The Dark Art – Blackening a Cricket Pitch

In opening would like to thank to Brad Van Dam, Greg Askew, Daryl Davidson, Les Burdett, photo contributors & commentators on The Perfect Pitch Facebook page for assisting with this piece along with our sponsors Mowmaster Turf Equipment and Gabba Sporting Products. And that this is by no means a finished product on the the subject of blackening a pitch and believe the discussion should continue and if you feel there are any relevant points missing, better explanations or glaring mistakes in the process, get in touch.

For many years blackening up a cricket pitch in the initial preparation was common practice among curators in Australia and abroad where a heavy clay is present. This has become less so with the development of pitch experience, preparation, the science behind it along with the increased level of performance from sports turf management, turf coverage & recovery, irrigating techniques and the maintenance of the clay profile.

Having discussed with curators across Australia at various levels and grounds, there is a variety of opinions on this method that all have their merits. It is always important to consider the resources and weather conditions of your venue and what you can physically achieve specifically along what the result you want to produce with the pitch.

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Contributor to The Perfect Pitch, Dylan Kokotis blackening up some practice wickets.

Speaking with former Adelaide Oval Head Curator and now Cricket Australia pitch consultant Les Burdett, his opinion is to avoid the practice, arguing to “never push black”. It can get quite messy if you’re preparation is not on. This can produce inconsistencies in the pitch along with extra work when timing is a crucial part. Whereas Bradley Van Dam at Manuka Oval who practices this method and is a great example to follow with his preparedness and the results he produces, focuses on having everything in order and working the wicket up and over a couple of days. The results speak for themselves with continually high scoring belters at Manuka for the PM’s XI and the ODI matches.

As a curator, a key component of growing and developing is to try different things to ensure your knowledge of the craft expands, and it is also make the best wicket possible. Sometimes you’re forced into this situation (particularly the curators in clubland), trying to rectify wickets from bad/unfavourable conditions. By trialling different methods prior, you’ll be able to apply these in practice such when you’re confronted with a wet pitch and need to ensure a game goes ahead.

I’m not advocating going out all guns blazing with making a wicket against tried and true methods, but a good way of learning is making mistakes in controlled environments. It is about what works for you. However, if you’ve got an apprentice curator and an old wicket or practice facility that you can experiment with, it is great to be able to give them this as a sandbox where they can try to make something against convention, so they can learn the game and what the physical results are. This will ensure they’ve got tangible evidence to back up what they could be potentially teaching others in years to come along with solutions when presented with a challenging pitch.

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Dylan Ryhys-Jones uses the process at Como Park where he has a thatchy table.

Why do we blacken up a pitch? The idea behind it is, that it creates a better seal and locks in the moisture, producing a truer surface both in bounce & pace by pushing the grass into the clay profile and locking it in. Along with making that aesthetically eye
pleasing white playing surface (not the only way to be achieved), which in turn gives you all the ideal elements for the short form game. However, it is not limited to that or just trying to produce good pitch. It can also be used to;

  • Disguise flaws, where a pitch is bare, you can throw a mountain of clippings on and roll it all in, making it look like a highway.
  • An old slow pitch, that needs a better seal to prevent dusting up/falling apart
  • High temperatures location as per above
  • High thatch content meaning you won’t get a strong press/compaction
  • Similar to the above, weeds or undesirable grass like Kikuyu prevalent, that present similar compaction problems with the larger root systems/runners on the surface that you are trying to push into the clay.
  • Bring up/get rid of moisture on the surface (limited preparation time)
  • Highlights low spots and undulations in the pitch
Patchy Pitch
An example of where rolling all the grass into the wicket may have helped hide these bare areas from a fungal disease.

Why shouldn’t you blacken up a pitch? You shouldn’t blacken up a pitch if you’re not experienced, don’t have the time and resources and are plain unsure about it. If your clay table saturation levels aren’t right, a variety of issues can occur. Picking up clay on the barrel, which in turn picks up more clay and you have a snowball effect from there to a nice afternoon of scraping the barrel (every apprentices dream). This will also create low spots (however small) in the wicket, and besides wasting your time it can put you under further stress to get a pitch up.

  • Root shearing – If the only the top portion of the clay profile is wet such as the first 20mm with the profile below that hard, you can damage the root zone through shearing. This is where the top portion of the clay profile moves with the use of heavy roller and the deeper roots remain stationary and are snapped or damaged. This can lead to long term issues with wicket, such as thatch build up, poor turf recovery/dying and opening up the weaker turf to disease/pests damage.
  • Plating profile – As per the above happening, it can actual create a long term issue of plating/layering where the clay profile is visible separate when cored and you have different drying rates along with individual layers moving throughout the rolling process.
  • Pushing water/too much moisture – If you’re pushing water in bow wave, it can create undulations in the wicket, by moving the loose clay on the profile and create streaking in the presentation of the pitch and different drying rates.
  • Turf – Stops growing, slows the process of respiration and photosynthesis which draws moisture from root zone and potential shortening of the root zone, along with slow recovery
  • Type of turf – Rye/cool season grass or couch can vary the desired result along with future use of the wicket, with rye grass taking longer to recover after use.
  • Clay profile – As above can move around/create undulations, particularly with the heavy roller and/or areas of the pitch are drying at different rates
  • Variable wicket – May be two paced, variable bounce if moisture levels aren’t even across the surface when prepared.
  • Roller – Besides the clay sticking, can get stuck/wheels spinning which can result in gouging out clay. Usually happens around the foot holes where it can be slightly lower and with fresh clay holding more moisture.
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An example of spinning the wheels.

A rule of thumb in all forms of preparation regardless of the approach is always be prepared to stop, observe, reassess, hold off and start again. Making a mistake early and starting again is much easier to do than forging ahead and having significant issues later which you can’t iron out. Observation is key and without can lead to disastrous results which can be detrimental to a pitch and yourself as a curator. Start off gently, especially if you’re looking at trying this for the first time and if so, looking at grabbing someone to observe with you if you don’t have a curating mentor that you can turn to. Don’t make a mess for the sake of it and don’t decide to make a wicket completely different to how you would normally do it when you’re under pressure and conditions being either time or weather are unfavourable. And don’t expect to get it right first time.

There are different methods to blackening up a wicket, having trialled these methods personally in different locations across Australia, there are good and bad ways to go about it. This comes down to time, materials, equipment and support. To begin with, what is blackening up? This is the point of initial wicket preparation and the beginning of sealing a wicket.

When you first roll the pitch, moisture is prevalent enough that when pressed with your fingers, foot or going over with a roller be it the heavy or light roller, it will appear on the surface and wet the barrel of the roller, it may appear discoloured and picking up grass clippings. As you progress with the first set of rolling the couch leaf is pushed into the black clay, the leaf is coated with water/clay particle mix and the pitch becomes black/dark brown. This can occur in the first set of rolling across the pitch or with several sets as you compact the clay and the moisture comes up. Key points to follow;

  • Have all the materials and equipment ready to go
  • Plenty of couch/rye grass clippings (clean up a wicket properly after the match has been completed to ensure theremove organic matter/clippings)
  • A pitch with full coverage or close to full coverage of grass
  • Take your time
  • If the roller barrel is picking up clay, stop.
  • Observe the weather, know the time frame you have to work in.
  • Have someone assisting where possible

As with all pitch preparation, identify and string line the pitch that you are going to use. String line is pegging in and running builders string taught along the two length edges of the pitch. Do not attempt to blacken up a wicket that has poor grass coverage on your first go, and do not do this if you do not have grass clippings in large supply to ensure clay does not stick to the barrel (you can never have enough couch/rye grass clippings ready for use).

Even with a pitch that has full coverage, it is good practice to still clipper up the wicket with grass clippings. This helps to hide any blemishes that may appear after cutting the wicket and during the initial rolling where some areas maybe thinner with grass coverage than other. The clay will push through these areas and stick to the barrel which in turn creates low spots on the pitch. There is no harm in throwing clippings on the wicket all through the pitch preparation process (cleaning up clippings will be explained in another article).

If you have good grass coverage and are short of dry clippings, you can double cut the pitch in with your cylinder mower with the catcher off (depending on the normal height of your square, cutting it in at 8-10mm is the best option and gives you the opportunity to reassess after your first run). If you have clipped up the wicket as well, this also helps to give the pitch a cleaner look while also acting as your first light roll. Giving you a good indication of the moisture levels, if the pitch is too wet still to get the roller on or if it is just right. Remember, clay sticking to the cylinder mower is also bad, so stop and reassess.

Depending on your preference, there are a couple of preferred methods to blacken up a pitch. Either having the moisture level at the point where you continue to push moisture out of the clay profile and which each pass, the pitch colour darkens. Or to add moisture, so this would mean starting off with a tackier wicket, where the first pass might not change the colour that much or at all but giving the wicket a fizz (quick fan spray of water with the hose along the length of the wicket) and then rolling that new moisture in. You may need to do that several times to get the desired colour.

There is another option which is extremely messy and would not recommend doing, this is wetting the wicket down heavily while rolling it. Having been involved in a wicket
preparation like this in WA and trialling it myself, it is very unlikely to produce a good result. The pitch needs have excessive moisture right through the profile for it to work without creating a mess.

What roller do you use first? You may not have a light roller option or as written about above, use your cylinder mower for the first run. When blackening up with a light roller, it will take considerably more time. Wearing a flat sole shoe is a wise choice to ensure you don’t leave large indentations while walking the length of the pitch. The light roller is easier for doing your cross and angle rolling if you’re looking to work any undulations out. I would recommend using only the light roller any angle/cross rolling until you have your experience up on the medium/heavy roller (see Manuka Oval’s pictures below).

As with all rolling, you need to ensure you start on the edge of the pitch, do not go straight down the guts as when the pitch is too wet, and you need to get the roller off as fast as possible, you’ll be doing damage in the danger zone/corridor of play. In your first pass or set of rolls, observe the barrel of the roller and the pitch. On the barrel of the roller, it is key for moisture forming and grass clippings sticking but not clumping. It is fine for the whole barrel to be coated in clippings but if excessive clippings fall off as clumps, you need to remove them before continuing to roll.

If any areas that may have exposed clay or darkened in patches, this is when you will need to apply more clippings. If you know your pitch, you should be aware of areas to look out for. There are a couple of techniques commonly used when rolling they all pretty much do the job, it’s all about ensuring that pitch gets the same number of passes over it by the roller to ensure even compaction. .

rolling

The amount of rolling you do while blackening up is up to personal preference, the conditions and the overall pitch preparation time allowed. The pitch may have a heavy black look to it after a couple of passes, therefore you may do shorter periods, alternatively it may need a good 30 to 40-minute roll to really present that dark look. Creasing in the wicket during this process and the first days of rolling is an indication of the pitch compacting, this will roll out over the course of the preparation.

From here you continue with your standard rolling and cutting procedures, depending on the level of cricket, the overall pitch rolling time from start to finish is generally three to six hours over the course of two to four days before the first day of play as an idea but not a rule. Remember it is about what works for you to get the best result for your wicket and the game.

In finishing, the main forms of the game I would produce a wicket through the above method is for limited overs cricket, where it favours the batsman but you still are seeking pace, bounce & carry. This still allows reward for the bowler when they put the ball in the right area but also has high value for run scoring. I would also look at producing a similar style wicket for two day fixtures depending on the quality of outfield and weather.

Here is a fantastic set of photos from Bradley Van Dam at Manuka Oval that highlights the process along with some points;

  • This process is very dependent on timing, so part-time curators may find it difficult as they may miss the optimum conditions to roll or water
  • Best to have a full coverage of grass when trying for the first time.
  • Make sure you have good moisture in the soil profile before starting.
  • Always check weather before starting, due to the high moisture levels.
  • Where possible try and blacken the pitch early in the day, temperatures are cooler and humidity is higher. It can be difficult and problems arise when the temperatures are high and humidity is low.
  • Don’t try it a couple of days out from a match!
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The beginning process of rolling to blacken up a wicket. Each pass brings more colour to the surface.
  • The beginning process of rolling to blacken up a wicket. Each pass brings more colour to the surface.
  • You can always try light browning first, then progress through to blackening once your confidence and are getting an understanding of the process.
  • When rolling monitor the actual roller that will indicate when to water, once you see soil or clipping sticking to the roll, time to only light spray.
  • A good indication of the preparation has worked the roller is completely clean only with a bit of moisture on the barrel.

    img_20180306_2307351982301678.jpg
    Later stages of the process, with a shot of cross rolling involved. As the surfaces drys the colour of the wicket starts to change to that desirable look.
  • If there is a lot of grass it can up to 45min with a heavier roller and much longer with a light hand roller. We do cross roll sometimes when black but generally the pitch has a complete grass coverage, we do cross roll later in the process when still plasticine like.
  • Later stages of the process, with a shot of cross/angle rolling involved. As the surfaces dry’s the colour of the wicket starts to change to that desirable look.
  • Then we might medium brown the next day or two, then light brown. Each time mowing the pitch and dropping the height by a millimetre each time/ day. We pretty much try and shut the plant down to achieve the look.

When the desired result has been achieved, you will need to wait to seal roll. The signs when you are able seal the pitch is when you can press the pitch with your fingers. This drying time is situational may take a couple of hours or the next day.  The pitch should feel plasticine like with no moisture or wicket soil sticking to your fingers. Remember test the pitch in a few spots as it could dry process can be different due to various factors. The amount of rolling can be up to the curator but generally 6 passes is enough. You can give the pitch a light water straight after rolling this will release the grass and relieve some of the stress on it.

NOTE: If the pitch dries out too much before the sealing roll it is good to give it a water and wait till touch dry to roll.

Mankua Oval
Finished Product
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Published by Jack Flynn

Owner operator of The Perfect Pitch/The Perfect Cricket Pitch.

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