Clackmannan County Cricket Club - The Wee County
Norman Robertson with Dennis FT610
Clackmannanshire is the smallest county in the UK and is often referred to as 'The Wee County'. Clackmannan County Cricket Club was established in 1868, making it one of the oldest cricket clubs in Scotland. During their long history, the club has played at a variety of venues, but the side now call The Arns, on the outskirts of the county town Alloa, home.
The Arns is where Lee Williams met up with three of the club's volunteers; Norman Robertson, who is the Ground Convenor, and helping him keep the ground in tip-top condition are George Hutchinson and Gordon Oliver. They are all long-serving members of the club.
George tells me there has not been a paid full-time groundsman since the 1950s. "Back then, we had two groundsmen. One of them would be a player or coach and would prepare the wicket for a Saturday's match. The other fellow would cut the outfield and work in the bar when required. We are now all amateurs who work together to keep the place tidy and provide the club with the best surface possible."
Norman first got involved with the club as a player in the 1970s and, one day, just decided to help out, and he enjoyed doing it. "My first spell here was for about eight years, but then I stopped as it clashed with work. After I left, the legendary David Henderson took over the maintenance of the ground. David, like George, was County Captain and vice president for many years. He was very passionate about the ground and, if you ever wanted to find him, more often than not he would be down here."
Gordon adds; "He was a history teacher at the local school, so everybody knew him. He was a well-known face in the town. He was a very nice guy."
Left: Gordon Oliver and George Hutchinson. Right: David Henderson
Norman had retired and had heard on the grapevine that David was not keeping very well and had throat cancer. "I thought I would go back to the club to find out if that was the case. I spoke to George, and he confirmed what I had heard. This meant that David was not able to carry out his work, so I thought I would go back to help out as it would fill up my time, put something back into the club and, just as important, keep me fit."
Whilst Norman was working on the pitch, David would be sat by the outfield, keeping an eye on proceedings. "I would always come across to him and say, what do you think? Could you cast your experienced eye over certain things, to help keep him motivated."
Whilst speaking with the guys, I could see they had a lot of respect for David and appreciated everything he did for the club. Unfortunately, three years ago, he lost his fight with cancer aged seventy years old.In David's memory, and for those past members and players who have also passed away, the club have built a memorial which has been named "Hendo Hill". "We built the memorial on the embankment, which is a popular place on a matchday to watch the games as it gives you quite a good view. It was opened for our first intra club match in August this year when we were able to play amongst ourselves after some of the COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted."
The club has minimal funds, so they do not have a set budget to work with and depend on those around them to help out. "If, for instance, a mower breaks down, Gordon has good contacts with people in Stirling who he will take it to and get it fixed. They also have the services of Raymond, who is the mechanic at the local golf club who is particularly good at fixing their vintage tractor and gang mowers.
"It is not a case of you have thousands of pounds to work on the ground and make sure you do not overspend it. If it is a case of needing some fertiliser, we have an account out with Allan Wright at Agrovista Amenity; the depot is local and ideal for us. It isn't a case of keeping it to a minimum; if we do need something on the ground and it is a low spend, we will get it done."
Gordon comments; "Over the years, we have just tried to be thrifty with the maintenance of the ground. We used to get the square scarified and treated at the end of the season by an outside contractor when we could afford that. Now it is carried out by Norman and anybody else who may want to come along and volunteer."
The club's most significant expense in recent years was the purchase of a new mower which cost them £5800. "It is a Dennis FT610 with changeable cassette options. It is absolutely superb and has made a world of difference out there on the square."
Norman depends on the help of grounds management books and Allan Wright when spotting disease and how to treat the problem. "We had a touch of red thread out there, but how did I know we had red thread? I have a disease identification book which had a picture of it which I keep in the back of my car; this gave me the details on the causes of the disease and how to cure it. I then went to Allan, told him I had red thread and that I believed I needed a fertiliser with a good load of nitrogen in it. So, he then provided me with the appropriate product, we applied it and, within a few weeks, it was gone."
To water the wicket a long stretch of hose is used which is attached to the mains outside the clubhouse. "We are able to spray the very last wicket on the square at a moderate pressure using a small sprinkler. But this is nothing like golf course irrigation, but you pay a lot of money for that privilege. There used to be a line out there at one time, but it was made redundant a long time ago, George adds."
The club does have a set of roll-on covers which they purchased six years ago, funded by a grant which one of the members managed to find. They also have a set of white run-up sheets and side sheets.
Whilst I was at the club, we were in the midst of Storm Francis, and we were experiencing some rather heavy rainfall. I was impressed at how well the ground was draining, especially when the soil profile of the outfield is predominantly heavy clay. "If this rain stopped right now, and we give it two hours, we would be able to play," comments Norman. "The reason for this is the club invested a substantial £90,000 around twelve years ago in installing a drainage system."
Gordon continues; "We found ourselves in a position where we just had to bite the bullet because, after this type of rain, it would have been like a lake for days. So, we got a grant from Sport Scotland, and then we had to find the other thirty percent of the cost. This meant we had to have a whip-round, and through our fantastic members and local companies around the county, we managed to get the money to do the work. It has been fantastic, until a couple of years ago when we started to see surface water lying for two to three days, and we got a wee bit concerned. To relieve the problem, we got the contractor in who installed the system. They came in and blew the pipes, and since then it has been okay."
The square was reconstructed twenty years ago using Boughton Loam. Norman talks me through his meticulous maintenance regime. "I target the second week in March, weather permitting, to start work as you can still get snow before then. Whether it is right or wrong, I will first go out with the rotary mower set quite high and take the top off for the first three cuts over two weeks. Then that becomes manageable for the Dennis and, if the weather is reasonable, I will set the height of cut to 16mm. I will take the top off again whilst, at the same time, giving the square a light roll. Gradually, I will lower the height of cut until I get to 12mm."
"My regime then turns to the scarifier, which is something very different from what was done previously. We have a Graden scarifier, which is a monster of a machine to use; it really works those upper arms when turning at the end of the square. I will use this once a month and, when you see the amount of thatch you take out, you realise it is well worth doing."
Norman is always learning by his mistakes and has adapted how he sets up a wicket. "What I used to do was put out my thin rope, get it all measured up and run my mower down the line at a lower height of cut than the rest of the square to define where the wicket is and take the rope away. This was fine until a few years ago when the wind picked up and blew the end of the rope into the cutting area, and it just caught the corner of the blade drawing the line into one side of the mower and damaged the bearing shell. This had to then go to Henderson Grass Machinery to be fixed, which came at a cost, but it was a lesson learned. So, what I do now is I put my two cords out, and I use white line marker and every six or seven yards I will put a dot. I then follow the dots with the Dennis, that way I can't do any damage."
"My first cut after putting the white lines out will be at 10mm, which gives a bit of distinction. Then, I will get the Graden out and scarify from the bottom crease to bottom crease as I like the bit where the bowlers plant their feet to be a little bit tighter. This has saved an awful lot of wear and tear on the square. As I am building this pitch up, I will use the scarifier twice. I will then reduce my height of cut gradually till I get to 6mm. In-between each cut, I will use the SISIS Lawn Rake, being mindful not to cut in too much, especially if the wicket is quite dry, as it could start to break up. Then, by the time I have finished preparing the wicket, the grass will be sat at the height of 4mm. Preparing a pitch to me is a minimum of ten days, and if you do it any less than that you will get heavy wear and tear on your square, and we do not want that."
Finally, it is down to Gordon's skilled hand and precise measurements to mark in the pitch ready for play.
The outfield is cut every Monday with a set of old gangs which have been set at the same height of cut for many years, and it can be challenging to adjust the cut. "You ideally need two of you to adjust the machine. One of us will pull the tractor forward, the other will take note of which gang needs adjusting, then we will take the tractor out of gear and tweak the nut. Then we will pull the tractor forward again, and ten times out of ten it will lock up and then we know we must take a wee bit more pressure off. By yourself, it is a process that is just too time-consuming."
Renovation of the square is carried out in house and can be a long-winded affair with just Norman, George and Gordon and the equipment they have available to them. "As I say, I have a regime with the scarifier which helps a lot and I try and do my wicket repairs one at a time. Whereas in the past I may have repaired them all at the one time towards the back end of the season, but I found it to be very time consuming and doesn't give you a good deal of flexibility. The benefit of spending a minimum of ten days on the wickets is the wear and tear is very slight."
"Even with the amount of scarifying and repair work I do during the season, we will still renovate the square. It will be cut to a reasonable height for the winter, scarified with the Graden and the debris 'hoovered' up with the rotary as I don't want any old cuts on the grass, or it will go yellow. Then
I go back up and down with the Dennis, so everything is looking pretty. Then we will hollow core the surface with a tiner we hire from a local firm, tidy up the cores and topdress with forty to fifty bags of Boughton Loam."
George was keen to point out that he feels the club is very lucky to have such dedicated volunteers at the club who do everything with pride and, without them, there would be no cricket being played at the weekend for all to enjoy. I could not agree more and hats off to all the volunteers around the British Isles who tirelessly give up their time for their sports clubs they love, and long may it continue.