An indoor cricket centre covered with uni turf from Sports Surfaces UK

Indoor cricket wickets: tailored surfaces help tour teams prepare

Image credit: Sports Surfaces UK

Can indoor practice surfaces help international cricket teams play better in overseas conditions?

The England cricket team lost the Test series 4-0 in India last December, and they’re not the only international team to struggle recently in overseas conditions. Unlike football or hockey, where playing surfaces tend to behave in a similar way, international cricketers play all over the world on grounds that respond differently.

Varying climate in places like India, the West Indies and Australia creates different types of turf. Overhead conditions such as humidity, heat and rainfall, can also affect the playing surface and how the ball interacts with it.

Australia, who play on some of the world’s hardest, bounciest pitches, has just won three out of three Tests against Pakistan in a series that, because of terrorism fears, was played in the UAE, where the ball hardly bounces above waist height. Yet Pakistan thrashed Australia at home in 2014.

Sri Lanka lost heavily in England last time round. So did India. England also beat Australia in England in 2015, but lost 5-0 in Australia a few months later. In India, last December, England batters, who are accustomed to hardish pitches that move laterally for fast bowlers, found things difficult on slow, spinning pitches.

Cricket is unique amongst sports. The cut strip in the centre of the field where batting and bowling takes place – the wicket – is cultivated to behave differently from the rest of the field, with a harder surface, shorter grass and consistent bounce.

Recent history suggests that international cricketers struggle to adapt when surface conditions require them to alter the tried and trusted techniques they’ve developed as young players, in familiar home conditions.

In the past, international tours lasted several months and players could practise necessary adjustments during warm-up matches against local teams. Today’s international tours are shorter, with little time for practice matches. This means indoor surfaces are needed back home where players can prepare before an overseas tour, particularly in places like England and New Zealand, where it’s often too wet and cold to practise outdoors.

Getting an indoor artificial surface to behave like an outdoor grass pitch on the other side of the world is easier said than done, though.

Traditionally, cricketers have practised indoors on hard floors, with thin mats on top. A hard, consistent and durable surface creates a high, steepling bounce and provides little sideways movement.

Outdoor grass pitches are softer, less consistent and prone to becoming even less consistent as the game goes on. By the fourth and fifth day of a Test match, it usually means variable bounce and lots of spin.

“The amount of energy left in the ball after it has hit the surface gives the ball its pace and rebound height,” says Dr Matt Carre, a mechanical engineer from Sheffield University.

Carre, co-author of ‘Science and Engineering of Sport Surfaces’ explains that when the ball hits the pitch, friction slows it down, or enables it to grip the surface and spin. “When the pitch is solid, it deforms less when the ball hits it, the ball bounces higher and travels faster towards the batter because there’s less friction.”

Indoor artificial cricket pitches are portable carpets, the same size and shape as outdoor batting and bowling strips, or a specially prepared area in a floor that covers an entire hall. The carpets are made from polypropylene or polyethylene.

Dan Musson, facilities manager with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), English cricket’s governing body, says that point elastic polymeric sports hall floors work best for cricket. Point elastic, he explains, is a solid-state surface, so when a ball bounces into it, the energy is quite intensively redistributed back into the ball.

Gerfloor’s Sport M plus and Sport M Comfort floors meet ECB standards. So too, does Uniturf, a vinyl sheet that can be laid directly onto concrete or over different underlays to create different playing conditions.

“Manufacturers adjust the pitch’s carpet and underlay to simulate outdoor conditions,” says Alastair Cox, a sports surfaces consultant, who has worked with the ECB. He explains that a stiffer carpet pile that stands upright provides more friction and a flatter pile provides a smoother, faster surface. Polypropylene is a little stiffer than polyethylene, he says, but not so durable.

Richard Beghin from artificial cricket wicket supplier Flicx UK adds that the more contact points there are on the pitch’s surface, the more friction, which means the ball is likely to grip and spin. “That’s why spinners prefer to use a rougher older cricket ball on a worn surface,” he says.

Mark Coeshaw from artificial pitch manufacturer Notts Sport explains that the underlay absorbs some energy when the ball hits the artificial surface. “Different thicknesses of geotextile create variable levels of shock absorbency,” he says. “The ball spins more on a thicker, denser underlay, because it’s in contact slightly longer, so it grips better. For a faster, bouncier surface, we lay the surface over concrete with no shock absorber at the batter’s end.”

Sports hall underlay is made from a combination of geotextiles or foams. The more resin you put into the geotextile, the stiffer it becomes. “It’s a bit like a Brillo pad,” Cox says. “Fill it with resin and it gets stiff. If you don’t fully fill it, it’s a bit softer. If you incorporate polyethylene foam into the structure, it’s even softer again.”

Over the last 10 years, almost every international fast bowler who plays regularly has had time out of the game for injury. Some have spent more time injured than playing.

Fast bowling is a risky business. The human body was not meant to charge 20 metres, jump into a contorted position and then slam itself down as the ball is released, forcing between five to ten times the bowler’s body weight through their legs and lower back.

A floor with a softer underlay acts as a shock absorber and can help reduce risk of injury, but what happens when bowlers need to practise on a hard, bouncy surface ahead of away matches?

According to Cox, the answer is a composite underlay. “A stiff surface with foam underneath responds differently to different impact forces,” he says. “The lighter ball interacts only with the surface layer and the heavier bowler who, when they land, also interacts with the lower, softer layers.”

Surfaces like this are ideal for a cricket club or school that wants to create a more realistic practice surface, or a domestic professional cricket team that plays all games in its home country and half of them on its own ground.

Musson admits, though, that no one has managed to design an artificial indoor surface that effectively mimics the variety of surfaces international teams may encounter. “Ideally, you need something that’s inter­changeable and easily placed into an elite performance area.”

The ECB is researching how artificial or hybrid surfaces containing natural and artificial material might best mimic conditions on a specific day at a particular overseas ground.

“The challenge is to create a surface that that provides the necessary variation, but which can also withstand a considerable amount of use,” Musson says. Further details, he adds, are not for public consumption.

The last three international cricket teams that regularly won Test series overseas didn’t have these bespoke practice facilities. Then again, West Indies players who were in the game in the late 1970s to the early 1990s, and the Australians from the mid-1970s and mid-1990s to the early 2000s, played on lots of surfaces during their formative years.

Back then, Australian and West Indian pitches were more varied than they are today. A lot of these players also spent time in their teens and early twenties playing in England on what were softer wickets that took seam and spin. All three teams were also full of world-class players.

One of them, former West Indian superstar Gordon Greenidge, who was brought up on uncovered wickets in Berkshire before moving to Barbados, says:  “Those pitches made you think. Rain got on them a lot, sometimes during games, and they helped you develop the sort of technique that would bring you success when it was difficult.”

Former Australian captain and current selector Greg Chappell adds: “If a batsman could succeed on those wickets, they had the technique to be successful anywhere.”

Today, there is pitch variation between countries, but less so within a country. With this in mind, recently retired Australian wicket keeper Brad Haddin says that time spent in a controlled training environment or on tailored practice surfaces is more useful for an Australian cricketer about to go to India than playing matches for their state team.

England won’t play Test matches in India again until at least 2021. That’s four and a half years for ECB to get its practice pitches right.

Macro alias: boxOut

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