Healthy grass plants with deep roots are less susceptible to drought, are able to access more nutrient resources within the soil and can help dry the pitch to a greater depth. Shallow rooting in cricket pitches occurs for two reasons:
1. As the grass is cut shorter the plant responds by reducing rooting depth.
2. As the soil is compacted it becomes harder for the roots to grow through the soil.
The first cause cannot be solved by aeration, it is just a case of allowing grasses to be longer when pitches are not in preparation for play and even longer over winter to encourage deeper rooting. The second cause is related to rolling and compaction. Figure 5 shows the results of an experiment at Cranfield University that looked at grass growth in a cricket loam packed at 1.20, 1.55 and 1.90 g/cm3. These densities represent a pitch that hasn’t been rolled, a typical club pitch situation and a first class pitch density respectively. Soil density affects ball bounce – the more dense the pitch, the less likely it is to deform – see the relationship between pitch profile and ball bounce
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Figure 5 The effect of soil dry bulk density (1.20 - relatively loose, poorly compacted cricket pitch; 1.55 - a well prepared club pitch; & 1.90 g/cm3 - extremely dense, 1st class cricket pitch) on grass root density. Increasing soil dry bulk has a minor effect on the total root density over the whole profile but has a large effect on the distribution of roots. Increasing soil density through compaction results in more shallow roots, particularly at 1.90 g/cm3. This results in a grass plant that is extracting water and nutrients from a smaller volume, making it susceptible to nutrient and drought stress.
The total mass of roots in the soil is actually similar it is the depth of rooting that decreases with increasing soil density. Grass roots will grow and establish in a high density (1.90 g/cm3) soil, it is just that they are all in the top 75 mm of the profile. Near-surface roots dominate at lower densities but the quantity of roots at depth increases as the soil bulk density decreases. In high density soils the plant cannot physically break through to lower depths so it increases near-surface rooting to compensate.
This has an interesting effect on density. Figure 6 shows how at 1.20 g/cm3 the original packing density is not affected. At 1.55 g/cm3 original density there is some reduction of density near surface but at 1.9 g/cm3 there is a significant reduction in density near the surface where the roots can exploit any soil porosity and reduce soil density. Immediately this creates a 50 mm layer of lower density soil over a higher density base (>100 mm).
Figure 6 The effect of grass root growth on soil dry bulk density. The dashed lines represent the initial dry bulk density condition with profiles packed at 1.20, 1.55 and 1.90 g/cm3. After seven months of plant growth (October 2010 to June 2011), the soil density is not changed significantly at 1.20 g/cm3 (relatively loose, poorly compacted cricket pitch) where roots are able to grow freely (see Figure 5). At 1.55 g/cm3 (a well prepared club pitch) a small, near-surface reduction in soil density takes place. At 1.90 g/cm3 (extremely dense, 1st class cricket pitch) the shallow rooting observed in Figure 5 reduces soil dry bulk density significantly. This is because the roots loosen and replace the soil.
Shallow rooting is easily identified in a core. If you look at the bottom of the core and can see live roots (live roots are usually light in colour and are flexible), then you have roots to that depth. Start to break the core up from the base and you will see where the root network extends to. Good quality pitches will have a root depth in excess of 125 mm. If your roots are limited to the top 50 mm then aeration could be helpful in increasing rooting depth – this is discussed further in the Aerating Cricket Pitches section.
Shallow rooting is related to two further problems – root breaks and thatch.
Thatch is the accumulation of slowly decomposing grass organic matter near the surface of the pitch. A small amount of thatch can be beneficial on outfields because it helps cushion players but on a pitch it makes ball bounce low and slow because it is highly compressible – meaning that more ball energy is absorbed on impact, reducing the bounce.
When the pitch is cut, the majority of organic matter is removed as clippings but more woody parts of the plant including stolons, crowns and roots and any leaf matter buried in topdressing will be incorporated into the surface and break down. The rate of breakdown is slow because microbial activity is low due to the lack of oxygen and the chemical suppression of earthworms. Active soil microbial biomass in the cricket pitches in our research was only 100-300 μg/g of soil. This is less than the 300-400 μg/g measured in golf greens and 700 μg/g measured in golf fairways due to the high density compacted nature of cricket pitches. Outfields are expected to be similar to golf fairways in their microbial activity but the low biomass in cricket pitches means that there are less microbes to feed on the plant organic matter meaning that it accumulates faster than it breaks down, leading to the build-up of thatch.
Thatch build-up limits pitch performance. Work by Martin Ford for the ECB and IOG investigating the performance quality standards of premier league cricket clubs has shown that thatch control is limiting performance in the majority of pitches.
The removal of thatch requires specific treatments that are discussed in ‘Aerating Cricket Pitches’ below.
More information on root breaks is available here.
Return to: STAGE 3: PROBLEM IDENTIFICATION
 Bartlett MD, James IT, Harris JA, Ritz, K (2008). Size and phenotypic structure of microbial communities within soil profiles in relation to different playing areas on a UK golf course. European Journal of Soil Science, 59:835-227.