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Wickets in the pre-covering era


U19 Vice-Captain
To recap:

There was a thread about all-time best English batsmen, and someone called C_C told us that pre-1985 players were not as good as they are cracked up to be because conditions were so much easier - citing fielding standards. Richard's view on the other hand, is that batting pre-1970 was much harder because of open wickets. I weaselled away about how the differences in conditions were such that it was exceedingly hard to substantiate either claim.

On the subject of open wickets, I conducted a sample by skimming through a bunch of Wisden match reports for the 1955 season and concluded that sticky wickets weren't all that common really, despite Richard's claim that few county matches escape rain interruption.

Over the weekend, I did some more research in 1950s Wisdens.

I entirely recognise that this is not espcially scientific, and that short match summaries can't include every detail, but I find the Wisden precis tend to bring out the highlights of any match, and there are a lot of mentions of rain-damaged turf and drying turf, enough that I'm reasonably confident that the significant instances are accounted for.

On average, about one in three county matches in the 1950s were rain-affected. A lot of them clearly only lost time: the covers remained on until the first ball was bowled, so the loss of a first day's play did not have any effect on the wicket; if rain washed out an afternoon, overnight drying would have nullified a lot of pernicious effects. Nor were the effects always pernicious for batsmen - a quick dousing could quite efficiently deaden a hard pitch which was giving considerable bounce and assistance to fast bowlers.

The true sticky wicket is a phenomenon which lasts no more than a session: it requires the ground to be thoroughly soaked and then immediately exposed to bright sunshine to dry the top much more rapidly than the soil beneath, so most of them were endured by one side for one innings - it wasn't whole matches which were played on them.

Besides the actual stickies, there were also a number of instances of matches where the rain made the pitch very difficult, affecting both sides for whole innings or whole matches.

In the Fifties, an established county batsman played about 45 innings a season. Based on my samplings, I would estimate that he would play about six or seven of them in grisly conditions.

I'm not quite convinced that this figure is translatable directly to the Thirties, though.

One thing on which Richard and I are definitely agreed is that batting in the 50s was about as difficult as batting ever was in the 20th century. It's clear that the general standard of pitches in England then was atrocious - people go on about Laker's 19 wickets in a Test, but don't often recall that the ball was turning square before lunch on the first day. But the under-preparation of pitches was a reaction to the manicured featherbeds which had made the Thirties so deadly dull for bowlers, especially quick ones.

Unless you have very heavy rain, the effect of wetting a good pitch tends to be to deaden it, whereas wetting a bad pitch makes it diabolical. Fifties pitches were bad, and rain regularly made them worse; Thirties pitches were good and I suspect that rain only worsened them infrequently - a thesis on which I'll expand in a day or two when I've finished re-analysing the Ray Robinson article about Bradman on bad wickets.

Let me try and summarize the differences between the 30s and today.

Then: generally flat wickets, with occasional real pigs. Moderate fielding. Pace bowlers generally of Martin Bicknell's pace, who rarely bowled bouncers, but lots of very good spinners.

Now: Generally good cricket wickets, with truly bad pitches very infrequent indeed. Less time lost to rain, and minimum overs per day, so that batsmen's opportunities to bat are less curtailed. Pace bowlers averaging around Matthew Hoggard's pace, batsmen in physical danger, and decent spin bowlers a rarity. Much better fielding.

I don't think there's a clear-cut advantage for batsmen on either side. However, both are clearly at an advantage compared to the Fifties, when they had terrible pitches and fast bowlers, and until the middle of the decade the torture of mediumpacers bowling negative inswing to a packed legside field, which made run-getting almost impossible.

The exception in the Fifties is the West Indies, where they preserved Thirties values, especially on the mat at Port of Spain where matches could have lasted for months at a time.