Protection of modern pitches means the ‘sticky wicket’ has had its day

Over its history, cricket has developed a language of its own. In so doing, it has been responsible for introducing words and phrases, unique to the game, into common usage or adapting simple words and making them specific to cricket.

An obvious example of the former is “playing with a straight bat,” meaning to act in an upright, honest and respectful manner.

An example of the latter is “sticky wicket,” where a difficult, even treacherous, situation is encountered. In cricket, this situation was created by a particular combination of rain, sun and wind.

Cricket has had an uneasy relationship with rain throughout its history. It makes a pitch soft, the degree of softness depending upon the hardness and quality of the pitch prior to rain, the rain’s intensity and the type of soil on which it fell. If, once play resumes, the pitch is very soft, the ball will cut through the surface, taking a piece of the top with it, leaving a mark and/or a tuft. On harder pitches, the ball may skim through or bounce steeply.

Anticipating how a pitch will play after rainfall is not an easy task, as there are so many variables to consider. One of these is how quickly the pitch will dry. Rain, followed by hot sun and/or a drying breeze, provides conditions for a sticky wicket to reveal its character. Conditions for batting become problematic, as the ball could be spun quite sharply, with the patches on the damaged pitch creating a surface from which the ball could either rear to head height or shoot through at ankle level.

A wet outfield stops the progress of the ball across it and the movement of fielders is impeded. The area over which the bowler approaches the crease, the runup, becomes difficult to navigate, increasing the importance of slow bowlers, especially those possessing the guile to extort maximum advantage.

It is logical to think that measures would be taken to minimize the effects of rain. Throughout the 17th, 18th and the first half of the 19th century, pitches were uncovered and open to the elements, largely because of a lack of effective materials. It is reasonable to assume that the players of the day would be as concerned as current ones about the loss of play to rain and its effect on the wicket. There would have been considerable concern amongst participants in matches played for wagers about the negative impact of rain on the outcome. Indeed, a revision to the Laws in 1788 included a provision for the covering of the pitch during a match by mutual consent, a situation that remained in place for another 100 years.

In those days players did not have to worry about overarm bowling, which was legalized in 1864. The downward pressure exerted by overarm action to pitch the ball, compared with underarm delivery, which started its trajectory by travelling upwards or horizontally, caused the ball to bounce higher. This could be head high and potentially dangerous. Bowlers lengthened their runups before delivering the ball, which, in wet conditions, was hazardous.

It should be of little surprise, then, that calls for the ends of pitches, at least, to be covered, grew. In experiments at Lords between 1872 and 1875, prepared pitches were covered with tarpaulin before the match. The results were not satisfactory and, in 1884, a revision of the Laws made it illegal to cover the wicket — with or without consent — once the game had begun. There was no mention of wicket covering before the match began.

Given this imprecise guidance, individual administrators and groundkeepers took it upon themselves to decide when pitches should be covered. The potential loss of income caused by rain-affected matches was enough to influence their decisions. By 1910, protection of pitch ends during playing hours was introduced.

The responsibility for making and maintaining the Laws was vested in the Marylebone Cricket Club or MCC. This notoriously conservative body embraced a view that pitch covering ran contrary to the spirit of the game. Its members were also probably of the view that batting on unpredictable, sticky wickets was regarded as a supreme test of skill. Another 70 years would pass before pitch protection against rain at all times for Test matches was authorized in 1979 and, for all first-class games, in 1982. In the intervening years, the age of the sticky wicket had its heyday.

In extreme circumstances, a benign pitch could turn into one on which only the greatest players could succeed. There are famous examples of this, Hobbs and Sutcliffe of England being classic exponents. In mid-August 1926, an overnight storm in South London turned the pitch at the Oval into a quagmire. Australia expected the rapidly drying pitch to assist them to defeat England. Yet, on a venomously spitting pitch, the pair scored a 100 and 161, respectively, to create a winning basis for England.

Conversely, Sir Donald Bradman, whose average of 99.94 is the highest ever in Test match cricket, chose not to master batting on such wickets, as he came across them so infrequently.

Cricket authorities in other countries made much quicker progress toward full covering. Australia, for example, had made covering compulsory for State matches with effect from the 1934-35 season. It was not a popular move with everyone. Australian slow bowlers who had earned their reputations on sticky wickets were most disadvantaged and disappeared from view, along with sticky wickets.

The conditions for these remained in certain countries, including England, for almost another 50 years. During this time, various types of covers were deployed, ranging from tarpaulin sheets, to arched covers on wheels and a machine modelled on a hovercraft. All of these took time to roll out. At a recent Test match at the Oval, London, I witnessed, for the first time, easily portable, semi-translucent polyethylene, 100 percent waterproof sheets being placed quickly over the pitch and a wide surrounding area. The age of the sticky wicket has passed but its memory remains.