Home News Pitch perfect: How West Indies pitches evolved for T20 World Cup

Pitch perfect: How West Indies pitches evolved for T20 World Cup

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The pitches in the West Indies are set to be a major talking point as the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup gains momentum in the Caribbean Islands. Ask the locals, and they’ll tell you that West Indies cricket of the past was synonymous with an aggressive style, featuring fast-paced action that captivated fans for six to seven hours a day. “We should aim to return to that,” says Michael, a Barbadian businessman, who stopped watching cricket matches in the West Indies after the early 1990s. “There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when, if you couldn’t handle genuine fast bowling, the West Indies public didn’t rate you. Fast pitches and fast bowlers were the heart of our cricket.”

The 22 yards is the most crucial factor in a cricket match, determining the quality of the cricket played and thus the overall spectacle for fans. At a time when other formats, especially Tests, are constantly in a fight for survival against a surfeit of T20s, the nature of surfaces could dictate the future of the sport in the West Indies.

The 2010s were a disheartening period for cricket here, especially the five-day format, with the matches often being relegated to slow, low surfaces, resulting in dull contests. The pitches stifled both run-scoring and wicket-taking.

Richard Pybus followed matters from close quarters when he took over as high-performance director in February 2018, having previously served as West Indies’ director of cricket from 2013 to the end of 2016.

FILE PHOTO: Richard Pybus.

FILE PHOTO: Richard Pybus.
| Photo Credit:
REUTERS

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FILE PHOTO: Richard Pybus.
| Photo Credit:
REUTERS

“When I was Director of Cricket, we wanted to ensure excellence in pitch preparation. Each of the different countries and territories has unique wickets,” Pybus told Sportstar. “Only one territory, Guyana, is on the mainland, while all others are islands, contributing to unique conditions. The goal wasn’t to change the nature of the wickets—historically, Guyana and Trinidad have turning wickets, while Barbados has quicker wickets. It was to ensure that the wickets were very well prepared,” he added.

Pybus began trying to bring pace back to the Caribbean in 2014, when he appointed Kent Crafton as Cricket West Indies’s first regional curator. “My role, under the direction of then Director of Cricket, Richard Pybus, involved a comprehensive assessment of pitches across the Caribbean. We visited every island, from Jamaica to Guyana, interviewing grounds staff and evaluating equipment,” Crafton said.

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A common theme emerged from Crafton’s analysis: a lack of importance placed on groundsmen. According to Crafton, they often lacked proper tools, fair treatment, and the knowledge for effective pitch maintenance. “This resulted in subpar playing surfaces. Many squares had virtually no grass, rendering pitch preparation nearly impossible,” Crafton said.

Model for improvement

Fortunately for Crafton and his team, they had a successful model to leverage: the St. Lucia stadium’s reconstructed square in 2008. “This transformation highlighted the importance of proper construction methods and, crucially, ongoing maintenance. Roughly 70–80% of a good pitch lies in its upkeep. Without proper maintenance, even the most meticulous preparation yields subpar results,” Crafton said.

Primary focus

Using the St. Lucia model as a blueprint, Crafton implemented proven procedures across the islands. The primary focus was establishing grass cover, which strengthens the soil and improves overall pitch quality. “Additionally, we addressed uneven surfaces, a crucial step before rolling the pitch. Standardising roller sizes for different stages of preparation ensured consistency,” he pointed out.

Addressing construction issues

In some venues, Crafton and his team removed 2-3 inches of the surface layer. This removed material was replaced with fresh soil, which was then planted with grass. This approach proved successful.

In some venues, Crafton and his team removed 2-3 inches of the surface layer. This removed material was replaced with fresh soil, which was then planted with grass. This approach proved successful.
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

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In some venues, Crafton and his team removed 2-3 inches of the surface layer. This removed material was replaced with fresh soil, which was then planted with grass. This approach proved successful.
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

While most grounds were structurally sound, some required further investigation. The ideal pitch construction involves an eight-inch topsoil layer, followed by four inches of sand, all resting on a suitable foundation. “In some cases, however, we encountered significant deviations. One ground had four feet of clay, far exceeding the recommended eight inches. Clay’s slow drying time significantly hinders pitch preparation. We found variations as high as 14 inches of clay. In these instances, we provided reconstruction support where possible or assisted with surface cleaning,” Crafton said.

Scarifying for success

Another crucial component was equipment. Notably, scarifiers, which remove organic material that can slow down pitches, were largely absent or underutilized, says Crafton. Equipping grounds staff with the proper tools was essential for maintaining healthy pitches.

Unearthing the problem

A core sampler which is used to examine the profile of the pitch block. 

A core sampler which is used to examine the profile of the pitch block. 
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

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A core sampler which is used to examine the profile of the pitch block. 
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Core sampling at the different venues revealed a significant issue: excessive thatch and organic material buildup on the surface. This unclean surface hindered proper pitch preparation. Crafton explains that a pitch with this buildup becomes slow, low-bouncing, and conducive to spin bowling.

Solutions: Removal and renewal

“In some venues, we assisted with removing 2-3 inches of the surface layer. This removed material was replaced with fresh soil, which was then planted with grass. This approach proved successful.

“Overall, our efforts focussed on maintenance, equipment upgrades, and improved preparation techniques. It’s important to acknowledge that this is an ongoing process. Equipment remains a challenge, as many grounds lack the necessary tools. However, we’re working with what’s available, and there’s a growing awareness of the required improvements,” Crafton said.

Taking action

Cricket West Indies has made a significant effort to address the pitch issues. Workshops were conducted at all the countries that are taking part in the 2024 T20 World Cup, namely St Lucia, St Vincent, Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, and Antigua, specifically targeting groundsmen. These seminars provided valuable knowledge and best practices.

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Although these are still early days in the tournament, some of Crafton’s work has yielded impressive results. In eight T20 World Cup matches played in the Caribbean Islands so far, the average run rate has been an impressive 6.56, with the highest score reaching 183 and the lowest a mere 58. English player Jonny Bairstow highlighted this spectrum on the eve of his team’s Group B clash against Australia. ‘We may not see the 200-plus scores we saw during the IPL, but it’s certainly not one-sided,’ Bairstow said, underscoring the diversity in totals across 15 innings. In fact, over the last four years, the average run rate in all T20s played in the West Indies has been a healthy 7.86, with the highest score skyrocketing to 267 and the lowest plummeting to just 37.

“In addition to the workshops, we conducted a comprehensive analysis. We visited each island individually and took core samples from every ground scheduled for use. This analysis helped us determine the exact level of organic material buildup on each surface.

“Following the analysis, we embarked on a rectification plan. While some countries meticulously followed our recommendations, others implemented only partial solutions. This resulted in varying results across venues, with some achieving better pace and bounce than others. Nevertheless, the overall effort focused on cleaning up the surfaces and promoting more consistent pitches with increased pace and bounce,” Crafton said.

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