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Some short-pitched stuff

By Faisal Shariff
Last updated on: July 23, 2003 20:15 IST
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This February the official statistician of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Mohandas Menon, quit. Four months later, the Board's executive secretary, Sharad Diwadkar, gave notice. On July 21, the ground and pitches committee chairman, G Kasturirangan, put in his papers.

Three resignations in six months! Is it mere coincidence?

Diwadkar and Kasturirangan resigned on health grounds while Menon claimed his hectic schedule prompted his resignation. However, it is learnt that the main reason for Menon quitting was the total lack of support from the Board.

Ditto for Kasturirangan, who holds the Board and its various associations responsible for the bad state of pitches in the country.

Also Read:
On the beaten track
The ground reality - Bill Walmsley
The full NZSTI report

"Rolling is the most important thing in preparing good wickets. Groundsmen are over rolling the ground with heavy rollers. The heavier the roller, the lesser the bounce," he says.

The pitches committee had sent innumerable reminders to the Board president, asking that prompt action be taken on the report submitted by the New Zealand Sports Turf Institute, which is renowned for laying golf courses, football and cricket fields.

Directors Keith McAuliffe and Bill Walmsley visited India twice and presented the Board with a comprehensive report.

Walmsley, an agronomist with 23 years experience in soil, grass selection and wicket science, visited the ten Test grounds (Bangalore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Mohali, Kanpur, Nagpur, Kolkata, Cuttack and Chennai) last September. His report updated the one submitted in May 1997, by Keith McAuliffe and Russell Smith. The reports made various recommendations for improving the condition of pitches across the country. But the Board failed to respond to the requests.

This May, when I visited Kasturirangan in Bangalore, he showed me a thick file of correspondence between him and the Board. Unfortunately, all of it was from him.

"I am paid Rs 25,000 per month by the Board and I feel bad taking it because the work is not happening," he said.

He was asked by the Board secretary to hold on for some time since the ICC contracts issue had occupied the BCCI's priority list.

"I have sent several mails to the Board that this is the best period to get the grounds in top position for the season ahead in October but no reply," he complained.

Given the hectic Indian cricket calendar, the five-month period between May to September was ideal for implementing the suggestions of the pitches committee.

Speaking to the media in Mumbai, where he is attending the Board's marketing committee meeting, BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya said the entire Kasturirangan resignation issue was blown out of proportion by the media.

"He was a paid employee of the Board. I am entitled to ask him why some pitches still have ankle high bounce. Everyone is accountable; even I am," he said.

"If he wants to resign on health grounds, what can I do?" the BCCI chief argued.

Though Kasturirangan has been asked to reconsider his resignation, it is highly unlikely that the man, who once let go the honour of playing Test cricket for India in 1953 (West Indies tour, under Vijay Hazare's captaincy) because he had a family commitment, will reconsider his decision.

Kasturirangan came in for a lot of flak for the last Test match at Mumbai, between India and the West Indies in 2002, which took turn from day one and folded inside three days in favour of the home side.

Thanks to bad scheduling by the BCCI even then, relaying work began late, with the result that the pitches in use for the Test series were undercooked, and a bad advertisement for the effort.

Walmsley had cautioned that the relaid pitches would take a while to settle in, and that it would be counter-productive to have immediate expectations. He said it would take 12-18 months before such pitches provide the desired pace and bounce.

Changing the nature of the pitches always takes time. According to Wamsley, the New Zealand pitches for the Indian tour last December were a bitter disappointment for him and for the groundsmen concerned.

"We have battled excessive seam in our pitches for many years and in recent years we have been successful. Our groundsmen are striving for faster pace in the pitches but when we have a spell of difficult weather they didn't pay enough attention to the seam problem and it came back. A number of our pitches had good pace but excessive seam. The problem continued after India left. It is a problem that is made worse by the use of perennial ryegrass in cricket pitches on grounds that are used for winter sport. NZC have said that they want grounds to concentrate on eliminating the problem next season."

Instead of blaming Kasturirangan for the dismal state of pitches without checking all the facts, the BCCI would do well if it explains why the recommendations of the Turf Institute are not implemented.

The NZTSI will be conducting training courses over the next few months for the Asia Cricket Council in a number of countries, but there has been no word yet from India about any further involvement by them.

"I can only repeat the conclusions from my report to the BCCI that I believe a system of regular training seminars for curators would be the most cost effective way of improving pitches in India. I also said that it is likely that not all of the soils chosen for the reconstruction of pitches at the stadiums would be a total success, and that it is likely that some soils may need to be replaced with better soils," said Bill Walmsley.

There is a school of thought in India that slow turning pitches are needed so that there is a diversity of playing conditions around the world. This is a debate that India needs to have.

Do they want faster pitches, do they just want pitches that give results, or are they happy with what they have got?

Here is a reminder to the BCCI about the recommendations of the NZSTI when they chose their new ground and pitches committee chairman in the next 3-4 days.

Specific recommended actions to improve cricket pitch performance in India:

1. To prioritise cricket played on the main stadium so that international and important state matches are played on fresh pitches.

2. To limit play on the main stadium so that priority matches have an adequate preparation time beforehand (no less than 6-7 days).

3. To accept that better quality pitches will result where pitches are given adequate preparation time. This means playing a lesser number of lower grade and age group matches.

4. For the BCCI to explicitly state in the playing conditions for domestic cricket that hand watering of the cricket square (but not the playing strip) is allowed during matches, provided certain protocols are followed. This will allow a more constant moisture content to be maintained in the block and prevent loss of density by cracking.

5. A curator training course is implemented, together with a formalised programme of curator meetings for the purposed of sharing experiences and expertise.

6. The state cricket associations should be encouraged to appoint honorary curators for the main stadiums for a 3 to 5-year period, rather than the curator being up for election each year. The larger venues should be encouraged to eventually appoint a professional curator. Associations need to deal with questions of training, succession and continuity of curators.

7. The expertise of experienced groundsmen and malis should be recognised with improved status for "Head Groundsmen" so their services are retained for the benefit of cricket. In some cases theirs is the only experience retained where changes of curator are frequent.

8. In most grounds outfield-mowing capacity is not adequate.

9. A number of grounds have installed pop-up sprinkler irrigation in the outfield.

Also Read:
-
On the beaten track
- The ground reality - Bill Walmsley
- The full NZSTI report

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Faisal Shariff

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