The new Ranji season is upon us, and as is usually is the case, the pitches that the games will be played on take centerstage.
Whether it is tumbling of wickets or runs galore, there’s no escaping scathing criticism of how the ideal pitch should be.
A good pitch allows all aspects of the game – pace, batting and spin – to be exhibited as the match progresses and eventually be result oriented. Preparing such a pitch for a four-day game is extremely difficult since the time availability for pitch deterioration is limited.
Pitches are to be corrected in the off season for levels, grassed where necessary and allowed to recover.
During the season, the pitches due to constant usage, becomes uneven, particularly at the ends. If, the number of pitches in the square is less, say 3, then the entire square is affected. The grass dies. As the pitches do not get sufficient rest, the correction can be done only in the off season. Prior to the season, the pitch square is compacted uniformly, without damaging the surface or grass, by rolling with a heavy roller over a period of time until the required hardness is achieved.
It may take up to a week to prepare a good pitch for the longer-duration matches. The practice is to water the pitch soil to a depth of 100 mm, and progressively compact and dry it to achieve the desired hardness. Rolling and weather impact only about 1.5 inches of the pitch top, irrespective of the weight of the roller. Deep drying, ie below the top 1.5 inches, is done by grass roots pumping out water from below through the grass leaves by transpiration. Hence it is essential to retain grass till the end of pitch preparation.
Pitches are constructed with 4″ coarse sand at the bottom above which a 4″ layer of fine sand with clay is used to hold water for supply to grass. The top is made of pitch soil of 8″. Sand is used at the bottom as it consolidates quickly and even after compaction allows water to drain. (Sand is used at the bottom, even, for heaviest of civil structures). To say that sand is soft hence will not allow the ball to bounce is not true. Soil layers below the top 8″, is only for draining water, and the layers below, have no effect on the bounce. As mentioned earlier, the roller has no impact below 4″ and using harder materials such as granite aggregate, brick etc, at the bottom of the pitch, will have no impact on pitch quality. Actually, it could be detrimental to the draining of water and growth of grass.
The grass could be cut to the desired level, a day before the match. If the grass is cut at the beginning of preparation, moisture in the deeper layers of the soil will be trapped and preparing a good hard surface will be difficult. The presence of moisture resists compaction and the moisture moves up and softens the soil above. The density/hardness is lost, resulting in loss of energy of the ball on impact, effectively slowing down the pitch. Stroke-making becomes difficult.
However, a grass cover that is a little too thick will also create problems in creating a good, hard pitch. In such cases, the grass has to be thinned out. Grass should be maintained at 8mm. By adopting scientifically proven methods, it has been established that a total of two hours of heavy rolling at a very slow speed, spread over 5-7 days is sufficient for preparing a good pitch.
Importantly, a spell of rolling, at a very slow speed, should not exceed 20 minutes. A roller does not impact soil below 4 inches irrespective of its weight. What is important is the timing of rolling and the quantum of moisture present in the soil. The use of a heavy roller on a dry pitch will only make the wicket slow and low.
The same pitch should not be used for consecutive matches. If done, the performance will be poorer than in the earlier match. At least 15 days rest should be given between matches. For a newly laid pitch, it should stay unused for at least a month. A used pitch, on the other hand, will require less rolling and heavy rolling may not even be needed. If an unused pitch is to be used, it will need 15 days of preparation and, if done in haste, it will be slow and low. There have been instances where more pitches in the square are prepared and one is selected.
This will affect the availability of pitches for subsequent matches at that venue.
The soil at the Eden Gardens, Vijayawada and Barabati pitches are among the best – this is mainly because of the soil finesse, which gives it higher surface area and is more compact. In other words, pitches with these soils can be hardened more. The higher surface area allows greater water absorption and reacts better with chemicals in the soil, leading to a quicker recovery of grass. The finer soil particle size reacts to heavy rolling better.
The bowler’s marks will develop as the match progresses, helping spinners to get bounce and turn.
Our knowledge of this soil is rudimentary. To study this soil further, a soil testing lab is a must (soil testing labs in the country cater only to the construction industry). Trial pitches should be created at the NCA to study the best-suited profile for this soil, the rolling methodology particularly related to the quantum of watering, the weight of the roller and the duration of rolling.
This soil will be closer to Australian soil.
The pitch soils of North East and Kerala, are acidic with a low pH and do not dry quickly. Once the pitch dries and becomes hard, they are rock hard and do not break or powder. Even though the cracks will become wide as the match progresses, the edges of the cracks do not powder or break and hence do not assist spinners. Turning tracks here can be prepared only by under preparing the pitch.
(The author is a former BCCI curator and was also a part of the South Zone committee for improving ground and pitch quality)