How Artificial Cricket Pitches Differ From Traditional Grass?
The game of cricket has always been steeped in tradition. Whites, willow, grass, clubhouse and of course Autorollers. Over the last few decades, innovation has changed both the format of the game and the technologies used. Whilst some change has been rightfully rejected, (aluminium bats anyone?) others including that of artificial pitch surfaces, have found their place in almost all forms of cricket. They promise a great game of cricket, with significantly lower levels of maintenance, but can they deliver?
How are artificial cricket pitches constructed?
Traditional grass cricket pitches consist of a drainage layer, with specialist soil (cricket loam) and a fine grass surface on top. This layering is reflected in the construction of artificial pitches, where an upper layer of synthetic ‘grass’ is laid on a specialist single or multilayer ‘base’. The combination of grass and base will determine the playing characteristics of the pitch.
There are three types of base:
Concrete or tarmac bases
Concrete or tarmac bases are the most basic. They provide a fast, bouncy ‘southern hemisphere’ pitch that requires the least maintenance. The nature of the pace and bounce makes such pitches best suited to more experienced players.
Aggregate or gravel
Aggregate or gravel bases offer a closer playing performance to a traditional grass pitch. Two layers of aggregate are laid, up to 150mm in depth. Moisture is naturally held in the resulting gaps and the unbound nature of the base absorbs some of the ball’s energy. This gives a more northern hemisphere feel to the pitch performance. Rolling of the pitch may be required after heavy usage, to eliminate any uneven distribution of the aggregate.
Performance pads can be used, sandwiched between the visible turf and underlying substrate. This reduces maintenance and gives a softer feel to the pitch and bounce. This may be a useful characteristic for junior cricket.
Artificial pitch maintenance
Whilst artificial grass pitches undoubtedly require less maintenance, they still require attention and care, to keep them in playable condition and ensure their longevity. Brushing, debris removal and painting crease lines remains similar to traditional grass surfaces. An artificial grass pitch will still require rolling at certain times of the year. At the start of the season, frost heave can cause movement in the base and will need rolling to firm up the underlying surface. During the season, rolling can be used to increase the pace of some artificial pitches.
Algae treatments and moss repellents still need to be applied and attention should be paid to signs of animal activity, including worms. In dry conditions, watering will still be required, not for the grass root structures but to address soil shrinkage. Wear and tear, especially near the popping creases, may require areas of artificial grass to be replaced. General maintenance can be carried out by club ground staff and volunteers, however, specialists may be needed if surface levelling, carpet tensioning or major repairs are required.
Artificial cricket pitch performance
Whilst reduced maintenance is good, artificial pitches must prove themselves by allowing a good game to be played. The main benefit of an artificial grass pitch is the consistency of play it gives throughout a game, and indeed season. Whilst acceptable for shorter formats and junior club cricket, this can be seen as a disadvantage for longer formats, where the changing characteristic of a pitch is part of the game itself. Some of this variation can be produced on aggregate-based pitches, however the downside of these is the higher maintenance requirement.
Professional, first-class cricket has been slow to embrace artificial pitches, in sharp contrast to the uptake at the club level. With the use of drop-in pitches, it can only be a matter of time before this begins to change, certainly in shorter formats of the game.
There is little doubt that artificial cricket pitch technology can produce a good surface for a fair and enjoyable game to be played on. Maintenance is reduced, but not eliminated, with the more realistic pitches requiring a higher level of attention. The artificial pitch will never fully replace the traditional grass wicket, but it does have a place in the modern game.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of an artificial pitch is the ability to withstand the weather of a northern-hemisphere cricket season. This has been a major factor in the uptake of non-grass surfaces in other sports. In the same way that some top-level football is played on artificial surfaces, expect the same to happen in the highest level of cricket.