad decision."

And, "We equate everything to an individual's incompetence."

Clearly, curators are stung but there is not fury as much as resignation. It is the same kind a goalkeeper might express when asked to explain one mistake, or an umpire were he allowed to speak.

It is the resignation of an underclass and it is understandable. The relationship between how much people know about their work and how much their work is subsequently criticised is inverse.

But last week in Dubai, inside the polished headquarters of the ICC, something happened for them, something so obvious that, for a game so reliant on the quality of its surfaces, it is shocking it did not happen long before this.

The ICC arranged a two-day conference for head curators from cricket's 10 full members to come together, as well as others, and form an unofficial brotherhood where they could share knowledge, secrets, tips and perhaps in-jokes ("What did the highway say to the pitch …") but more than anything, just stand together.

Andy Atkinson, the ICC's energetic pitch consultant, is the driving force behind it, having tried to set this up long ago.

"It's the first time we've got all the curators from around the world together," he said.

"I've been asking for it for a long time. It's just to discuss general methods of concern and interest."

Presentations were made over the two days by attendees on various topics; the difficulties of making pitches in a country with a climate such as England, the effects of dust on pitches in the UAE, drop-in pitches in Melbourne.

There was so much to go over, in fact, that the only complaint was that there was not enough time.

But mostly it seems to have been about discovering a variety of experience.

"When we were talking, one or two guys said they couldn't believe this kind of stuff is happening because they come from Australia and all grounds have all the equipment there," said Atkinson of stories of equipment being damaged or just not being there in other countries.

Some, like Pakistan's head curator Agha Zahid, learnt more than others.

Zahid is a former Test cricketer who has been a selector and coached, as well, before switching.

Until international cricket was played in Pakistan, he was much - and unfairly - put-upon for the surfaces he provided, critics not understanding the effect too much cricket has on a surface, or the peculiar pressures captains place on you.

In Pakistan, a curator is given little more credibility than a maali, a common, untrained gardener.

"I have benefited most from this, I'm sure," Zahid said.

"In our country, there is no real research about this. We're quite behind in this because we need to involve soil scientists, agronomists, horticulturalists.

"Everywhere else, pitch curating is acknowledged as a mixture of art and science but, unfortunately, it doesn't happen in Pakistan. People used to call me 'maali' when I began."

Others, like Tony Hemming, the head curator at Dubai Cricket Stadium, probably had more to give than take.

Hemming has extensive experience in Australian conditions, has used soils from around the world to construct pitches of differing natures at the ICC's academy and was lauded for two fine Test pitches this last winter; that was a recovery after his first in 2010 for Pakistan's Test against South Africa was taken for a template of the kind of pitches cricket does not need.

"Obviously, it comes from experience," he said. "I've prepared pitches for the majority of my life in Melbourne where conditions were different. You have to know how your own pitch is going to perform.

"What we aim for is around 30 runs per wicket. We changed our preparation techniques in the lead up to these Tests, and a characteristic change made deliberately by us by understanding our previous match."

When the ICC first announced the conference, it added a clever statistic. Only 10 per cent of Tests in 2011 ended in a draw, they said, down from 38 per cent the year before; the inference was that pitches had become better, or more result-oriented.

It is not as simple a casual relationship as that, but their own attitude towards pitches has veered between unnecessarily prickly and uncaring.

Guidelines do exist, to create balance between bat and ball, but they feel arbitrary: why, after all, should a "Very Good" pitch, according to the ICC's standards, have only "little or no turn" on the first two days?

What constitutes the "excessive seam movement" at any stage during a game to make a pitch "poor"? Some bowlers naturally obtain more seam movement - or turn - than others. How are they accounted for?

Over the years, it has begun to look suspiciously as if the ICC has censured surfaces regularly for offering too much spin, but not those that leak too many runs.

The fear the ICC countered before the conference began was to assure that it was not about standardising Test pitches around the world.

That is impossible, given climatic and soil differences, and also to over-credit the power of curators and the ICC.

There was talk of standardisation but not the kind that was conceived.

"One of the things that has come up is that there is no standard guideline for equipment, for example, at Test match venues and it's unbelievable, really, when you think about it," Atkinson said.

"One of the things we're going to try and produce from the meeting: a recommendation that goes to the cricket committee that every ground that hosts an international match, an ICC tournament or a Test match will have to have a certain amount of basic equipment."

But has there not been a creeping homogeneity in their character over the years?

Wonderfully individual surfaces, such as those found at Headingley where it swung and seamed, or Perth which had so much bounce or Jamaica's Sabina Park which had so much pace.

Five sporting wickets in world cricket

Have they not lost a little of what made them unique?

Ken Grafton, head curator for the West Indies, where surfaces have slowed down considerably over the last decade or so, believes "pitches change over time naturally."

Hemming feels likewise, that individual character has not been lost.

"You'll find there are cycles of pitches behaving in similar way, deteriorating over a period of time. Preparation techniques come into it a lot."



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