Fifty years ago the spinners took half the wickets in the County Championship. Now they take little more than a quarter. Bats are more powerful, boundaries shorter, outfield grass lusher; balls keep their hardness and shine for longer and pitches are covered when it rains. For the traditional finger spinner the changes have all made life harder.
For Harry Brind, former groundsman at Chelmsford and The Oval, the way forward lies in the preparation of pitches. "The ideal cricket pitch gives both batsmen and bowlers a chance," he says. "It will have pace and bounce on the first day. Then by the third and fourth days it will be deteriorating a bit and the spinners will get some turn."
Nobody speaks with greater authority than Brind. In 1965 a near-bankrupt Essex appointed him when they purchased the Chelmsford ground. With no assistant and only rudimentary equipment, he created a square that was among the best in the country. "We had no proper covers," he recalls. "We had trestles with no gutters and we had to put sheets over them. It was a major effort."
Then in 1975 he moved to The Oval, where he found the square tired and slow. "If you drop a ball from a 16-foot pole, it should bounce two or three feet. When I arrived at The Oval, it was bouncing three inches." He persuaded the committee that the whole square had to be relaid and after some teething problems it became the best in the land. For his last Test in 1994, when Devon Malcolm bowled England to a dramatic victory over South Africa, "the surface shone; it was the best pitch I ever prepared".
Many aspects of preparation have changed since Brind started with Essex. The first-class game in England underwent repeated changes in the regulations for covering. Back in the early 1950s only the creases could be covered once a game had started. Then covers could be applied to the whole pitch once play had been called off for the day. Then the bowlers' run-ups were protected during rain. Finally, after the debacle of the 1980 Centenary Test at Lord's, when MCC members jostled the umpires in their angry frustration, full covering was applied at every rain break.
"I like to see a pitch that's open and natural," Brind says. "That's the best pitch for cricket. Now the pitches are not natural because they're covered when it rains. Rain water is much better. It falls evenly, the grass grows better than when you use tap water, and if the covers are down too long, you can get fusarium disease."
Secondly there was the work of the Sports Turf Research Institute. Up and down the country they took samples of soil, and "the results were unbelievable. Loams had been added and they weren't binding properly with the original soils. So you had layers like liquorice allsorts, all separate from each other." Worse, the loams in fashion tended not to disintegrate, so spinners first missed out on wet wickets, which then did not become as dry and dusty as before.
Other factors have complicated the producing of pitches that deteriorate by the final day. "In the old days cricketers' boots had proper studs and the batsmen's feet would disturb the surface a little. But now they wear these pimpled things and it doesn't happen."
Brind was renowned for being his own man. "You do your job, I'll do mine," he would say if a chairman tried to influence his pitch preparation. Not all were as strong-minded. "A lot would be living on the ground, and if they didn't do what the club wanted, they could have been sacked."
A groundsman needs to enjoy his own company, and Brind did. "I used to love to sit on the roller at six in the morning, going up and down. Once eight o'clock comes, everyone wants to talk to you. At six you're on your own. Nobody interferes with what you're doing." Now 78, he enjoys a quiet retirement in Chelmsford with his wife, Pat. "Never in 35 years," she says, "did I hear him complain when he got up in the morning."
Brind believes the pitches now are better than they have ever been - and that if the groundsman does his job well, spin bowling can be encouraged. "It takes seven to ten days to produce a good pitch. You've got to roll, cut, scarify, all at the right times and in the right amounts. The pitch has to be truly dry at the start of the match, you mustn't leave any thickness of grass and you mustn't over-roll, otherwise it can become flat and bland. It's bloody hard work but I loved it. It's the best job in the world."