Getting into the swing at Somerset CCC

Laurence Gale MScin Cricket

"I hear a lot about rest and recuperation for the players, but the same is true for the grass and I make this point often to the players and coaches"

The county cricket ground at Taunton has seen some changes in recent years. New stands have increased the capacity to just short of 9,000 and the Andy Caddick Pavilion now offers a degree of player comfort befitting the stars of the modern game.

Taunton also bucks the 'one man and his dog' trend when it comes to County Championship matches, with more spectators per game than most other counties can muster between them.

It is the locals fondness and support for cricket in general that prompted the ECB to make the ground the home of England Women's cricket from 2006 to 2012, where the ladies have always been afforded the best crowds away from Lord's.

On the field of play, Somerset have been successful in the various one-day formats of the game although, in recent years, they have been the eternal runners-up.

They have competed in the County Championship since 1891, but have never won it. It is this title that the club most covet, and their much heralded 'batting tracks' have been seen by the club's hierarchy as part of the reason why they have not yet got over the line, although they did come close in 2010, and again in 2012 when they finished in second place after a tense round of final matches, being pipped by Warwickshire on the final day of the season.

It is this quest that led to some major changes a few years ago which saw long-standing head groundsman, Phil Frost, leave his position.

Ready to step up to the crease was Simon Lee, who had worked under Phil for the previous eight years.

"I originally came to the club in 1999," stated Simon, "on a twenty-four week work placement whilst completing my National Diploma in Horticulture at Bicton College in Devon. Two years later, I was invited to join the full-time staff here, so they must have seen something in me."

Taking over the senior position in 2009, Simon was charged with making the tracks more bowler friendly so that more results could be achieved in the four-day game.

"It's always historically been a flat track here," said Simon. "I think it stems from the square being rolled to death in the seventies and eighties, and that compaction never really leaves the ground. Couple that with a make up of marl and Mendip loam, and it's always going to struggle."

"It wasn't until Phil came here and changed over to Ongar loam that improvements were seen. Even now the natural make up of the soil makes it difficult to achieve what the club want."

"But we are working with what we've got. I've cut the rolling by at least seventy-five percent. At this time of year [April], that will be three hours tops. Come July, when the pitches are hard, they will only be rolled for an hour max."

"We relaid two pitches - one in 2007 and one in 2010 - digging down to three inches and rebuilding with Ongar but, to be perfectly honest and because of the underlying soil, they are not much better. Going forward, I'd rather work with what I've got than change any further pitches."

"I now also leave the grass exposed to the elements, rather than put the covers on. This has, in my opinion, made it more 'natural' rather than being in a forced environment. Coupled with spraying Renova amino acid every two weeks to strengthen the plant and the soil, I can now retain grass cover right up to the end of the season."

"Another thing I've done," continued Simon, "is to vertidrain the square every November. We first did this in 2010 and, just six days later, it snowed and didn't thaw until early January. When I went to sort out the holes for the stump cameras, I was amazed to find two inches of root growth! By the time the season started, I had five inches and was, therefore, able to provide the pace and bounce the players had been yearning for."

Simon's end of season renovations on the square are centred around a robust scarification, with several passes to clean out lateral growth and organic matter. It is then cleaned up and topdressed with nine bags of Ongar loam per wicket before being oversown, using a Sisis Autoseeder, with Johnsons Premier wicket seed mix, along with an autumn fertiliser.

Taunton's square consists of thirty pitches; ten used for nets and twenty for matches, of which eleven are used for first class fixtures. "At the request of the Director of Cricket, we have been adding Mendip loam on a length to try and create a bit of turn for the spinners," explained Simon. "It has always been a criticism by the players that the wickets do not deteriorate, so he wanted to try this method. To be fair, it has worked to some extent, probably because it doesn't bind with the Ongar too well. We did it for two years at the end of each season, although we've cut back now as I think there's enough already on there."

Simon's soft west country brogue belies an inner determination, and this is borne out when he is systematically interrupted by a mower being driven out of the shed, a fire alarm test (plus apology for the noise) and being pestered by a particularly large bee which he eventually shoos out of the window, all the while continuing to discuss his working methods.

"We are now producing result wickets," said Simon proudly. "In truth though, they are not offering massive turn, seam or bounce, but visiting teams used to come here expecting everything to be gun barrel straight, so even the slightest bit of movement sows the seeds of doubt in the opposition batsmen's mind."

"We now have a very good relationship with our players, and I think the work myself and the staff have done has given them the confidence to go out and take twenty wickets. And I value their opinion. They may not understand groundsmanship, but they are the ones playing on it, so I have to take on board what they say. It's all about working together. After all, I am employed by the club, so it's up to me to try and provide what they want."

Simon goes on to explain that he now cuts the square in the winter with his 36" Paladin cylinder mower. "We used to use a Flymo rotary, but I felt this tore the new grass so, by using the Paladin, I'm actually strengthening the grass even more."

Apart from continuing the spraying regime through the winter, there is little else Simon needs to do to the square and, as he points out, it is now fending for itself very well.

"This winter has been difficult though," bemoaned Simon. "The ground was either under water or frozen solid. We only managed one cut of the outfield!"

"As for other winter work, we have been busy relevelling an area of the bowlers' run ups which, over the years had built up to form a fairly steep slope up to the square. This led to run off problems with the covers, with the water sitting about six feet from the square."

"So, we stripped off the old turf, power harrowed and readjusted the levels with a 70/30 rootzone that was compatible with the existing soils, and then reseeded with Johnsons Court."

"The new seed soon germinated and began to grow, but rooting remained shallow because of the weather and, even after several attempts to oversow with more seed, there was no improvement. I was concerned that it might be too soft come the playing season so, in February, after taking the advice of Martin Townsend at Severn Amenity Services, I took the decision to returf using Hewlett Turf's big roll lockturf."

Gartells, a local contractor, carried out the groundwork, providing a temporary trackway to gain access across the outfield. Hewlett Turf completed the work within a week, laying over five hundred square metres of turf.

"The result has been an instantly firm outfield," said a relieved Simon, "which, effectively, got a further four weeks to grow in before the first game."

"As for the yellowed turf under the trackway, we overseeded and spiked it and gave it a feed to aid recovery."

"Pre-season we carried out twenty hours of rolling across the square. We used to start with the Mastiff and build up to the heavy roller, but this year we've been using the blotter. This weighs in at about a tonne, but with the padding on the rollers doesn't squidge the grass. I probably did about six hours in total."

"I then moved on to the three tonne Greens roller, starting at a fast speed and then slowing down to complete the rolling. I usually go across the square and then with play. I don't bother with the Union Jack method as it seems over faffy! If you're going to roll it, the soil doesn't mind which direction you are doing it."

"Once the rolling has been completed, I'll move on to individual pitch preparation, which involves little and often rolling in ten minute blocks. Sometimes, I might only roll a championship pitch for twenty minutes in the summer and then leave it to bake hard. That way, I can achieve the seam movement our bowlers want. I really don't see the point of rolling for ten hours, as it will be so compact there's no chance of any give."

Of the eleven first class wickets, Simon will use five for championship games and six for LB40 and Twenty20. The championship pitches are generally played on twice in a season on a rotation basis, overseeding after the first game, whilst the one day pitches are played on at least twice and, in the case of Twenty20, three times, just repairing and rolling out between the rush of fixtures.

"We tend to start the season with the traditional fourteen day preparation but, as the season progresses, that may be cut to seven days in between fixtures. Last season, we finished with six championship matches in seven weeks; that's a lot cricket," confessed Simon. "I hear a lot about rest and recuperation for the players, but the same is true for the grass and I make this point often to the players and coaches."

Simon has a team of four who help him. Rob Hake, Dan Stabback, Martin Frost and new apprentice, Luke Dopson. Rob Hake spends most of his time at the county's second ground at Taunton Vale, just a mile down the road, where the 2nd XI play the majority of their games, but does help out on match days if required.

"We are going down the apprentice route, not because it's cheap labour but because we can mould them into our way of working. Luke is only sixteen, but is as keen as mustard and learning really quickly."

I ask what other work he would like to do. "As a Category C ground, our outfield has fallen behind the Category A and B grounds because of the money the ECB have provided to grounds where international cricket is played. It's by no means bad, but grass cover is a bit thin in places and there are a few undulations we'd like to sort out. The twice yearly vertidraining has improved it though. In time, I'd also like to have drainage installed, but that's probably a way off currently, although if we have a repeat of the weather of the last couple of summers, then who knows?"

"Another strange anomaly is that our net wickets are ten feet wide with a two foot gap between each one. I've no idea why that was originally done! So, what I'm thinking of doing is reducing them to nine feet wide and losing the 'wasted' ground. This will reduce the size of the square considerably, which will save valuable preparation time and also reduce the cost of fertilisers."

Simon confesses that he is an 'old school' groundsman, because that is the way he has been taught. "I use my eyes and what the wickets feel like underfoot. But, I like to think that, in my armoury, are some more modern techniques."

As we conclude our interview, Simon confesses he is a pretty relaxed individual which, given the job he does is, no doubt, a valuable trait. "Bad stuff comes along; I'm not going to beat myself up about it," he said. "All me and my team can do is the best job possible and hope that players approve of what we've provided. So far, we've had few complaints."

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