The scent of summer is in the air and the smell of freshly mown grass welcomes in a new season of cricket at all levels across the country. The only problem is someone forgot to tell the groundsmen at all first-class grounds, or their lawn mowers have broken down. The state of first-class pitches over the last few years has astounded me. I totally understand why it is happening and support the stance taken in most states to produce result wickets, but it is not conducive to developing our next level of batsmen and certainly not encouraging the emergence of quality spinners in our first-class system.
Adelaide Oval, without any current bias, is still the best cricket wicket in the country and the wickets prepared for Sheffield Shield games closely resemble the strip that head groundsman Damien Hough will roll out as we tackle South Africa in a month's time. It provides a little bit of assistance on day one for the quicker bowlers who bend their backs, but equally provides a great contest between bat and ball. Days two and three are ideal for batting and day four usually provides some spin for the slow men. It is occasionally hard to get a result in four days but is ideal for five-day Test match cricket and a true test of all the skills of the game and a player's application.
Brisbane is a magnificent Test wicket and on most occasions a super-fast, hard, flat one-day wicket. But for two decades now the shield wickets have been far too fast-bowler friendly. The outstanding win by the Bushrangers at the Gabba highlights this more than ever. The game was over on day three and that was with almost all of day two washed out. Queensland, which plays the conditions very well, this time around tasted some of its own medicine, bowled out in 47 overs in the first innings and 53 overs in the second. James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, John Hastings and Clint Mckay are as good a first-class attack in the world and they made short work of the Queensland batsmen.
Batsmen have to earn their runs at the Gabba in shield cricket and medium fast bowlers pick up cheap wickets. It's not a fair contest. Spinners Jon Holland and Cameron Boyce, both jostling for a position as second-in-line spinner behind Nathan Lyon, bowled six overs between them for the game. Hardly what we need to produce some quality spin options for the future.
Bellerive Oval in Hobart up until a few years ago was a fast bowler's graveyard. Now it's paradise. Something strange has happened in the Apple Isle as a flat, grassless wicket has been transformed into a raging green seamer. Well played Tasmania, smart planning and management. No coincidence, perhaps, that Tasmania is now one of the best teams in the competition. It has some very good players and a top-class coaching set-up that deserves full credit for Tasmania's climb, but it also gets a result every game it plays at home in bowler-friendly conditions. Ed Cowan has enjoyed scoring runs down there but most other batsmen shudder at the sight of what is being served up for shield matches. The first innings has become irrelevant; it's a case of the last man standing will take the points in the majority of shield contests. In fairness, the Test match strip there last summer - when we were embarrassingly knocked over by the Kiwis - was identical to shield wickets. You judge if that's the type of wicket best suited to developing world-class players.
The WACA in Perth has always been fast-bowler friendly although it did flatten out with a change of soil some time ago and the traditional trampoline bounce seemed to have diminished as a result. Last summer it was hard to actually tell which mowed section was the wicket for the game until the groundsmen marked some white lines on the morning of the match. Every shield game in Perth last summer was a result wicket, and most times well inside the designated four days. First class? I'm not convinced.
The MCG, after a barren patch when drop-in wickets were first installed and a hollow, dead pitch was the norm, has also been transformed. Last summer I was taken aback when the thick cover of wire-like, stalky grass was like nothing I had witnessed in my 15 years behind the stumps. The ball seamed all over the place all game and batsmen never felt ''in'' on a deck that favoured bowlers far too much. I'm not sure the Victorian batsmen liked what they saw as two shield games were finished inside three days last summer. The only saving point was some big scores were registered in the fourth innings as the grass compacted and wore down. It will be interesting to see what David Sandurski, the new head groundsman, produces this summer.
The SCG, once known as a spinner's heaven, has also found some growth mats and many shield games are played on greenish seamer-friendly wickets. The point of difference New South Wales once had by playing three spinners has been lost. The production line of quality spinners has halted out of Sydney and, in my opinion, as a country we are worse for it.
Gentle NSW medium pacer Trent Copeland was elevated to Test status on the back of shield wickets heavily skewed in favour of the medium-paced seamer over the past few summers. Our stocks of quick bowlers are, on the surface, very good as a result, but are they really that good when elevated to Test matches around the world on wickets far better than those we are serving up in shield cricket?
Our batting depth is thin, or it appears that way, as not many batsmen are accumulating big runs in these grassy times. Spin bowling is in decline and we keep asking why? The answer may well be right in front of our eyes but no one seems to be prepared to make a stance to fix the problem.
Former Victorian and South Australian wicketkeeper Darrren Berry is the coach of SA.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/sport/cricket/when-first-class-is-second-class-20121013-27k0m.html