7 A Groundsman's tale

A Groundsman's Tale

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I suppose I was like most cricketers who turn up three quarters of an hour before the start of play, stroll out to take a look at the wicket and wander into the changing room to give their considered assessment along the lines of: 'Looks a bit green, skip; are we going to have a bowl?' Or 'Don't lose the toss this time or we'll be chasing 300'. My observations were usually based on the wicket's colour or how closely it had been mowed. Actually, the wickets at our home ground were pretty dire and sides had problems with uneven bounce and regular shooters, but everyone just took it as a fact of life and gritted their teeth when long hops scuttled along the ground and under the bat, or good length balls threatened you with concussion.

The fact was that, like most other players, I really knew very little about what made a good or a bad wicket and why some balls behaved differently from others when they hit the ground. I assumed that all you had to do to produce a good wicket was to cut the grass short and roll the surface flat. I really didn't think any further than that. My ignorance about the complexities of producing good wickets was total. And I suspect that most cricketers are the same. But all that was to change when my playing career creaked to its natural conclusion six years ago and I was invited by the club to take over as groundsman. The job was thrust upon me only some three months before the season was due to start, so I didn't have much time for thinking too deeply about what was in store.

The departing Groundsman, also an ex-player, gave me as much help as he could, but I quickly realised that the job was going to be a lot harder than I had ever imagined. The main task at that point leading up to the season, he told me, was to repeatedly mow the grass on the square until it could be distinguished from the outfield.

It was while I was marching up and down with the Marquis I began to partly understand for the first time why these wickets were so difficult to bat on. Underneath the layer of coarse grass, the surface simply wasn't flat, which I assumed was the main reason for the uneven bounce. Why hadn't I noticed that during my 20 years as a player? But, as became apparent later, that was only one of many problems I'd inherited.

One of my first mistakes was to set the fertiliser spreader at double the prescribed rate, with the result that the high nitrogen content fertiliser laced with weed killer (a deadly combination) scorched the grass. I might just have got away with it had my tutor not decided to give the square a pre-season pounding with our old Stothert & Pitt roller a day later which left 46 inch-wide strips of blackened grass in its wake.

In a panic I set to with a hand rake and managed to re-seed most of the damaged areas before the season started. But I was sweating, I can assure you. In fact, during this time I would regularly wake up at four in the morning worrying about the state of the square and wondering whether my first act as official custodian of the ground would result in the first ever series of grassless cricket matches!

At the time I seemed to be more concerned about the health of that 800 square feet of turf than with my business, which I was in the process of selling. That's the way it gets you, as I'm sure anyone reading this will know.

In the April of that year my predecessor departed for good and I was left to my own devices. The first thing to be done was to take a detailed look at the equipment sitting quietly in the wartime ARP shelter at the corner of the park. The stuff really wasn't bad, but looked to be in need of some care and attention. There was a Ransomes Auto-Certes fitted with a relatively new Kubota engine for the wickets, which was fine except that the cylinder hadn't been sharpened for some time. There was also a Ransomes Marquis in a similar condition, and the aforementioned roller, whose starting handle threatened to break your wrist when its old Lister single-cylinder diesel fired up.

On one occasion the handle got stuck on the shaft as the engine picked up revs and began spinning like an aeroplane propeller. As I cowered behind the solid metal of the roller the handle flew off and smashed into the ceiling removing a sizeable chunk of concrete. Health & Safety would have had something to say about that. A Sisis Lawnman and a push-along Trio Rotorake with worn blades made by the same company completed the line up. Not an extensive array of technology, but I reckoned it would do the job with a bit of fettling. I managed to persuade the club to fork out some fairly serious money to service the three machines and buy a new set of blades for the scarifier. Things were starting to take shape, I thought.

The season was under way now and although I was getting the hang of the cycle of scarifying and mowing, I started to realise that all was not as it should be: the grass covering the square was patchy and consisted mainly of meadow grass, whose thick round stems were difficult to remove and which consequently had to be pulled out by hand. And, even more worryingly, the tines of the Lawnman would regularly go through the surface of the dry wicket leaving it looking like a dusty bridle path after horses had ridden over it. The lack of proper grass cover was making matters even worse. Not yet having attended any of the Institute of Groundsmanship courses on spring and autumn work I was at a loss to know what to do about it. But after turning up one Sunday to see our local trundler nearly take the batsman's head off with one that reared up off a length I realised that what I was doing wasn't getting to the heart of the problem and I would have to get expert advice.

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That first season I struggled through as best I could, trying to make the best of what was there. At one stage I remember lying on the ground prising out clumps of poa with the aid of a Swiss army knife and wondering why I had been foolish enough to take on the job. And why, having done so, was I taking the whole thing so seriously! But slowly the pitches were looking better and although still fairly uneven in bounce - 'sporty' as one of the players described them - more runs were being scored by both sides.

That autumn I did the hardest physical work of my life, barrowing 120 sacks of Surrey loam 140 yards from the car park where the pallets had been dumped, and spreading it over the square by hand. But before that the scarifying had to be done, and it was a revelation. Deluding myself that I could get rid of the dreaded thatch in one go, I made at least a dozen passes in all directions across the ground with the scarifier, the feeble Briggs & Stratton engine regularly threatening to conk out as I tried to get the blades to cut more deeply into the ground. The amount of rubbish that came out of the square had to be seen to be believed and required countless trips with the wheelbarrow to dispose of it behind the hut. After this exercise in brutality I was left with a virtually bald patch of dusty ground which, I was assured by the Groundsman from another local club, would provide a good seed bed and that everything would turn out all right. But only if I got rid of the hundreds of worms, which, activated by the vibrations up above and by a couple of heavy downpours, were helping to give the square the appearance of the beach at Yarmouth after the tide had gone out.

One of the great things about this business is the willingness of fellow grounds people to help out with advice and to lend machinery in times of need. Over the last six years I have built up a number of good local contacts, so that I am seldom really in the cart when an item of equipment gives up the ghost and needs repairing. There is always someone to call. This was demonstrated that first autumn when I realised that the old piece of rusty metal draped in cobwebs at the back of the hut was a Pattison spiker, circa 1962, fitted with a Villiers engine. Having by now attended an course on autumn work it was clear that as this machine would probably do more harm than good if it were ever to be repaired and to do the job properly I would have to get hold of a more modern machine with a vertical action. Luckily I was able to hire one fairly reasonably from a local contractor who dropped it off at the ground and picked it up a couple of hours later when I had finished.

The following season the hard work seemed to be paying off as there were fewer rogue bounces and batsmen were able to get in line without the fear of having their teeth knocked out. The grass cover on the square was thicker too, and my battles with the poa were slowly discouraging it. Bowlers were having work harder for their wickets and scores were going up. In subsequent years the improvement in playing conditions has continued and now it is not unusual for 500 runs or more to be scored in an afternoon. Last season a visiting side in a league game scored something like 340, which the home team almost matched when their turn came to bat. Compare this to the struggle my team often had to top the hundred mark when I was a player. It's just a pity that I never had the chance of batting on my own wickets - I'm sure I would have scored a lot more runs if I had. Or maybe not.

I suppose it's a truism to say that the most important work on a cricket square happens at the end of the season. If that is carried out properly the rest is pretty straightforward. These days I have an arrangement with someone who brings an automatic top dresser to the ground and operates the machine. I help him load the hopper and follow on behind with a drag mat or large lute. This way the whole top dressing operation takes only a maximum of two hours, compared to virtually a whole day by hand. The evenness of delivery makes luting an easy job. The quality of the loam used has made a big difference to the overall bounce of the square. After discussing the poor bounce I was getting with the people at Surrey Loams Ltd at Saltex one year I decided to give their GOSTD 125 grade loam a try. And I haven't looked back. Their product is of consistent quality and easy to spread. And the high clay content has helped transform the square from a dead, lifeless surface to one where the ball really comes on to the bat at an even height.

Scarifying, too, is more efficient using the new Sisis Rotorake 600, which I hire in for the job. This machine really gets down deep and throws out a mound of stuff. The only drawback is that the use of a collection box is not particularly practical on this machine as it has to be emptied virtually at the end of a pass depending on the depth of cut. So it's better, in most people's opinion including mine, to clear up the surface afterwards with the mower. And the results speak for themselves. The deep slots make a wonderful seed bed and allow the seed to establish before it can be eaten by birds. Come the season and the grass so produced seems to be tougher and less easily damaged than that grown in the shallower slits produced by our old scarifier.

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Two years ago I started doing some part-time work with another local cricket club who were looking for a Groundsman to manage their wicket in Bushy Park. Teddington Town play in one of the most attractive spots in the royal parks and I found it a joy to work there. Last autumn I decided that I could no longer look after the two grounds and told my old club that I was moving on. The transformation of the old worn-out square at Carlisle Park is now complete and it needs only regular wicket preparation and maintenance during the season. I haven't escaped completely as I've agreed to continue to do the spring and autumn season work for them, which suits me fine. My attention is now firmly focused on doing the best I can at Teddington Town and I'm enjoying the challenge of working on a new square with different characteristics to Carlisle Park.

From knowing almost nothing about the maintenance of cricket pitches I have now become a serial investigator of other people's grounds and have been known to stop the car by a remote village green to have a look at the state of their wickets. If the Groundsman is there so much the better and I love hearing about his particular method of working. There is always something to learn, which is what makes the whole subject so fascinating. I just wish I had started earlier and not frittered so much time away trying to play cricket on dodgy pitches.

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