WTC final pitch: Curator aims for 'pace, bounce and carry'

Groundsman Simon Lee at the Ageas Bowl Getty Images

Not for the first time has he become the centre of attention instantly. Striding alongside his master Simon Lee, who is the head groundsman at Hampshire, he even attracted whistles from some in the Indian contingent, who were holed up in their rooms overlooking the ground for the first few days upon arrival in England on June 3.

As Lee lapped the ground which will host the inaugural World Test Championship final from June 18, India head coach Ravi Shastri asked him who it was running alongside him. His name is Winston, Lee told Shastri. Winston is a redhead cocker spaniel, under three years old and, as Lee says, "a people dog".

"Me and Winston normally do a lap of the main ground before work, so I can check on everything before we start the day, and the India team saw him from their hotel room balconies while they were in quarantine on arrival to the UK," Lee tells ESPNcricinfo. "He was getting whistles from some of them and Ravi Shastri called down and asked what his name was. Over the next couple of mornings you could hear 'Winston' being called out, which was pretty cool."

Winston can be a happy distraction, but the pitch that Lee prepares will be the centrepiece for the marquee event that will pit the top two teams in Test cricket - New Zealand and India - against each other. Lee admits it is a big challenge, but he is up for it.

"Having the WTC final here at the Ageas Bowl is pretty massive, obviously without the current world situation with the pandemic, it wouldn't have been here, so I feel lucky to have the chance to produce a pitch for potentially the biggest game of Test cricket ever staged. It's a huge opportunity."

Lee spent nearly two decades at Somerset, till late 2019, where he climbed the ranks from an apprentice to the head groundsman. During his time there, Lee won the ECB's Groundsman of the Year for one-day cricket three times. Attracted by the challenge of making pitches for international cricket, he accepted the Hampshire opportunity.

Lee was immediately presented with a lot of work. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the ECB had endeavoured to host West Indies, Pakistan and Australia during the 2020 summer and Southampton, which has an on-site hotel, hosted three Tests, three ODIs and three T20Is. While the last two Tests of the Pakistan series ended in a draw, the first one the ground hosted was a thriller clinched by West Indies on the fifth afternoon, after the first day was rained out.

"That first Test pitch for England vs West Indies last July was my first real pitch I prepared on the square here, it was a complete leap into the unknown, as I simply didn't know how the square would react to my preparation methods," Lee says. While Taunton was like, in his own words, the "back of my hand", Lee was working out the little quirks at the Ageas Bowl during the winter before he and his deputy Tom Cowley started talking about making pitches for the 2020 season.

Lee says one advantage was both the loam (ground soil) as well as the climate in Taunton and Southampton - both are in southern England - are similar. But he had to learn to make these pitches and adapt to the new conditions during the international series.

"Throughout last summer I was learning so much in a really intense period, all in the public eye on TV with all the pressures that can bring, and no room for errors. That first Test was a little nervous in the build-up, but once it started, I loved it, and it quickly becomes a very normal thing to do."

Lee says that it was late last year when both he and Cowley "privately" spoke about the potential of Southampton hosting the WTC final. But it was only at the end of May that the pair started to roll out practice pitches in the nursery ground outside of the main ground.

"You can't rush anything when it comes to the work of pitch preparation - that didn't start until the end of May, after some very wet weather moved away from the UK, when we started getting the practice pitches rolled out on the nursey ground for India. And the Test pitch has been started a little time after that as you like to not over-prepare it, getting it ready just in time would be ideal."

While India have lost both the Tests they have played at the venue (2014 and 2018), New Zealand will be playing their maiden Test in Southampton.

"Pitch preparation for this Test is a little simpler as we are a neutral venue, we are guided by the ICC, but we all want is a good pitch that offers an even contest between the teams."

Lee doesn't deal with cliches when asked about the kind of pitch he desires for the final. "For me personally I just want to get something out that has some pace, bounce and carry in the pitch. It can be a hard thing to do in England as the weather doesn't help us most of the time, but the forecast in the build-up is good with a lot of sun, so we are hopeful that we'll get some pace and a hard pitch without over-rolling it and killing it.

"Pace just makes red-ball cricket exciting, I'm a cricket fan and I want to produce a pitch where the cricket lovers have to watch every ball in case they miss something, be that some class batting or an amazing spell of bowling. A maiden over can be quite exciting if it's a battle of skill between both bowler and batter. So, yeah, if we can get some pace and bounce in the pitch, but not too one-sided towards seam movement, we'll be happy."

Currently, the forecast for match days of the final is predicted to be around 20 degrees Celsius with faint showers. Lee believes spin has the potential to become a key factor too, if the conditions remain mostly dry and the match extends to the final two days.

"As I said, the forecast is looking okay, the pitches dry out very quickly here as we do have some sand mixed into our cricket loam, which helped it hold together when the pitches were re-laid some 10 years ago, but it can help it spin as well. To get to that point we'll need the seamers to bowl, some runs scored, and make some rough along the way. The pitch will always get talked about a lot, but you need the players to play their part to make a good game, so if we produce a pitch that allows the players to show their skills at the top level and we have an entertaining game for the fans, we will be more than satisfied."

And what about Winston? Does he have ICC accreditation too? "Haha! Winston is so famous after last year's international games in the bubble that he doesn't need a pass now, everyone knows who he is and they always ask where or how he is here at work before any real work happens," Lee says. "He is very much a people dog, always looking for a cuddle or a ball thrown for him to run after, so he is loving seeing more people about the ground as we get busier in the build-up to the WTC final. With the Covid-19 protocols around for these games, you can't get too close, so seeing a wiggly bouncy cocker spaniel from a hotel room is a nice tonic to those strict rules I'd say."