If the Proteas are to be regularly playing on pitches with pace and bounce at home in the future then “the time is right to start moving now” towards the solution to the pitch problems that have been highlighted in South African cricket during the India tour, according to Cricket South Africa pitch consultant Hilbert Smit.
For a country renowned for the quality of their fast bowling, the pitches in South Africa have generally been becoming slower and lower, and the solution will be drop-in pitches, according to Smit.
“Our pitches are old, it’s as simple as that. Maybe only Centurion is less than 10 years old, so they are all over-used and full of organic matter. You must remember that a pitch is a living creature and when the grass dies off, you get natural decomposition which helps new grass to grow because nutrients are released. But you also get a build-up of organic matter and that’s what makes a pitch slow and low.
“And a new pitch can’t be used for international cricket for the first two years because it needs to settle and it’s more difficult to do this on-site because you have games next door or over it going on all the time. Plus we can only use the three or four middle strips for all televised games.
“Australia have similar conditions to us and they have addressed this problem with drop-in pitches. We have to make a plan too because with cricket starting on the Highveld in August, there’s no time to grow pitches out in the middle. So drop-ins are the only solution,” Smit said.
The highly-experienced groundsman says he will be sending a comprehensive report to CSA at the end of March on the state of pitches around the country and, while Australia’s system is very expensive due to the cost of transporting the drop-ins, Smit believes necessity is the mother of invention and a local solution has been found which will bring the costs down to acceptable levels.
“In Australia it costs about A$7 million, but we do have a local engineer who has come up with a concept, a unique design, that could cut that to a one-off R2-3 million per ground. Then we can replace pitches every year. That is the way forward because it’s something we have to address,” Smit said.
While there will always be a debate around whether it is acceptable for the national team to demand certain types of pitches, there is general consensus around the cricketing world that wickets with pace and bounce are the best way to develop batsmen with the all-round game to succeed all over the world.
Even India have pushed for those attributes at home.
Many have linked the fall of West Indies cricket to the decline in their pitches in the 1990s, hard surfaces with pace and carry becoming slow and low.
“You can’t expect to produce proper cricketers if you can’t produce proper conditions,” the late, great fast bowler Malcolm Marshall said in 1998 when he was the West Indies coach.
“We’ve got batsmen coming through now with plenty of faults and that’s largely due to the sub-standard pitches they’re playing on.”
The good news for South African cricket is that there is agreement that there is a problem.
“Conditions in South Africa have changed quite a lot, the pitches are over-used and have become slower, more spin-friendly. There was a lot more pace and bounce when I started my career, for example in Durban, Shaun Pollock used to call the Kingsmead pitch his lawn because of all the grass. You now consider reverse-swing and spin as your main weapons there,” Graeme Smith, who debuted for the Proteas in 2002, said.
The groundsman’s lot is not an easy one with hostile African weather always threatening to derail the preparations, so they need all the help they can get given the enormous workload of their creations.
“Grass is what gives a pitch its pace, and our groundsmen are now trying to grow it through winter, but too much grass is dangerous. Cricket is the only sport in the world where you see the effect of such a little playing area, the pitch determines the whole way the game is played, everything’s all about that little 3×22 metre patch. It can cause a total mismatch.
“We are all human and we all get it wrong sometimes, plus you’ve got the influence of the weather as well. For an inexperienced groundsman, it is basically unfair and this series has highlighted that. But we don’t want to make the same mistakes, so we will have closer mentoring and link with the RPCs and Hubs to bring guys through. One of our shortcomings is mentoring and training,” Smit, who is only in his first year in a full-time capacity with CSA, said.