Building new ground on old foundations

Jonathan Blakemanin Cricket

In June 2013, Maxwell Amenity's Mark Allen visited me at the then Portland Pavilion to pen an article while I was preparing the greens for the British Crown Green Senior Individual Merit (Issue 50 - All England Bowls - No Place For The Old). It coincided with an announcement by the landowners Persimmon Homes that Warwickshire County Cricket Club intended to purchase the site as an academy outground which, amongst other fixtures, would host county 2nd XI cricket.

The sports and social club closed its doors in January 2014 and work started on what would eventually become Edgbaston Foundation Sports Ground - named after the club's charitable arm. The ECB approved pavilion was completed in the November and I secured a job role in January 2015 as a Sports Development Officer.

The ten-wicket cricket square was a new construction laid in March 2014 by Steven Pask Limited. A four inch depth of Binders Ongar Loam Plus™ was used, along with R9 seed to match the specification at the main Edgbaston Stadium. We often have to correct visitors who make reference to the square being the 'old slow and low M&B square' and explain that this was a brand new construction. The original cricket square (laid in c.1929) was dug out at the end of the 1994 season when Mitchells & Butlers CC resigned from the Birmingham & District Cricket League. We know that all eighteen inches (depth) of loam was removed and have the photos to prove it thanks to a very informative collection lent to us by former head groundsman Neville Hughes. The cricket square accounted for a fair chunk of a £50,000 Sport England grant, but there was still enough in the pot for remediation works to be undertaken on the outfield. This included scarifying with an Amazone Groundkeeper, deep slitting courtesy of a Blec Groundbreaker, vertidraining, some levelling and overseeding.

Left: Site Manager Jonathan Blakeman. Right: Head Groundsman Rob Franklin

Following the demolition of the boxing club, squash courts and a spectator stand, waterlogging started to occur on the eastern side of the outfield. Ground Water Dynamics were called in and installed their patented energy-passive groundwater recharge pump vertical drainage system. Some 200 bore holes were drilled to varying depths of 20-40 feet for the EGRP devices. Although the system is vertical, the result is lateral drainage via a combination of hydrostatic pressure, a mild vacuum and gravity. Ground Water Dynamics installed the same system to the Number 1 practice area at Edgbaston Stadium in April 2013 with impressive results.

Section 106 funding enabled us to have an artificial triple bay net facility installed by Dura-Sport in May 2015. The 40 metre long practice pitches incorporated the ECB approved Dsi-pro Cricket System and was the first site in the UK to receive Dura-Sport's enhanced i-weave cricket surface.

First use of the square took place in 2015. Thirteen junior and women's fixtures gave us an opportunity to see how the new wickets played. With consistent bounce, carry and positive feedback a full fixture list was formulated for 2016. That saw the programme increase to forty-two days of cricket, which included five 3-day 2nd XI fixtures. The 2nd XI returned last season for the same amount of games as part of a forty-three day fixture programme and 2018 is again packed out. In addition to the county 2nd XI, the club's Academy and Emerging Player Programme squads use the facilities weekly for training sessions and we are the home venue for Warwickshire Women. The 1st XI have trained here when Edgbaston hosts a test match, and also last season during the ICC Champions Trophy.

Cricket square construction - 24th March 2014 / The EGRP system accelerates the soils ability to absorb water

The square was extended to twelve wickets in October 2017 with Fineturf Ltd laying the additional two strips. The loam used remains unchanged, two thirds Ongar Loam amalgamated with one third Super Surrey Loam. Germination started after ten days (12th Oct), with full coverage achieved after twenty-five days. It is hoped these can accommodate some junior fixtures in 2019.

We have one full time head groundsman in Rob Franklin who is in his 49th season with Warwickshire County Cricket Club. Until 2014, he was based at Edgbaston Cricket Ground which included a period as head groundsman between 1984 and 1991.

In terms of pitch preparation, Rob starts pre-season rolling in February, if weather allows, with an Allett Regal 36" weighing just over ⅓ tonne, slowly increasing in weight to ½ tonne with bags of loam before switching to an unballasted Auto-Roller (1.7 tonne). The Auto-Roller is one of the originals manufactured by T.H.White and is thought to be over fifty years old. In 2003, Autoguide Equipment fitted the re-power kit, so it does have power steering and an ignition start.

Our first fixtures usually fall mid-April and Rob will start preparing the wicket ten to fourteen days prior. The final height of cut ranges from 6.5-7.5mm with two cutting options - either an Allett Shaver or Dennis FT510. As we move into the summer months, irrigation and covering up play an important part. Above 18 degrees the wickets start to dry out quite quickly and often the roll on covers or sheets are utilised to retain or create some moisture.

In the Cape Hill Brewery days, artesian well water was available from one of three pumping stations. The wells were capped when the brewery closed in 2002 and we now irrigate off a 10,000 litre water tank and pump system which is attached to the main pavilion. It delivers fifteen gallons a minute and can last for up to two and a half hours before a full switch off for refilling. The drainage here is impressive and was almost certainly installed as a field tile system using clay pipes in 1929 prior to Mitchells & Butlers opening the ground in 1930.

The 40 metre long practice pitches incorporated the ECB approved Dsi-pro Cricket System / Extending the square - 28th September 2017 / Two thirds Ongar Loam amalgamated with one third Super Surrey Loam

Furthermore, when the original cricket square was dug up in 1994, we have photos showing a more modern day perforated plastic pipe system being laid above the original drainage as part of a full size football pitch construction. It's fair to say Mother Nature rarely wins here. I've witnessed a storm where 30mm of rain fell in the space of forty-five minutes at 4:35pm. The ground was flooded up to 100mm in some parts yet the crown green bowls fixtures went ahead as scheduled at 7:00pm and, the following day, our 2nd XI cricket fixture against Yorkshire CCC started on time. It's approaching eight years since a bowls fixture was cancelled here due to rain.

On both the square and the outfield worms are a problem. Until its revocation, we were still using carbendazim. The industry is continually changing and you can no longer depend on a bottle to rid the various pests and diseases. I've got brewery magazines from the 1950s showing that lead arsenate was used here for both worms and leatherjackets. It's almost certain that chlordane was relied on before its ban in 1992. Who knows what the future holds in that respect but, for now, we depend entirely on more cultural methods.

We don't always get what we want in terms of machinery, but there's still a huge advantage in that we are the official county owned outground and benefit from their equipment. An Iseki tractor is due for delivery this month and that will, quite literally, increase the manpower and be a godsend for moving sheets, covers, sightscreens and materials.

The head groundsman at Edgbaston Stadium, Gary Barwell, arranges for any spraying to be undertaken by Steve Loveridge of Complete Weed Control and end of season vertidraining of the cricket square and outfield by Keith Exton.

27th October 2017 - 25 days post completion

End of season renovations are completed in-house, starting with three scarification passes with a Graden GS04, each of which are cleaned up using a Sisis Auto-Rotorake Mk4. Overseeding is completed with a Blec Uni-Seeder in two to three directions. The square is topdressed by hand with four to five tonnes of loam matching that of the original construction. Finally a granular 8:12:8 pre-seeder feed is applied. Gary selects any granular nutrition and this autumn opted for ICL's Sierraform GT K-Step 6:0:27. The outfield receives one slow release feed a year. In 2017, this was in the form of a 15:0:25, giving a twenty to twenty-four week temperature controlled release pattern.

Any thatch or rootzone removed during renovations do not go to waste, be that from the cricket square or bowling greens. Sections of the ground remain undeveloped and this includes part of the footprint from the original sports and social club.

In 2016, we decided to trial a wildflower mixture on what was effectively crushed building demolition material. We opted for Limagrain's CS6 Biodiversity mixture, but the annuals, bi-annuals and perennials struggled due to the absence of any soil or organic matter. Come the end of season renovation in 2016, we recycled what was removed from the cricket and bowls scarification and this produced much improved results in 2017. Last year we went one step further and utilised the 51 tonnes of soil excavated for the new cricket wickets, spreading it over the wildflower area. Fingers are crossed for even better results in 2018.

A deluge on 8th June 2016 ... ... but fixtures went ahead as planned

The wildflower area may only be temporary, but is our contribution to biodiversity. After all, we are surrounded by land owned by the Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trust, including the nearby Deers Leap Wood Nature Reserve.

I keep in contact with Paul Stephenson who is the Trust's senior ecologist. This is a healthy relationship, not just for the environmental aspect but also shared communication on site security.

We have a picturesque surrounding in summer and, despite our close proximity to Birmingham city centre, the wildlife is abundant. None more so than some thirty species of birds, including great spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, bullfinch, chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, song thrush, mistle thrush, fieldfare, redwing, nuthatch, goldcrest, pied wagtail, long tailed tit, wheatear, dunnock and the local predators sparrowhawks and buzzards to name a few!

The Limagrain CS6 biodiversity mix yielded improved results in 2017 / The CS6 mix is designed to attract butterflies, pollinating insects along with small invertebrate or vertebrate fauna

Elsewhere on the ground the former grass tennis courts have, in recent years, been utilised as a 60 x 40 yards junior football pitch. The last couple of seasons, we have doubled this facility up as a cricket training area and have thought about the long term possibility of it becoming grass wickets to sit alongside the artificial nets. The area would be sufficient to provide numerous practice strips along with long run-ups and space for wicketkeepers.

In a few years time, when the 'Number 1' practice area at Edgbaston is eventually redeveloped, we have the potential to house the marquee structure they have in place for winter nets….. a pipedream maybe or even a case of be careful what you wish for!

The two bowling greens are used by Mitchells & Butlers B.C. (Est.1903) and Broomfield B.C. (Est.1898) and have been in use since the ground opened in August 1930. The area equates to about half a hectare and is maintained by volunteers from the 100 or so combined membership.

The greens host around 176 home fixtures a season and form the majority of our community use on site, welcoming eighty to ninety visiting clubs a season. Some fifty external events and competitions have been held here since 2010, including the 2011 Midland Masters, 2013 All England and, for the first time in thirty-one years, a BCGBA county match in 2016. The clubs are working towards a longer lease agreement with Section 106 funding allocated to the ground specifically for bowling facilities. It is hoped part of the £96,600 sum will provide much needed pavilion space and further toilet facilities.

The square is topdressed by hand / General view of the Broomfield Bowling Club green

The greens were deep spiked for the first time in 2015 with a Wiedenmann Terra Spike XD6 by Fineturf (12mm tines/220mm depth) and in 2016 by ALS (19mm tines/200mm depth). This has vastly improved root mass and length having previously struggled with bridged and lateral rooting and a root break at 75mm. Limagrain's MM9 100% bent seed mixture was trialed in 2016 and MM10 and MM11 last October to continue to introduce various bent and fescue cultivars and dilute the poa population. ICL fertilisers are opted for including Sierraform GT 16:0:16 in spring, Greenmaster NK 10:0:10 liquid in the summer and Greenmaster Pro-Lite 6:5:11 +Mg in autumn.

Plans for the future will depend on the company's master plan for Edgbaston. First class cricket could return here when the new T20 competition goes ahead in the summer of 2020. Each first class county stands to receive £1.3 million from the ECB. It is my understanding that some of this will be earmarked for county outgrounds in order to bring them up to spec for hosting first class cricket. Let's wait and see, but add that possibility to Sport England grants, Section 106 money and further funding and we could end up with a top quality facility.

A match day roll and marking out

For me personally my role is varied, never boring and I love the outdoor aspect. It includes some assistance to the head groundsman but, at present, is predominantly a site management position coordinating all use on the ground, developing the bowling clubs and working with the local community.

I'm approaching completion of my first amenity based qualification - a Level 2 City & Guilds Extended Certificate in Sports & Amenity Turf Maintenance. I think the academic side is good timing for me as the industry starts to rely more on its cultural methods and preventative maintenance.

Everything has come full circle since 1999 when my work experience aged fourteen was spent on the Edgbaston groundstaff. Those two weeks included the test match against New Zealand and my heart was set on following that career path. I wrote to the club aged sixteen in the hope of a job opportunity, but to no avail. My father was a groundsman at Aston Villa Football Club between 1977 and 1983 and has now been in the amenity sector some forty years, but at the time he insisted he was lucky and advised me to follow a different path. Now, here I am nineteen years later working for another one of the Midlands top sporting outfits in Warwickshire County Cricket Club in what could turn out to be one of their exciting periods. Maybe, just maybe, fate has dealt me the same lucky hand.

Edgbaston Foundation Sports Ground - Years gone by at Portland Road

The 29th March 2018 marked fifty years since Mitchells & Butlers Grounds Superintendent George T Gurley retired after over thirty years with the company. Much has changed since those times when, as part of his position, George and his family also occupied a house on the sports ground which is now under private ownership.

He was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of all of the sports grounds and gardens attached to M&B. In 1955, this included four cricket grounds, two full sized football pitches, twelve tennis courts, 140 bowling greens along with a nursery which grew flowers and 70,000 bedding plants for the company's public houses.

The grounds historic sporting use is still evident if you look closely enough. The tennis court line markings are still visible if photographed from above - probably as a result of the now banned paint formulations. The floodlit third bowling green has been out of use since 1996 but is still cut once a week in the season at 15mm and provides a recreation area. Half of the top tier is currently undeveloped, but its former uses include a boxing club, squash courts, gymnasium and a grassed pitch and putt facility.

In years gone by the sports grounds car park was lined with rose gardens

Timeline - A rich history at Portland Road

• 1911 - Mitchells & Butlers purchase the land as Cape Hill Brewery expands to ninety acres

• 1930 - Official opening of the M&B Portland Road Sports Ground by Sir William Waters Butler

• 1931 - Hosts its first 1st class cricket fixture: Warwickshire CCC v Kent CCC

• 1940-1945 - The ground is requisitioned by the government during World War 2. Sporting activities revert to the oval cricket ground known as Kelvin Drive within the brewery

• 1954 - M&B CC win the Birmingham & District Cricket League for the 10th and final time

• 1955 - Addition of a pitch and putt golf facility on the top tier of the ground

• 1959 - Former M&B player Jack Bannister takes 10-41 for Warwickshire, to this day the club's record first class bowling figures

• 1961 - Last time a first class cricket fixture took place: Warwickshire CCC v Cambridge University

• 1973 - Squash courts are added

• 1983 - A 17-year old Graeme Hick makes his debut in this country playing for Zimbabwe

• 1990 - M&B CC 2nd XI win the Birmingham & District Cricket League for the 22nd and final time

• 1994 - M&B CC resign from the league and the cricket square is replaced with a full size football pitch

• 1996 - Final year for the floodlit bowling green which is replaced by a children's play area

• 2002 - Cape Hill Brewery ceases operations, the sports club survives as 'Portland Pavilion'

• 2013 - Planning permission is passed for Warwickshire County Cricket Club to develop the facility into a cricket ground whilst retaining bowls and junior football facilities

• 2015 - Ian Bell MBE officially opens the Edgbaston Foundation Sports Ground

• 2016 - Warwickshire CCC 2nd XI play at the ground for the first time since 1977