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Artificial (pitch) intelligence - all you need to know

Artificial pitches - suitable for all
©Notts Sport

As part of Cricket World's goal to assist clubs in areas such as groundcare, administration and fund-raising, we bring you the latest in a series of articles where experts in their field give their top tips, this time focussing on artificial pitches.

Plenty of work goes into the successful maintenance of an artificial pitch throughout the season, so we have teamed up with James Coney (total-play Ltd), Mark Wood (Notts Sport), Mandy Greenwood (Playrite) and Kevin Underwood (ClubTurf).

You can of course ask any questions of your own or make your own observations in the comments below!

Why choose an artificial surface/wicket?

James Coney: Not only are artificial playing surfaces a low-maintenance option – a great choice for grass-roots clubs without full time professional grounds staff – but they offer consistent, balanced performance whatever the weather. They also offer balanced play between bat and ball so ensure all members/players are kept happy!

Mark Wood: Notts Sport’s ECB approved non-turf match pitches offer different pace, bounce and spin characteristics. Systems can be tailored toward ‘starter pitches’ for young players, through to a facility for 1st XI matchplay. Maintenance on Artificial surfaces is easier to maintain than natural surface and can also be played in most weathers and straight after a heavy downpour.

Mandy Greenwood: An artificial wicket is a durable and cost effective way to give your club a low maintenance, consistent cricket playing surface. Another benefit is for clubs with small squares or limited space an artificial wicket is ideal for junior matches and practice.

Kevin Underwood: Participation is key and there is no doubt that artificial match pitches can increase participation. Most cricket clubs and a lot of schools will already have an established cricket square but the cost of maintaining and looking after fine turf pitches has escalated over time.

Groundstaff salaries have risen and demand for cricket pitches for junior and senior cricket has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Clubs and schools have finite resources so something has to give.

Sadly it is often junior cricket pitches that take the brunt as the resources are spent on preparing the senior team’s pitches. A well maintained and looked after grass pitch is undoubtedly the best surface to play cricket on especially for the young. However, a poorly maintained or tired grass pitch can be dangerous and detrimental to the development of young cricketers. An artificial match pitch can take the pressure off the groundstaff and in a lot of cases provide a better and more consistent surface for cricket.

Why choose an artificial surface for nets and practice areas?

Mark Wood: For non-turf practice areas, Notts Sport can configure practice lanes pace, bounce and spin characteristics to suit players of all ages and abilities. Maintenance on Artificial surfaces is easier to maintain than natural surface and can also be played in most weathers and straight after a heavy down pour.

Artificial practice lanes can also include the Notts Sport coaching lines which are incorporated in to the surface and help with training.

Mandy Greenwood: Artificial surfaces are ideal for nets as they can take an extreme amount of use, are hard wearing with good longevity and minimises maintenance costs on the upkeep on natural practice areas. The performance on artificial are consistent and available to play in poor weather conditions without damage to the grounds.

They also enable players to start pre-season practice outdoors when natural wickets will not be fit.

Kevin Underwood: If a grass cricket square is expensive and difficult to maintain the costs of a grass practice area are beyond all but the richest cricket clubs and schools.

The problem is that during practice the bowler bowls from one end and the batsman bats at the other end. On a grass or artificial match pitch the wear and tear is evenly balanced at both ends. If you use a practice pitch for the same length of time as a match pitch you double the wear and tear in the same area at both ends.

There is a limited life to natural grass practice pitches which results in having to produce as many practice pitches as you do match pitches to produce one lane for practice. If you want two lanes you would have to produce double the amount of practice pitches as match pitches. A grass practice square will produce more work than a grass match square and as I have already said most club’s and schools can barely afford to maintain the match cricket square.

Artificial practice pitches don’t suffer the same wear and tear as grass practice pitches so the maintenance cost is a fraction. There are two standpoints on what a practice pitch should provide. Some believe practice pitches should closely mimic the grass match pitch you play on and provide the variability and movement of a grass pitch. 

Others put more of a onus on development and coaching which requires more consistency and less realism. ClubTurf and the other companies in the industry supply systems to meet either of these requirements.

James Coney: One of the most attractive things is cost – fine turf wickets and practice nets can cost thousands to constantly prepare and maintain, non-turf wickets and practice nets are an ideal solution for restricted budgets like schools, council owned sites, youth clubs, grass-roots clubs etc....

Durability is also a benefit – practicing on an artificial surface will reduce wear and tear on your natural wickets. In terms of performance, investing in a surface that meets ECB approved performance standards will mean that you get to hone skills on a playing surface that has been proven to meet the requirements of the National Governing Body for cricket in England and Wales.

For example, our tp365 ECB approved design (pictured below) has been developed to offer cricketers a balanced game between bat and ball; encouraging thus helping batsmen develop all the key skills they need for the modern game.

How much maintenance is required on an artificial wicket/surface? What sort of maintenance?

Mandy Greenwood: Maintenance will still be required on your artificial wicket, but the intensity will be much lower in both cost and time.

An artificial wicket will still require rolling at certain times of the year. Moss and algae repellent will need applying again periodically. Costs are difficult to say and dependent on whether local voluntary labour is available, actual material costs are minimal.

Kevin Underwood: All artificial pitches require some maintenance. Even concrete and tarmac pitches may require weed kill and moss kill and will require regular brushing and marking. Dynamic based pitches which include the majority of artificial pitch systems require further maintenance to ensure the consolidation of the upper base or hard porous layer. This may include worm deterrent if there is an issue in that area.

Dynamic based pitches require maintenance to ensure that the hard porous surface is level and even and any marks made by the ball are ironed out even through performance pads. If the hard porous surface becomes dinted the pitch will become inconsistent and this will be made worse as the surface dries and hardens.

In dry conditions the maintenance reduces back to just brushing and marking but if the bounce gets too high or there is inconsistency you can water and roll to produce lower or more consistent bounce.

The systems without performance pads like our ClubTurf “Natural” are the most realistic or play the most similar to natural grass. The balance is that they require greater maintenance as the hard porous layer is more open to impact and dinting so these systems require a greater level of rolling after use in wet weather.

The thicker or the greater quantity of performance pads slows down the pitch and provides a less realistic bounce characteristic. The balance is that these pads provide greater protection to the hard porous layer thus reducing the amount of rolling maintenance.  

James Coney: Low maintenance does not mean NO maintenance. To ensure your artificial playing surface fulfils its potential both in terms of longevity and performance, you will need to carry out regular maintenance tasks such as clearing the surface of debris and carefully checking any seams to nip any problems in the bud.  

Our premier tp365 system doesn’t require rolling or watering by the client and carries a extensive warranties (10 years for carpet; 30 years for the aggregate sub-base) – however, we do prescribe a series of simple, regular maintenance tasks for clubs to undertake to ensure their surface continues to offer optimum performance throughout its lifespan.

This includes guidelines on what footwear is suitable; and how to clean, brush and carry out surface edging and paint crease lines. We also explain works that clubs should definitely NOT attempt to carry out themselves – like surface re-levelling, carpet re-tensioning and repairs, and replacement of worn carpets and shock-pads that should only be carried out by skilled operatives.

Mark Wood: With regards to maintenance, this table shows an overview of what is required:

Requirement

Detail

Frequency

Sweeping

Removal of debris and grass cuttings

Weekly (& Before each match or practice session)

Marking

Re-marking of lines

Weekly as required before match or practice session

Surrounds

Mowing of the surrounding grass

Weekly (During the season)

Vegetation

Deal with any moss, algae or weeds. Also apply a yearly prophylactic treatment

Monthly if required / Annually

Rolling

Roll to firm the base up prior to the start of the season and roll during the season to increase pace

Annually / As and when required

Repairs Inspection

Check for damage or wear on the surface or the nets and cage

Weekly

Stump Box

Water, roll and work the clay in the stump box if required

Every 2 months (or as required)

 Of this, the most important aspects of the maintenance are:

  • Clean, sweep and weed kill the top surface regularly to counter weed/moss growth.
  • Keep the facility’s sub-base fully compact and level by rolling as and when needed – if compaction falls this will reduce the set pace (water the base first or wait until after heavy rainfall – roll across the width of the pitch).
  • Guard against ‘bat tapping’ at the popping crease and the use of spiked footwear as, all though very resistant, artificial grass is unlikely to withstand constant misuse of this nature.

Where is the best place to put your artificial surface for nets?

Kevin Underwood: Most grounds have limited space so that is usually the main limiting factor.

The first thing we look at is orientation and we try wherever possible to install the facility as close to north-south as possible. The sun sets in the west in the evenings and if the sunset impacts on the practice area dazzling the batsman or the bowler there are obvious health and safety issues.

Ideally the practice area will be off the ground so that practice can take place during games without impacting on the ground. If we can fully enclose the practice area then we achieve the same goal of ensuring practice is possible during games. This isn’t always possible and we have to install practice areas that hit out onto the outfield.

As the facility won’t be used during games this limits the amount of nights the facility can be used and increases the amount of capacity you need (increase lanes) and the cost.

The main concern for the club is always cost as even though grant funding is sometimes available the club will have to provide some if not all of the funding for the facility. As we have said practice areas that can be used while games on require fewer lanes (lower cost) but there are a number of different factors that can increase the cost. Levels, drainage, services, concrete or walls, trees or roots and ground conditions to name but a few.

We always recommend that practice areas be near access points if possible as they will be used more. However we also like to move them to the edge of grounds to maximise the use of the land and to ensure full maintenance of the area around and behind the facility. Sometimes if you don’t move into the corner the area behind gets neglected and unsightly as it is unused and unusable.

James Coney: This is very site specific, but the minimum requirement is to position new nets and wickets on a North – South orientation to avoid dangerous sun glare at certain times of the day.

Ideally, we’d recommend facilities are built close to existing pavilions/club houses to provide security and ensure younger members can be observed by parents whilst buying refreshments to help boost club funds through secondary spend.

Wickets should be positioned on the edge of a square as opposed to in the middle and practice nets ideally on a flat area. However, with our in-house experience, plant and machinery we can turn even the steepest site into a non-turf practice area that meets ECB guidelines.

Mark Wood: It is easy to go for an unused are in the corner of the ground as it is wasted space, but in reality who is going to walk to the other side of the field to practice? It is best to site them as near to the pavilion as possible so that they will get the most use.

You should pick an area that offers a decent run-up for the bowler, that ideally doesn’t encroach on to the outfield, as it would not be of use when playing a game.

Also, try and look for somewhere as flat as possible; whilst work can be done to level an area, it is important that the run-up is level with the facility too. Finally, the orientation is important; you should choose ideally a North or South direction so that the batsman is not troubled by the Sun setting during evening practice.

Mandy Greenwood: Apart from avoiding the sunset in the evenings the location is best to suit each individual club.

Image © total-play Ltd

Do artificial surfaces require animal/pest control measures?

James Coney: In the case of practice nets yes - rabbits and foxes love to chew netting, and this can be managed by using anti-rodent measures such as skirts (PVC and mesh netting) or by installing gates at open ends to stop pests entering the system.

With wickets, you just need to regularly brush the surface to remove any animal droppings, but other than that they don’t tend to attract much activity.

Mark Wood: The only thing that comes to mind on this is the need for a Vermin skirt around the bottom of netting on a practice facility. This reduces that chance of rabbits etc chewing holes in the netting. There aren’t really any other measures I am aware of.

Mandy Greenwood: Prior to the base being laid protection should be considered to prevent damage.

Kevin Underwood: As I have said under maintenance all artificial grass can suffer from weeds and moss and this should be treated as required. The bound systems concrete and tarmac don’t suffer from worms but any dynamic system can be infected by worms.

Some grounds have a natural propensity to be worm infested and some grounds don’t. Worms can have a very bad impact on cricket squares and outfields and attract other animals such as moles. The simple answer is if the area you choose for your practice area or match pitch has had signs of worms you should treat with a worm deterrent.

Worms bring soil into the hard porous system of artificial pitches gradually breaking down the dynamic base. The more open the system the greater the likelihood of worm infestation but even sealed systems can have worm problems as it only takes the smallest space for worms to infest.

Are artificial surfaces resistant to all weather types?

Meet The Contributors

James Coney (total-play Ltd)

James Coney, Business Development Manager at total-play Ltd, an ECB Non Turf Pitch Code of Practice installer which has developed its own range of artificial playing surfaces, including the ECB approved tp365 design

Mark Wood (Notts Sport)

Operating from headquarters in Leicestershire, England, Notts Sport has built a world-class reputation which doesn't rely on high-profile marketing strategies, but on high-quality products and word of mouth recommendation.

Mandy Greenwood (Playrite)

Mandy is marketing manager at Playrite, who pride themselves on innovation and offering the highest quality synthetic surfaces.

Kevin Underwood (ClubTurf)

Kevin is Operations Director at ClubTurf, providers of ECB-approved artificial pitches. He has worked for ClubTurf for the last 13 years.

Mandy Greenwood: Artificial surfaces are billed as all-weather surfaces because they can be used in most types of weather, by this we mean that the surface and the playing characteristics are not affected by the weather, an artificial wicket is usually a free draining surface which will not hold water.

Mark Wood: Certainly whilst in the ground it is resilient to a lot of weather, but there are occasions you wouldn’t use it due to the rest of the area / ground being too wet.

During the winter a pitch can affected by frost heave which can cause movement in the base, meaning that it needs rolling after winter to firm up (as mentioned under maintenance).

Flooding is also an issue for artificial pitches, as levels will be affected by the amount of water and in some cases materials have been lifted during floods. But during normal weather the pitches should be fine.

Kevin Underwood: The name “all weather” used to be used about artificial surfaces but it isn’t completely true.

Certainly you can’t play with lying snow or ice. The artificial grass used for cricket pitches tends to be quite short but this also makes it not stud proof. If the bowlers and fielders are not wearing studs then play is determined by ground conditions in the outfield so if the ground is very wet and slippy play will not be possible.

On the same topic just because play is possible on the artificial it doesn’t mean that it is in the interests of the club for play to continue in heavy rain. Clearly the grass pitches for the weekend will not be able to be covered and the dead ends of old pitches will become mud baths if players walk and skid through them when they are wet.   

Practice areas can be used in wet conditions but the surface can become slippy if mud from outside the area is carried on to the surface on the bowlers shoes. If the area is fully enclosed or has an extended run up then this will open the area up to being used more in different conditions. The answer is that an artificial pitch can be used in a lot more weathers than a natural grass pitch which is a definite plus in rainy countries like the UK.

James Coney: Artificial surfaces are designed to withstand reasonable year-round weather conditions, but it’s important to regularly clear surface debris and check for any problems that may have occurred.

Inundation by flood or extremely heavy, long-lying snowfall may cause problems including very small particle detritus left on the carpet and disturbed surface levels, so we’d recommend calling in the experts to carry out a thorough check of the system under these circumstances.

How long do artificial wickets normally last?

James Coney: Different suppliers use different designs and materials, so it’s hard to give a ‘one size fits all’ answer, but our tp365 ECB approved system carries a warranty of 10 years for the carpet and 30 years for the aggregate sub-base, so as long as maintenance advice is followed and any component replacement/re-levelling works carries out as recommended by the supplier, these facilities can last decades.

Kevin Underwood: This is more than one question really as there are different components that make up an artificial pitch. Our systems are made up of three or four layers and each layer has a different life expectancy.

If we start at the bottom we install a lower base or stone raft which provides good drainage and a solid foundation. The lower base will improve with age and in theory may never need replaced as it will have moved with the land and the land will have moved with it to a point where it has become part of the land.

The upper base will require regular maintenance to keep it consolidated and to keep it level. There will be some movement and filtration of the hard porous layer and it will need topped up. We recommend a periodic maintenance every 5 years. In reality you are not replacing the whole upper base but actually just adding a little bit of material that it has lost so the actual base will last indefinitely.

The performance pads and shock pads have a lifetime but as they are not open to the sun UV light they have a long lifetime of 20-25 years depending on impact and wear and tear. In heavy use areas the pads will need renewed as often as 10-15 years but in low impact areas they can have a very long lifetime.

The surface carpet is impacted on by UV light and therefore has the shortest life expectancy. I am not going to get into the debate about carpets but we choose to use wilton woven carpets out of a choice of many different types of carpet as we think it is the best.

Our ClubTurf wilton woven carpet has an average life expectancy of 10-12 years. We have pitches that ClubTurf have surfaced 4 times since the brand started in the mid 1970’s a recent example was a pitch that we installed in 1978 resurfaced in 1990, 2002 and again last year 2014.   

Mandy Greenwood: The life-span of a wicket depends upon the construction, with woven wickets proven to have surpassed the life-span of a tufted surface time and time again, from a replacement fund being put in place you should expect up to 10 years on the playing surface.

Mark Wood: A good quality surface should give you 10 years plus if maintained correctly with top quality ones offering over 12 years. And if you choose a quality base system, it should then just be a case of re-surfacing rather than replacing the whole base. For example, our Envelope system which protects the aggregate. A good base could last up to 3 times as long as a surface.

Are artificial surfaces suitable for all ages?

Kevin Underwood: A large part of the answer to this question is dependent on how well the facility has been looked after and maintained since installation. This is also true for natural grass surfaces.

If a natural grass surface is suitable for all ages then an artificial surface is as well. In some ways performance pad pitch systems are more consistent and sanitized and probably more suitable for young cricketers than natural grass pitches.

Having played a lot of cricket in my life I have played on a lot of cricket pitches in many different parts of the country and there is no such thing as a perfectly consistent natural grass pitch. If you watch test cricket it is glaringly obvious that the pitches have their own pace and bounce and there are variances. If this is true at test level then multiply infinitely for club level especially for under prepared junior pitches.

Mark Wood: Absolutely. They are an ideal coaching aid as they offer a more consistent performance than grass and so it can give young players confidence when being coached knowing that they can for example get forward without fear of a ball suddenly shooting up.

Especially with something like the NottsBase D System, which is consistent all year around and ideal for coaching. They are also ideal for junior matches as little preparation is needed especially when matches tend to take place early in an evening when there isn’t time to prepare a grass strip. They even offer a good surface for something like Kwik Cricket rather than using an uneven outfield with long grass.

James Coney: Yes, total-play systems are ideally suited for players of all ages and all abilities;  this is reflected in clients that range from grass roots clubs and primary schools through to first-class/county clubs including Essex CCC and Hampshire CCC.

Mandy Greenwood: Yes, they are great surfaces to play on. Often improving the enjoyment for younger players as they have a consistent bounce, which helps greatly in practice.

Additional images kindly supplied by Notts Sport

© Cricket World 2015


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