ICC chief pitch inspector, Andy Atkinson, has a greater knowledge of cricket pitches around the world than anybody else on the planet. When you have to deal with monsoons and baking heat in the sub-continent, as well as freezing temperatures in Scotland, you learn to be adaptable.
Essex-born Andy has worked for the ICC since 1998. He liaises with the curators and groundsmen in the countries where the ICC are staging their tournaments, which include the World Cup, World Twenty20 and Champions Trophy.
"I work in collaboration with the local groundstaff at all venues. I advise them and help them plan their work. I am not there to step on people's toes but, if requested, I am happy to don shorts and get out on the field," Andy said. "In some cases the local curator runs the show. Others are happy for me to assume control for the duration."
Each event demands intensive planning. Andy inspects the tournament venues and training facilities two years in advance of tournaments. He assesses the suitability of pitches and practice facilities and informs local groundstaff about the ICC's requirements
It is not simply a case of finding grounds for games. For the World Cup 2007 in the Caribbean, for example, the ICC needed eight main tournament venues, but they also wanted another twenty-six venues to allow each country to hold team practice sessions.
"The Caribbean venues needed to be acceptable to international teams, but most were club grounds which had to be renovated. In the interim, detailed planning and renovation programmes were discussed with the local organising committees to ensure work was completed on time and the facilities were tested months prior to the tournament," Andy said.
Andy's Caribbean experience went smoothly. But, there have been occasions when extreme conditions have made his job a race against time. One of his greatest challenges came when he was asked to prepare grounds for the ICC Knock-Out (now known as the ICC Champions Trophy) on a limited budget, in Nairobi, Kenya. It was his first job for the ICC back in 1998-2000, and it turned out to be a baptism of fire.
The event was for all Test-playing nations, plus Kenya, and the schedule was for ten one-day internationals in fifteen days, on five pitches at the Nairobi Gymkhana ground. There were another five practice grounds to prepare. The condition of the grounds was poor.
"Our first visit, in July 1998, coincided with the rainy season. The grass on the outfield was twelve inches high at most sites, and all the grounds were flooded. They asked me if I could get the fields ready by September 2000. I said 'yes', but I must admit that I had my fingers crossed," Andy said.
Andy spent from July 1999 until September 2000 working at the Nairobi Gymkhana ground on a part-time basis, with about twenty groundstaff. They applied 400 tonnes of sand to the outfield, by hand, for levelling and smoothing the surface.
"The pitch block was in need of severe renovation, such as scarification, aeration, levelling and replanting, which all had to be done by hand, as most of the equipment, apart from mowing and scarification machinery, was not available in Kenya. All 15 tonnes of clay for the pitches had to be broken down and crushed into usable sizes by hand prior to dressing and levelling," Andy said.
"It was not feasible to reconstruct the pitch block in the time available, and be certain it would be one hundred percent satisfactory for the tournament."
"In the end, all went well with good reviews at the completion, and this was achieved during eight months of drought in Nairobi. I'm as proud of what we did there as of anything I've done for the ICC."
Andy is currently preparing pitches for the ICC World Cup, which is in Asia from February to early April 2011. The planning is particularly complex because the tournament is spread over three Test-playing nations, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Andy has already made five extensive trips to each country to supervise work, and there will be many more visits. There are thirteen grounds being used for the matches, and dozens more for practice. The grounds are hundreds of miles apart, which means catching a lot of aeroplanes, as well as grappling with different conditions.
"In a vast country like India the climate is different from one place to another. In Mumbai, it is relatively simple; it rains from June until the end of August, and it is always hot and humid, at around 25°-30°c. Once the monsoon stops it becomes very hot, about 30°-40°c, or more, and normally it's very dry for the next period of time until the following monsoon starts in June. Grass growth is very good all year round, and the major issues are irrigation and protecting the pitches from the sun," Andy said.
Northern venues, like Delhi, Ahmedabad and Mohali, are quite different. "They are extremely hot from March to June, normally around 40°c plus, though I experienced a temperature of 54°C in Mohali in June last year. But, because they are near to the Himalayas, they actually have a winter with frosts and fog. The temperatures are also quite low from November until the end of February. It can be 10°c in the day time and below freezing at night."
"Because the natural grasses used for cricket pitches in India are of the Cynodon varieties, that can cope with the summer heat, the cold temperatures send them into dormancy for that period - there is absolutely no re-growth. Cricket is played in India between October and April to avoid the worst of the heat and to make the most of the dry season," he said.
Venues in Bangalore and Chennai have a different monsoon period to the rest of India. They are more like the Sri Lankan grounds. Meanwhile, Kolkata has the same seasons as Bangladesh.
"All these factors have to be considered when planning work schedules. This is also a factor in other large countries, such as Australia, where the weather differs from Perth to Brisbane and Sydney, and also South Africa with the variations between the Cape, the High Veldt and the other costal venues," Andy said.
Andy's knowledge of different pitches and climates is almost unparalleled. He seems as though he was born to do this job. So, it is a surprise to learn that he fell into the profession almost by accident.
"I come from a farming background in Essex and the club I played for, Rankins CC, had its own ground which the players had to look after in conjunction with the ground's owner, Donald Rankin. As I could drive a tractor, I helped out by initially cutting the outfield. After a while, I became more interested in the preparation of the pitches and progressed from there," he said.
He left school and started training to be a chef at technical college, until he realised how much the evening and weekend work would interfere with playing cricket, soccer and rugby.
"When the course was completed, I decided that I did not want to take up catering as a profession - I wasn't very good anyway! I managed to get a job with the local council in the parks department, preparing all sorts of sports surfaces over a five-year period, which gave me a good grounding," he said.
His rise to prominence thereafter was dramatic. He worked at Lord's, Lansdowne Road and The Oval, before enjoying a ten year stretch as Essex head groundsman at Chelmsford. After that, he was Warwickshire head groundsman, at Edgbaston, for three years.
While at Edgbaston, Atkinson and his fellow Test groundsmen were called to a secret meeting with the ECB and told by Donald Carr, then the pitches overseer, that the England strategists required dry, turning pitches with not too much grass for the 1993 Ashes series.
Andy was uncomfortable about the idea of not producing the best pitch he could, and recalls the shrewd Ron Alsopp, then head groundsman at Trent Bridge, saying out of the corner of his mouth: "Haven't they heard of Shane Warne?"
ot long afterwards, everyone had heard of Warne, he produced his 'Ball of The Century' to bowl an aghast Mike Gatting in the first Test of a terrible summer for English cricket. Warne went on to take thirty-four wickets in the series, on pitches supposed to help English spinners!
Andy left Edgbaston that year, and furthered his education by moving to sunnier climes as head groundsman at the Newlands ground in South Africa. Following that, he stayed in South Africa as turf manager for three years at the Wanderers Stadium. Finally, he became freelance and worked at Centurion Park, Pretoria, as a private contractor for three years.
His work at Test grounds in South Africa, and in Africa's hot conditions, was a good grounding for his next job with the ICC, from 1998.
Despite having to travel all over the world for the ICC, which takes him away from his family, he has never lost his passion for the job.
"It is a good feeling to produce a good pitch and to be complimented on it, but the art of preparing pitches is not an exact science, due to the need to produce different types of pitches for varying types of matches in completely diverse climates. To prepare a good pitch, many aspects of turf management need to be brought together. Of these, experience, hard work, commonsense, perseverance, luck and good weather are the most important. Without luck and good weather it's a hard job to make a good pitch," he said.
He's seen the role become more prominent over the years, but doesn't believe groundsmen get the respect they deserve.
"The profile of a head groundsman is higher than ever because of TV coverage. But the criticism from both commentators and players, which is often aimed at the pitch and, therefore, indirectly aimed at the groundsman for five long days, is constant," Andy said.
The groundsman's importance is underrated, he believes. "The quality of the pitch is fundamental to the game. At the highest level, a lot is expected of the groundsman. The years of experience, and weeks of hard work and long hours ahead of a big match, are often taken for granted by employers, players, sponsors and spectators alike. That is, until there is a problem, then they remember your name!"
Andy says it is becoming harder to attract younger people within turf management towards cricket. "The terms and conditions are not attractive in many cases, and a lot of people do it for the love of the game. Even for a top groundsman, the financial rewards and levels of respect are much less than those of a top greenkeeper for a similar event with wall-to-wall TV coverage," he said.
One complaint he hears often from the media, is how batsmen dominate too easily in Tests on flat, modern pitches. As I write, England have backed up the point by declaring on 517-1 in the 1st Test of the Ashes! But, most of the time it's the sub-continent's pitches which are in the firing line.
"Change is happening to Indian pitches," said Andy. "The main aim is to produce pitches with more pace and bounce, and a better balance between bat and ball for Test matches. The Indian authorities are promoting that and having good results at venues such as Bangalore and Mohali."
"It is not the wish of the ICC to see pitches around the world become standardised. Each country should produce pitches that are natural to their conditions, so I would expect the ball to spin more in drier climes and seam more in damper conditions. There is nothing wrong with that."
There are, however, certain principles which apply to pitches the world over.
"Test matches require a surface that allows all the skills to be practised over the duration. Initially, you want some grass and moisture to allow early seam movement. Then, as the surface and grass dry out at the halfway stage, the roughened grass acts as an abrasive to allow the ball to grip."
"As the pitch dries out, batting becomes easier and the batsmen can dominate, but then, as the surface starts to deteriorate, which is quite acceptable from day three on, one expects assistance for spin bowlers. This, in my view, is what we should be aiming for in a Test pitch."