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Cricket versus weather: How the sport is preparing for climate change

Sunlight, bad light, snow, sleet, hailstorms, ice, earthquakes, desert storms, excessive heat, fog, air pollution, too much rain, too little rain, and even solar eclipses have all halted cricket.

July 31, 2022 / 05:46 PM IST
In dry conditions, a sun-baked pitch crumbles quickly, resulting in variable bounce, making batting difficult as the match progresses. (Representational image: Ste Clayton via Unsplash)

In dry conditions, a sun-baked pitch crumbles quickly, resulting in variable bounce, making batting difficult as the match progresses. (Representational image: Ste Clayton via Unsplash)

In 2002, Melbourne hosted South Africa for three One-Day internationals (ODIs) in August, a month usually too cold for cricket in the Australia – though it was not the time of the year that made it a landmark moment in cricketing history. It was the first international matches played at the Docklands Stadium, an indoor venue.

Purists found cricket being played under a roof disconcerting, while ‘a few of the players acted much like charged particles would do in any confined space – taking a while to come fully to grips with the concept of playing under a roof – but they were soon bubbling away happily in their new surroundings’ (ESPNCricinfo).

Despite all that, the quality of cricket did not take a hit. And for the first time in history, cricket challenged its greatest adversary: weather. After centuries of matches being called off due to rain or even a wet outfield, the sport had finally come up with a solution.

Docklands hosted only 12 ODIs between 2000 and 2005/06, partly because the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in the same city, accommodates nearly twice as many people. However, the Docklands are the home venue of the Melbourne Renegades (the Melbourne Stars use the MCG).

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Indoor cricket has been tried out every now and then. Videos of Shahid Afridi hitting the roof of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff still do the rounds on YouTube. There will even be an Indoor Cricket World Cup in Australia this October. However, outside the Big Bash League (BBL), the concept is yet to find acceptance at the highest levels.

Cricket’s tussle with weather is as old as the sport. Few sports are as affected by rain as cricket. Football matches continue amidst moderate to heavy rain. Tennis is sometimes halted by rain, but play resumes immediately after the rain stops, and the match is played out in the entirety. There are examples from other sports as well.

Cricket is different. The most important part of a cricket ground is the pitch, which is significantly affected by weather. As we have discussed in this space, for a long time, cricket pitches used to be left uncovered during rain, and play resumed on wet pitches. They sometimes used to cover the run-up area, making it easy for the bowlers to find their footing while running in to bowl as the batters struggled on sticky, gluey surfaces.

All that changed once covering a pitch became the norm by the mid-1970s. But then, it is not just the rain that affects a pitch. In dry conditions, a sun-baked pitch crumbles quickly, resulting in variable bounce, making batting difficult as the match progresses. Cricket has traditionally used the heavy roller to address this. (Covering and rolling the pitch tilted the balance in favour of the batting side.)

However, while sunlight, bad light, snow, sleet, hailstorms, ice, earthquakes, desert storms, excessive heat, fog, air pollution, even solar eclipses have all halted cricket, rain has been the most consistent, most frequent offender.

The nature of cricket makes it difficult to grip a cricket ball properly, let alone play at competitive level, while it rains. As of 2022, the indoor stadia have come closest to addressing this. In other venues, the organisers aim to start the match as soon as possible. The biggest hurdles to this are the bowler’s run up and outfield. While most grounds cover the run ups (and apply sawdust for damp spots), the vast outfields pose a problem after heavy rain.

Cricket used to rely on ground staff, who worked tirelessly to clear water, almost always using archaic methods. Sometimes they found external help. At The Oval in 1968, England had taken five Australian wickets on the final day before a burst of torrential rain reduced the venue to a lake. Sensing a win, England captain Ray Illingworth sent a clarion call, and the fans responded by stepping out with mops and parts of their attire. Play eventually got underway with 75 minutes left; England won with six minutes to spare.

But that was an aberration. The ground staff had to depend on manual efforts for years. Sometimes they experimented with burning coals, coal-fired iron, or even lit full-scale fires to dry the pitch; or sources of wind, from helicopters to pedestal fans to hair dryers; and at the Queen’s Park Oval, they even used pitchforks to dig holes in the outfield to accelerate seepage.

As technology improved, the venues upgraded their drainage system. Most major English venues have replaced old-fashioned tarpaulin with hover covers. M Chinnaswamy Stadium uses subsurface aeration and a vacuum-powered drainage system. The sandy top layer of the Trent Bridge pitch helps in quick absorption of water. Handicapped by its clayey soil, the Eden Gardens has little option but to cover the entire ground – an enormous task given the size of the venue.

At least in major venues, cricket has managed to reach a stage where a match will be played if rain stops.

Unfortunately, rain is not the only weather component that halts cricket anymore. In 2016, Maharashtra were hit by a severe draught. Between them, Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur were scheduled to host 20 matches in that year’s IPL (Indian Premier League). Following a Bombay High Court verdict, all but one of these matches had to be shifted outside the state in order to prevent watering the pitch.

Some games were initially moved to Jaipur, resulting in an immediate PIL (public interest litigation) filed at the Rajasthan High Court – for Rajasthan, too, was combating a draught. Most of the matches were eventually shifted to Visakhapatnam.

Mumbai received very little rain in 2017 as well. This prevented the grass from growing and binding the soil, particularly in Matunga and Azad Maidan. There was not enough time to prepare proper pitches. Left with little option, the ground staff requested postponement of the first round of the Kanga League, Mumbai’s premier cricket tournament. It was almost ironic, since the tournament was played in the Bombay monsoon to help the cricketers get accustomed to difficult conditions.

Global warming, thus, forced cricket to migrate from ‘rain stopped play’ to ‘no rain stopped play’. As the global temperature keeps rising and heat waves spread across the world, excess heat and lack of rainfall are likely to be future hindrances to cricket.
Abhishek Mukherjee is an independent sports writer. Views expressed are personal.
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