Paul Edwards gets high on grass....
Sports writers and cultural commentators are wont to make much of the links between cricket and baseball. Both are hitting games, of course, featuring bowlers/pitchers, batters and fielders in central roles. But the links are also connected to the way the games epitomise the national lives of their respective countries and the fact that they are played in summer, the brief short-leased season of light and warmth.
Cricket and baseball spawn good books too. Readers of this website will be able to name their own favourite cricket writers, while authors like Jim Bouton, Roger Kahn and, in another era, Ring Lardner, have won the admiration of baseball fans. The ex-Kent and Middlesex player Ed Smith went a stage further in his very fine Playing Hard Ball: A County Cricketer's Journey Into Major League Baseball.
Yet Smith's first sentence captures much of the difficulty I have with America's game: "Cricket and baseball are like parents and their teenage children: they have so much in common and yet remain a total mystery to each other." Nothing illustrates these problems more clearly than the strip of land over which the ball is pitched or bowled: in baseball - correct me if I'm wrong - the state of the 18.39 metres of earth between the pitcher's mound and the home plate couldn't matter less; in cricket the condition of the 22-yard wicket is crucial to the whole tactical architecture of the contest.
The venerable cricket-writer E. W. Swanton once said something to the effect that he looked for an assessment of the pitch in every match-report he read and he thought much less of a journalist, by Jove, if one wasn't present. Without being as dogmatic about the matter as Swanton, I rather agree. The behaviour of the seamed ball when it bounces is at the heart of our game. The 1998 England-West Indies Test Match in Jamaica was abandoned because the Sabina Park wicket was judged to be dangerous. You can't get much more significant than that.
How many other sports - horse racing, golf ? - devote remotely comparable attention to the condition of the grass upon which they take place. Millions of man-hours are spent producing cricket wickets and thousands more are taken up examining them. The pitch helps to determine team selection, the decision as to whether or not to bat first and the captain's deployment of his bowling resources.
Last July Lancashire played Nottinghamshire at Southport and Birkdale C.C. Trafalgar Road is renowned as a turning wicket, so both teams played two spinners and we all prepared for a twirlers' paradise. Fine, except that 38 of the 40 wickets fell to seamers and Nottinghamshire's Graeme White didn't get an over. (He made a vital 86 runs instead.) Now I know that other factors affected the course of that match, not least the excellence of André Adams's bowling. All the same, I thought that the comment of Nottinghamshire's Director of Cricket Mick Newell - "I've given up trying to predict the behaviour of this pitch" - was a pithy reflection of the difficulties met by coaches, players, journalists and spectators when trying to comprehend the sweet mystery of earth and grass.
These tales are often meant to start people talking; they do not pretend to say anything approaching the last word on their subjects. So please do not think that I regard baseball as in any way a crude or unsubtle game; I know that is not the case, even if its hitting area is precisely one quarter that of cricket. Now, though, I must return to the game at Trent Bridge, not because the scones have arrived, but because play is to begin again at 4.45 and none of us are sure what calibre of score Lancashire's 185 for five is on this wicket. And they used to leave them uncovered you know. Crumbs.
Photo of the pitch at Old Trafford (c) Ken Grime/LCCC
Article (c) Lancashire CCC