Arriving before the start of a cricket match, inevitably you will find one thing – players of both or either sides mulling the state of the pitch they are about to play on.
Reading a cricket pitch is a fine art and even the best readers are surprised when some pitches behave totally differently from expected.
This is especially true at club level where the quality of pitches can vary widely depending on the skills and motivation of the groundsman (believe me, I have played on some shockers).
However, there are certain things to look for to give you and your teammates a clue. Once you get out to the pitch, here are a few pointers to be looking for.
A wet pitch
A sticky wicket - a pitch that has become wet - causes the ball to behave erratically, particularly for the slower or spin bowlers. The wetter the pitch, the slower it will play. Also, if it is drying out, the ball will turn considerably, but will get easier the drier it gets. However, modern pitches are generally protected from rain and dew before and during games so a sticky pitch is rarely seen in first-class cricket; but more so at club and social level.
Is there much grass on the pitch?
A natural pitch with grass which is longer or more moist than usual is described as a green pitch. This favours the bowler over the batsman as the ball can be made to behave erratically on longer or wet grass.
A green top pitch with a lot of grass will have a lot of seam movement, especially if the pitch is hard. It will be hard for spinners to turn the ball. Pitches with no grass tend to help spinners, especially if dry and dusty (although they tend to be easier to bat on first before they have deteriorated). Most club and social cricket is played on pitches that professional cricketers would call green.
Hard or soft pitch
Hard pitches will have a higher bounce and the ball will come onto the bat a lot more quickly. Pitches like this are hard to prepare in the UK so they will rarely be seen. They tend to give an equal chance to bowlers and batsmen. It will feel firm to the touch
When is the pitch most likely to help the bowlers?
Conditions change throughout a day. Green pitches tend to get easier to bat on. Wickets can get more dry or wet (if it rains). They can start to break up if they are soft (which will help the bowlers). If it is going to get easier to bat, bowl first. If it is going to get harder, bat first.
As a pitch dries out, initially batting becomes easier as any moisture disappears. Over the course of a four or five day match, a pitch can begin to crack, then crumble and become dusty. This kind of pitch is known as a 'dust bowl' or 'minefield'. This again favours bowlers, particularly spin bowlers, who can obtain large amounts of traction on the surface and make the ball spin a long way.
The changes in the state of the pitch during a match is one of the primary strategic considerations that the captain of the team will take into account if he/she wins the coin toss when deciding whether to bat first.