Maintaining Oakham School
By Keith Exton, Head Groundsman
What a year. We had a cold wet spring, with the cricket starting earlier than ever. April 8th was the first scheduled fixture, and success in the rugby at various levels meant that that season seemed to go on for ever.
Our hockey fixtures went on up to two days before the Easter break, so the outfields and two of our cricket squares had to have divots filled by hand each day, on an on going basis 3 weeks before the end of term. We used a 50/50 mix inpregnated with DLF's pro 79 on the outfields, with Binders Ongar loam and MM 50 from Advanta on the 16 strips that hockey is actually played over. As fast as we filled them up the little sods would hack a new crop out.
We have had more home fixtures in all of the winter sports; we now only get 3 weeks at Easter to turn everything round to the summer timetables.
A new director of sport decreed that he wanted 99% of pupils playing some form of sport, whether it was competitive or recreational, and credit to him, he has achieved just that.
Instead of the varing age groups only having A and B sides, we now have C and D and, in some cases, an E side thrown in for good measure. New buildings and a second astro area have taken the equivalent of 3 full sized rugby pitches (8 acres) away from the 48 acres of sports turf we once had. With 1080 pupils, the square metreage of sports turf available is at saturation point under normal school management practices. We are working nearly as long in the autumn and spring months as we do in the summer.
I have been lucky - no, not lucky; I have had to work hard convincing various Bursars, Headmasters, Trustees (as they come and go over the years) that quality does not come cheaply. Support was poor in the early years but, as the playing surfaces dramatically improved, so did thier attitude to the grounds department.
Over the 13 years I have been at Oakham I have been able to build up a selection of machinery that enables us to cope with the demands of keeping relative high standards considering the short periods of time allotted to undertake renovation work due to the extensive timetable.
I have had it said to me many times in the past - having such quality machinery, anybody could do my job. I usually respond by stating, kwowing when and how to use them makes the difference.
Like most I have to battle long and hard to maintain budget levels. Machinery may well cost a small fortune to purchase but, given the amount of work they have to do, they are invaluable. They don't last for ever, but some people find this difficult to comprehend (sounding familiar to you all).
To achieve and maintain quality surfaces we need quality machinery, modern, reliable and well maintained. Either that or 100 blokes to replace it all. Let's see - 100 blokes at a minimum of £12,000 a year = £1,200,000; Jesus, the bursar has done me again on this years budget submissions! Looking at it from that angle, I should get a substantial pay increase for the money I am saving them. Yeah right!
There is still much to do to get the grounds up to the standards I want, but if my futuristic plans are given support there is no reason why we should not go from strength to strength.
Enough gripes, lets be positive. The cricket season has gone well. I was allowed to purchase a new set of covers and some more side sheets for the new ground just outside of the main campus. Yes, I hear you saying, private schools get everything. Well, I admit we don't do to badly at Oakham, but extra covers and sheets means extra work and, I can assure you, keeping 5 cricket squares plus net areas means very long days.
Mid way through the season I was wishing never to see set of covers or sheets ever again. Mike, my assistant, must have taken similar sentiments home with him. He told me he had been dreaming, and had been awakened by a sharp knee to the groin - he had got his partner well and truly battened and pinned down under the duvet!
The boys of all age groups have had some belting tracks to perform on this year, and quite a few former records have been surpassed. The Leicestershire county cricket clubs festival week went well. The 4 day championship game against Somerset was always destined for a draw when most of the first day was lost to rain. Both umpires gave that track top marks. The Totesport track for the Sunday, also against Somerset, was never quite finished off due to the poor weather during the week. The pace was not quite there, and marked accordingly.
Heres one for you though - when we do produce a track with consistent pace, bounce and carry, why do the teams playing on it insist on the heavy roller to try and calm it down?
School cricket is now over, but representative cricket goes on through the summer holiday, ending in the second week in August, which gives us two weeks to turn everything around back to winter sports. At this point I always hope the weather is kind.
Our renovation work:-
I was not satisfied that enough fibre had been removed, so another pass was made across play with the blades screwed down another 2mm.
Then the big boy came into play - a Sisis V600 deep linear scarifier, set to a depth of 25mm. Running with play, the first two nets went well. The third net didn't hold against the blades, ripping chunks out in between the blades which were set at 19mm centres. I half expected this to happen as nets 3 and 4 were over used, rolled at the wrong moister content i.e. dry underneath, with the top half an inch wet, causing root break.
The deep slits that these sort of machines leave illustrate root break perfectly.
Once the area has had the V600 through, it receives an application of Micro de-thatch, to help break down the old or dead fibres below the surface; a couple of new fairy rings also get some treatment.
If the weather holds, we will be able to power spread the loam onto the whole area and then lute in, paying attention to levels. If the rain beats us, loam will be applied bag by bag and luted in. We do this because once the soil gets wet between the cuts, any vehicle running on it will close the grooves up to such an extent that the new loam will not be able to be worked in at the same rate as in between the wheel marks. Once the area settles, different levels will be noticeable, as well as different density profiles.
Further aeration will take place 3 to 4 weeks later, once the old and new grass have had time to put some roots down. A Sisis Javelin vertical spiker, with 5 inch pencil tines will be used, operated by our faithful John Deere 955. She is 10 years old now, but still the best rig on the spikers.
Such a vigorous operation should not be necessary next year, but whether its a Sisis V600 or Graden or Koro the principle is the same - get that rubbish out.
Good luck to all you cricket groundsmen out there, especially the county boys. Whilst you are still pulling covers and sheets about, we shall be done and dusted - apart from a small matter of 9 rugby, 5 soccer, 5 hockey, 2 Astros and 2 lacrosse pitches to look after!