T20 World Cup: What are the drop-in pitches being used in the US?

The Nassau county International Cricket Stadium in Long Island, New York.  (AFP)
The Nassau county International Cricket Stadium in Long Island, New York. (AFP)


At the T20 World Cup, turf grown in Adelaide, shipped to Florida and driven to New York is being used for cricket pitches. This might be a problem

To borrow cricket parlance, baseball batters only get bowled full tosses. They don’t have to bother with the ball landing in the dirt first. This is what makes batting in cricket trickier, as the ball hitting the pitch introduces more variability: In bounce, speed off the surface, and deviation. The 22 yards between the wickets thus plays a critical role in cricket.

It is for this reason that the decision of the International Cricket Council (ICC) to hold T20 World Cup matches on untested pitches in New York was risky. But the ICC went ahead anyway, in the interest of ramping up viewership in the US.

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However, the spectacle they got in the opening game, with Sri Lanka getting bowled out by South Africa for 77 on an underdone pitch, could hardly be deemed a great advertisement for cricket. Even the winners struggled to reach that target in the 17th over after losing four wickets. Indian skipper Rohit Sharma and other batsmen took body blows from sharply rising deliveries in the India-Ireland encounter on Wednesday.

This fraught saga with pitches began late last year. The ICC wanted to put up a pop-up stadium in New York’s Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It’s the largest space for cricket in the city, with a dozen pitches developed by Caribbean and South Asian immigrants.

The ICC got enthusiastic support from New York’s mayor, but ran into a clash between two local cricket leagues. The Commonwealth Cricket League, dominated by South Asians, backed the move. But the New York Cricket League run by West Indians, who use the park for all their league games, opposed it.

Although the ICC promised to dismantle the stadium and upgrade the grounds after the tournament, the local cricket groups did not trust the global organisation. “The ICC will put a stadium down, the matches will be played—and then their promises will be forgotten," Clarence Modeste, the longtime president of the Staten Island Cricket League, told The Guardian.

Unlike a permanent concrete stadium, a modular pop-up stadium, made of steel and aluminium, can be easily dismantled. It also costs a fraction of creating a regular stadium, one that would require several international matches every year to be self-sustaining.

Van Cortlandt is a public park and local residents threatened the ICC and the mayor with lawsuits if they went ahead with the plan. Finally, in November last year, the ICC signed up with Nassau County, Long Island, to put up the stadium in Eisenhower Park on the outskirts of New York City.

This left little time to prepare the outfield for it to be safe for fielding—a process where sand is required beneath the grass for drainage—as well as firm enough for players to slide on. Work began in January and the outfield was ready only a month before the tournament.

An even more important task was to pre-fabricate a drop-in pitch and then get it acclimatised to local weather.

Drop-in pitches are regularly used in Australia and New Zealand. A modular pitch is put together in trays and then brought to the ground and dropped into a rectangular pit in the middle. This allows the pitch to be easily removed for a homogenous field used in winter sports when cricket is not in season.

The ICC contracted Australian company Adelaide Oval Turf Solutions for the pitches in New York. The trays for the pitches were initially prepared in Adelaide, and transported by sea to Georgia, US. From there, they were taken by road to Florida last December.

The pitches took shape in Florida, which is sunnier than New York. Local clay was added to the soil which was also bound with Bermuda grass. Finally, 10 pitches were taken to New York in April, with four of the best going to the middle and the rest becoming practice pitches nearby.

Damian Hough, curator of the Adelaide Oval and head of grounds team at Adelaide Oval Turf Solutions, was anxious before the tournament began. “It’s a living and breathing thing and it’s gone through quite a stressful process… You need to give it time to adjust and recover," Hough told The Guardian on the eve of the T20 World Cup.

Six months is a short period of time to make a cricket pitch, transport it, and play on it. Hough’s fears proved well-grounded in the World Cup opener at Eisenhower Park. Sri Lanka blundered in batting first on an unknown turf and got bowled out for 77. Uneven, spongy bounce made the South African pace bowlers a handful. The fastest of them, Anrich Nortje, was virtually unplayable and took 4 for 7 in his four overs.

This puts a question mark over all four of the drop-in pitches. Until the much-hyped India-Pakistan encounter in New York on 9 June, nobody can predict how that pitch will behave. One can only surmise that the best one of the four has been reserved for the marquee match.

Drop-in pitches used in Melbourne and Adelaide are generally batting-friendly. But they use local soil and they’re curated for a much longer time. Besides, they’re usually broken in with a few matches before being used in an international T20 game.

The shortest format of cricket requires batsmen to hit out from the word go. When the bounce, pace, and deviation off the pitch is uncertain, it stymies strokeplay. New Yorkers used to the ball being smashed out of the park for home runs by the Yankees in baseball would be disappointed if they don’t see many sixes in the India-Pakistan match.

The dodgy pitch is compounded by a makeshift outfield in Eisenhower Park where the ball struggles to get to the boundary. For the experiment in New York to have a longer lease, the pitch for the India-Pakistan match should give a chance to batsmen to display their skills.

The stadium is sold out for that match, so expectations are high. Will the pitch prove to be a damp squib? India’s best bet will be to bowl first if they win the toss and have a target for their batsmen to overhaul, because nobody can foretell what’s a good score in Eisenhower Park.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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