Spitfires grounded

Neville Johnsonin Cricket

Cricket is our summer game; just not this summer. The frustration is most apparent at county level, where all 18 clubs are without income, yet having to keep ticking over. 2020 is the year Kent Cricket celebrates 150 years, but so far, it's a party with no guests. Neville Johnson, spoke to its head groundsman Adrian Llong to see how things were at pitch level.

The Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence at Canterbury is one of a handful of county cricket venues that have an aura about them, steeped in the game's history, and where you want to be, either playing or watching the game. Adrian Llong has been on the ground staff there for six years, with a spell in charge of Kent's outground, The County Ground, Beckenham. This will be his second season as head groundsman at Canterbury. He was good enough to break off from duties out in the middle for a phone chat about life in lockdown.

This year it is 150 years since the formation of Kent County Cricket Club. It is a special year for the club, one of celebration. How have things changed since February when everyone must have been brimming with optimism and readiness? There was then a definite buzz about the coming months, Adrian recalls.

"The whole grounds team here was in full flow. After really testing weather, we had been really pleased with how our preparation work had gone."

"Pre-season had been a challenge to us, that's for sure. There were some parts of the ground that lay wet throughout the winter and spring, despite our excellent drainage system."

"The wet conditions meant we had a constant battle with leatherjackets on the outfield too. They decimated the grass in certain patches."

"We'd had to use the flat sheet covers in February, far earlier than usual, in order to have pitches ready to use for pre-season, but surfaces were looking really good. Then someone 'switched the lights out' and life, let alone cricket, was put on hold," he says.

Adrian Llong (left) and Riley Nicholson

Kent County Cricket Club had initially furloughed the majority of its non-playing staff and this was followed on April 9th with the furloughing of all its playing staff, with the exception of captain Sam Billings, who has been helping with the club's community work, and Joe Denly, who has a central contract with England.

These decisions followed extensive discussions between first class counties, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and the Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA). The situation has been reviewed since then but, as things stand, there is to be no cricket of any kind until July 1st at the earliest.

In an official statement in early April, Director of Cricket Paul Downton said: "Cricket is, of course, of secondary importance during these unprecedented times. The priority of everyone at the Club is the safety and security of the entire Kent Cricket family."

There would normally be nine full-time groundstaff working at Kent's two main venues and at Tunbridge Wells Week throughout the season but, from early April, lockdown furlough had reduced this to just three.

At Canterbury, Adrian and his assistant Riley Nicholson are operating quite comfortably under social distance regulations, each with a specific set of machinery. Essentially, Adrian is looking after the square, and Riley the outfield. It's a division of labour that is working well.

They also take separate break times, so communication is either by phone, or often as not, by speaking loudly when appropriate space and machine noise allows.

Kent Captain Sam Billings

"We've stuck to Government safety guidelines from the word go, and find things quite manageable," says Adrian.

"The Venue Operations Manager, Anna Spencer, has advised us on risk assessment matters and, in all honesty, we're both getting used to working this way whilst lockdown remains in force."

Martin Gall is the Grounds Maintenance Manager and he does what he has to do to keep things in good shape beyond the boundary. Communications with him sometimes means a bit of shouting.

The absence of camaraderie and banter that comes with grounds teamwork must be strange, I suggest.

"It is, and I miss my other colleagues, but I used to work on my own before I came to Kent and find I can cope with this enforced near solitude by literally fixing my mind on the list of tasks I need to complete each day. That's what works for me. That and a bit of long range chat with Riley of course."

"Having a decent routine is everything - lockdown or no lockdown. It's just like the game of cricket. Get the basics right and you're in business."

"There may well be areas of difficulty ahead if things stay as they are, notably use of covers which will require additional hands, but we'll cross that bridge when the time comes."

A daily routine imposed on the St Lawrence duo in lockdown is the twice-daily spray disinfecting of equipment, notably handles. The shed has never smelt sweeter, jokes Adrian.

Half way through May, ironically the weather couldn't have been better for guaranteeing uninterrupted play up and down the country pretty much since the season should have opened. Adrian says The Spitfire Ground looks a picture, but there's no one here to enjoy it. His tone doesn't disguise his frustration.

"I'm making sure the square is always near ready for play should I get a call from Paul Downton saying he wants the players doing pitch training in a matter of days," he says.

"Pre-season preparation started three months ago and we had strips ready for play then. There has, of course, been none, but we have to keep on top of things so that cricket can be played here at short notice when the time comes. It's just that this year we have the longest ever pre-season."

Are there any jobs you're having to do more of?

"Once or twice a week we're doing a lot of verti-cutting, on the square and in the outfield, especially the practice areas," says Adrian.

"It's essential that we keep on top of lateral growth and prevent thatch build-up. Verti-cutting helps keep on top of it. I'm certain that other county groundsmen will be doing much the same."

"We're also mowing all areas pretty well every other day and watering where and when necessary."

Director of Cricket Paul Downton

Like every other county club, at Kent there is no practice at all six weeks into the phantom season. All the players, with the exception of First Team Captain Sam Billings, are on furlough and simply keeping themselves fit at home. The St Lawrence grass had been totally unhindered by boot, bat or ball and looks it.

At the time of talking to Adrian, the feeling in cricket circles was that the ECB's priority was to get Test Matches played, even if it meant doing so behind closed doors, which would at least gather in television revenue. Beyond that, Adrian felt that the required bio-testing and restrictions involved to keep everyone in cricket safe was going to challenge everyone in the professional game as never before.

Already, The Hundred tournament, due to be launched this summer, had been dropped. Kent's Beckenham ground would have been used as one of the training camps for this and later on would have staged two of the games in the women's competition. The pitches there are currently in the sole charge of Jess Jackson who is in daily touch with Adrian by phone during lockdown.

Like everyone in cricket, Adrian has to continue preparing the pitches despite the uncertainty. He described it as a huge waiting game.

Adrian has fortnightly - socially distanced - meetings with club management, and talks by phone several times a week to Paul Downton. There is, of course, regular interchange of emails between the various sectors of club activities.

"Here at Kent we all know what we're all doing and why," says Adrian.

Adrian has trimmed costs by eliminating any unnecessary work and, of course, he is helped here by the absence of any post play repair tasks. The square is getting a normal high level of pre-season treatment, but he is cutting back on outfield feeding for the time being because, as he put it, visual appearance is not so vital until cricket is actually being played and seen.

Adrian and his team will be ready for action once the Government give the go-ahead

Also, he and Riley are taking care of any basic repairs to machinery like a cable that went on one of the rollers. They are managing to avoid calling in any outside help, which is always a useful money saver.

If things do get underway later in the summer, Adrian believes The Spitfire Ground like other county grounds will be 'on duty' deeper into autumn than usual, so combatting morning dew will be a task that moves up the grounds work agenda.

Four day County Championship matches may well be sacrificed to leave room in the remaining weeks for one-day cup and Twenty20 games. Kent Spitfires will be ready for take-off, you can be sure of that, and home fixtures at Canterbury and Beckenham will be staged on pitches fresh and raring to go.

Kent supporters will be raring to go too, but it is likely they will be distance watching - either when a match is screened or by following a day's progress online. One of its longest fans, a Yorkshire man by chance, was barely off our screens this spring for his remarkable NHS funding feat. Captain - sorry, Colonel - sorry Sir - Tom Moore drew public praise from Kent Captain Sam Billings for his fortitude and endeavour in setting himself a challenge with such a magnificent result, and, of course, for reaching a ton.

"Our challenge is to keep the pitches at The Spitfire Ground healthy and in good enough condition for play to commence pretty well right away when the signal is eventually given," Adrian says.

"We just have to follow Captain Tom's example and stick with it. Like he says, better days are ahead. We are being patient. Cricket will return."

The original lime tree (left) and it's replacement under floodlights

Kent's famous lime tree ... and other history

Kent County Cricket Club's main ground is the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury. This ground has been used by the club since 1847 and Kent have played over 500 first-class matches there.

It is famous for having a tree, the St Lawrence Lime, on the playing field. The original tree, around which the ground was built, was broken in two by high winds in January 2005 and replaced by a smaller lime tree later in the same year.

The ground hosts the annual Canterbury Cricket Week, the oldest cricket festival in the world. This dates from 1842 and has been held at the ground since the club moved there.

Kent played their first official match at White Hart Field in Bromley in August 1842 and, since then, have used twenty-nine different grounds within the historic county. Some of these grounds, although still in the historic county of Kent are now also within the Greater London area.

Two outgrounds remain in regular use, the redeveloped County Cricket Ground, Beckenham and the Nevill Ground in Royal Tunbridge Wells. The latter ground hosts the Tunbridge Wells Cricket Week and has seen over 200 Kent home matches played on it. Former venues include Mote Park in Maidstone, which was used until 2005 and has been the venue for over 200 Kent first-class matches, as well as grounds in Gravesend, Tonbridge, Dover and Folkestone, all of which have had more than 100 home matches played on them.

The county's main offices are based at the St Lawrence Ground. Indoor cricket schools are in place at both this ground and at Beckenham which acts as a centre of excellence for player development in the west of the county.

​An impromptu game of cricket during World War II - with the iconic Spitfire in the background (left) and Hurricanes (right)

Cricket's Big Test

In late May, The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) launched 'Together Through This Test', a nationwide campaign shining a light on the work undertaken by the game in response to COVID-19 and highlighting resources available to the public.

Cricket staff, volunteers and players across the country, from both the professional and the recreational game, had already taken part in over 200 initiatives during lockdown.

Projects include long-distance charity runs, delivering food to the vulnerable and a dedicated phone support service for those left isolated by coronavirus. The ECB had also set up a COVID-19 resource hub showcasing the spirit and solidarity of the cricket family during this toughest of tests.

A focal point of the ECB's campaign was a powerful short film called The Wait, narrated by 'national treasure' and cricket fan Stephen Fry. It captures the spirit of the cricket community and underlines the importance of patience during this difficult period.

Stephen Fry said: "It's wonderful how patient everyone has been during this incredibly difficult time. Like many cricket fans, I long to hear the sound of leather on willow again, but while we wait it out, we do, of course, have to stick together and do what we can to support each other."

"It was a pleasure to be able to read Jimmy Lee's poem, which so wonderfully connects the national game with the national spirit."

To see The Wait and get more on the ECB campaign visit https://www.ecb.co.uk