Cheltenham College - Gloucestershire cricket gets schooled

Jake Barrowin Schools & Colleges

Pitchcare visited the Cheltenham Cricket Festival at Cheltenham College, which annually serves as the home of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club. The trip treated Jake Barrow to beaming sun, heavy run-scoring, and the final sessions of a four-dayer that would be won or lost by whichever attack decided to throw caution to the wind.

All of this was held on the grounds of one the country's most exclusive educational institutions. At 176 years old, Cheltenham is something of a youngster by the standards of the public-school elite.

However, it was formed for partly military purposes, so inevitably drew the attention of the gentry early in its existence. This led to prosperity, and boarding being taken up by those who already had relatively strong educations. Quickly, it rose amongst the country's best-regarded schools. Most leavers now end up at Russell Group universities, with a number going on to Oxbridge.

It was a boys-only establishment for most of its history, but like many public schools opened its doors to girls at the end of the 20th Century (in this case 1981). When it did so, it also expanded its preparatory base to include 3-7 year-olds. This means it now educates co-educationally, right through from three to eighteen.

Within, lies an amusing story of mistake and amends. When the college's huge, grandiose chapel was originally built, it ran on a North-South bearing. This is not theologically appropriate in the traditions of the Church of England. Upon realising this, the constructors could see no other option than to simply build another chapel East-West, and they stand adjacent to each other to this day.

The smaller of the two is used as the dining hall, and was the original, whilst the larger is used for end-of-year ceremonies and large events, and it is used as the current chapel (due to its religious validity).

At over 140 years of age, Cheltenham is the world's oldest cricket festival. Over the years, it has been graced by true greats of the game, such as Muttiah Muralitharan, Wally Hammond, Allan Border, Courtney Walsh, and The Old Man himself, WG Grace.

Taking place every July, over a two-week period, it now features a selection of NatWest T20 Blast games for the locals to enjoy, in addition to traditional County Championship play.

This game was something of a local derby (perhaps what Gloucestershire consider their second rivalry, after that with West Country antagonists Somerset), against Worcestershire.

It was wonderfully poised when Pitchcare arrived on the scene, with both second innings still to be played on the final day, leaving the home side no choice but to bat hard to try to force at least some result.

Head of Grounds, Christian Brain

This encouraged glimmering cameos from Chris Dent and wicketkeeper-batsman Gareth Roderick, who each hit roughly run-a-ball knocks, with Dent aggressively taking his total to 135 before a lunch-time declaration with a barrage of slogged square cuts and pulls.

As dramatic as this was however, they were ironically left ruing the strength of their own top-order. Had they known just how well this partnership would pummel the cherry after they took to the field, they would have asked them to start this performance in the final session of day three.

An overnight declaration may well have given them enough time to put Worcestershire to bed, but the Rapids batted cleverly during day four's afternoon session, and by the hottest part of the day the draw was already a foregone conclusion.

Feelings of anti-climax and missed opportunity hit the spectators squarely - as square as one of Chris Dent's powerful efforts from the popping crease - and the press didn't go easy on the late declaration.

The BBC quoted The Rapids' Director of Cricket, Steve Rhodes: "Having another hour at us may be something they consider next time. If they had given us 70 overs to bat, we might have had a real problem hanging on for the draw."

In that set of interviews, there were also compliments of the surface, as from Gloucester's Head Coach, Richard Dawson: "If Worcestershire had got us three or four down early, they could have pushed for victory on a fast scoring ground. Chris Dent and Gareth Roderick made sure that wasn't the case."

Christian Brain, 34, is Head of Grounds at the college. And he's moved around a few times in his eighteen years of turfcare.

He started his career on the grounds of the Oxford University Press (OUP), having fallen into the industry through his involvement with youth cricket at Witney Mills and Shipton-under-Wychwood Cricket Clubs. He was introduced by the head groundsman of a rival cricket team, Dennis Harvey, who gave him the opportunity to try out some techniques.

So, seeing 'a couple of blokes doing a bit of mowing', he started to offer his hand helping with mowers, rollers and the like, and was unsurprised to find that he enjoyed himself.

This OUP stage of his life lasted for seven years. It was followed by a five-year turn as Grounds Assistant at Radley College, his first introduction to working on public school grounds.

He then realised he fancied aspects of managerial roles, and transferred to Cokethorpe School, his third consecutive Oxfordshire-based job. He got his first taste of people management here, being named Deputy Head Groundsman, which he took on for four years, eventually yearning for work elsewhere.

After a couple of short-term roles which weren't ideal, a Deputy's job came up at Cheltenham. He was promoted after about a year, due to the resignation of the previous Head of Grounds, and has been working in that capacity for another three. Although his history at the ground dates to his childhood in the Oxfordshire-Gloucestershire region.

Christian told us: "We used to be Gloucestershire members when I was a kid, and used to attend lots of the matches. And, of course, I came to Cheltenham Cricket Festival then. I remember coming out here and playing on the outfield at lunch times. And then when you get into groundsmanship, you remember these grounds and think 'Maybe one day…'. And that's worked out for me."

He runs a team of five additional staff of varying grounds ranks. Mike Broom oversees the prep school across the road, which is like the College Field in terms of size.

Reeves Field is down the road from the main site, and again spans around eight acres.

In September, much of each of the fields is converted to a rugby union pitch, and Christian tells me over time this is increasingly being allowed to include football on the same surfaces.

The field is not a frequent location for events, but this summer the college held an operatic show, which Christian attended. They put a stage in front of the main pavilion, which is a grand building by itself, and spectators set up deckchairs and picnic blankets on the outfield.

Singers that night were good, according to Christian, but the weather not so excellent. It grew exceptionally cold as the overcast skies moved in through the evening, resulting in a chilly and damp experience for all, if an entertaining one.

These all take place on a base soil he describes as very sandy loam. The natural drainage is excellent therefore, and they have very little cricket cancelled due to water on the ground. It had rained heavily the evening before this fourth day of the County Championship match, and by eleven o'clock that morning one couldn't tell it had done so.

Laid on the cricket squares is Surrey Loam. The main square is covered with Supernatural, Surrey's top-of-the-line topdressing option, the prep school having a coat of 125, and the rest lined with 75, which Christian describes as 'problem-free'.

The team cut their outfields to 12mm, with the squares at the same height, and the wickets themselves as low as 4mm. When these outfields are converted for rugby

wear-and-tear, they increase to a relatively hardy 35mm, which also prevents injury if the surfaces are especially hard after the summer heat.

This is not as much of a contrast between the sports as in the past, however. Christian tells us: "Rugby is a bit of a faster-paced game than it used to be. There was a time you would come to a rugby match and the grass would be up around your ankles."

"Now that they like to run a bit faster, we need to balance three things: the protection we give to the surface itself, the protection the extra grass allows the players to prevent injury, and keeping it short enough to allow play to be as fast as the players like it to be. And after the rugby finishes, we mow it down to about 25mm. That's partly for the different requirements they have for the football, but also just to keep it tidy. Then that goes back around to the start of the cricket cycle in April."

The college has its own vertidrain, which it uses with a combination of spikes. These vary from traditional vertidrain that can take them down to ten inches, through hollow-coring at least annually to break up compaction, right down to high-impact shockwave aeration.

They hire a SISIS TM1000 tractor-mounted scarifier from ListerWilder, which they use alongside a pedestrian SISIS 602 model they own. The college also owns a Charterhouse overseeder, which they use for their outfields with Limagrain MM60. They opted for a 2.7 tonne BOMAG for rolling, because it needs to be roadworthy enough to get between the three sites.

They also own a John Deere 4066R with a loader, which was bought brand new this year, and a 2520. And for mowing, they maintain a 7700 also by John Deere, and a 2653A triple mower for when some areas of the field are isolated for events or repair.

For irrigation, and this is one of Christian's main bugbears and desires for future improvement, they are limited to a few sprinklers connected to the mains water tap. This means that when this readily-draining, sandy turf dries out too much, the staff must often wait for rain to solve the problem with any efficiency.

Christian describes why he feels that this isn't too serious a problem: "It's a unique climate around here, because we're surrounded by the hills."

"Sometimes, when we have periods where it appears it's going to rain, it splits and goes around us. It also means we're shielded from wind, frost or anything else that's affect other people in the county. And yet, whilst Cheltenham's in a sort of bowl, we stay just as nice and breezy as anywhere else."

But he also affirms his desire to have the project undertaken: "Hopefully we'll be able to undertake the project at some point but it all comes down to budgets. The Estates Bursar, Kirk Steel is very supportive of helping me develop the grounds but I don't think the cost could be spread across years or anything like that."

"It's just one of these things you'll just have to plunge and do, because we'd have to invest in a big storage tank. I've identified an area where we could dig the massive hole, and then plumb a pipe circuit around it."

"The irrigation would have to feed directly off that circuit, so it is something they'd have to do all in one go. We'd be talking about maybe £15,000 worth of work to do."

"But then we could run the sprinklers off that. It'd give us lots more pressure, because you have a pump on that sort of device, and pressure's the thing that proves problematic now."

Asked about his job and the industry in which he works, Christian says: "I think there's always a lot of emphasis on the turf used in professional sports, and they get a lot of the attention. I don't mean this so much in the news press, but more so from industry bodies."

"I worry that these bodies have their 'in-group', which is all they look at, and don't worry so much about the young lads in here, for example. This means that they don't have the interest, the reasons to stay interested."

"I've got a couple of great lads who are probably going to be really good groundsmen, but because they're not involved with the professional side of things, they don't get the interest from above. I think helping them, and people like them, could be more of a priority for some board and bodies in the industry."

The main field is shared by Gloucestershire's younger age groups for their league matches. The main field's nets and Reeves Field are also used by Charlton Kings Cricket Club, who also use it for their youth cricket in the evenings.

This is one of many reasons the team's work is so on-display here. In addition to this, Christian says: "This field is the shop window to the college. Thousands of people see it every day, and thousands more when we have an event on."

"It's the most important thing for me; that it looks good for all the people who are assessing the place based on that impression. You try to make it look nice for them."

"Then there's the feedback element too. If you get compliments on the state of the place, then it's obvious you're doing something right. And we do get plenty of those."

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