"If any governing bodies out there want facts and figures to take any of these simple innovations to the next level, please let's get off the fence, sit round a table and continue trials, so that we are in a position to ensure that a lot more cricketers can benefit from these small beginnings"
For most cricket groundsmen the weather provides their biggest challenge. Last year's drought conditions in the first three months were followed by torrential rain and flooding, which began in early April and continued throughout the summer. Such was the dedication of the County groundsmen, they collectively won the Cricket Writers Club annual Peter Smith Memorial Award award for their services to cricket, aka 'getting the game on'!
This year has been a complete contrast, and this group of hardy professionals have had to contend with, what officially became, the second coldest March on record, which saw snow, frost, rain and very little sunshine in the run up to the season.
The cold weather continued into early April, with one pre-season friendly at the Ageas Bowl between Hampshire and Surrey being postponed due to snow!
With these two extreme weather patterns in the past two years came a requirement to get outdoor practice wickets up and running in early March, so that the players could train on grass wickets rather than indoor nets. Perhaps a reasonable request given 'normal' weather, but the springs of 2012 and 2013 were anything but.
Last year, Stuart Kerrison, Head Groundsman at Essex CCC, trialed the use of a marquee over his net practice wickets so that the players could practice 'outdoors' safe from the vagaries of the weather. This proved to be a big success and, this year, several other clubs have gone down this route.
However, even going to these great lengths to cover up the grass net areas, the groundsman still needs fairly decent weather, with air and ground temperatures consistently above 6-8OC, to get the desired results.
One county groundsman, Keith Exton at Glamorgan's SWALEC stadium, is perhaps in a better position than some of his counterparts when it comes to soil temperatures. As reported in this magazine, Keith has installed LED grow lights under his hover cover to help promote grass growth, and even attached a heater/blower to help dry out the soil profile in readiness for his first match on the 25th March when Glamorgan's cricketers 'enjoyed' three days of action between themselves, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire for warm-up games.
Keith was confident the use of a heater under the hover cover would work, having already trialed it in the marquee he was using on his practice net area. This had been erected on 8th February to allow him, what he hoped would be, enough time to get the tracks prepared in readiness for the first net session on the 5th March.
With standing water on the net areas, and taking into account the weather forecast, he knew the only way he would be able to get them up to speed would be to deploy two indirect diesel heater/blowers to help dry out the profile. They were in use on a daily basis for a total of eleven days, utilising them between the normal preparations of mowing, brushing, scarifying and rolling. All the hard work paid off, with Keith producing some relatively hard practice nets for the time of the year.
Knowing what he could achieve with the aid of the heater, he decided to utilise them to work in conjunction with his LED lights under the hover cover to help prepare for his first fixture out on the square.
With night-time temperatures well below freezing, and only rising to around 4OC during the day, it was imperative to raise the temperature under the cover to aid the drying out of the soil profile.
With the combination of the heaters, blowers and lights, Keith was able to hold temperatures around 15OC under the cover which, in turn, saw temperature at a depth of 100mm rise from 7OC to over 12OC.
Keith explained that the heaters were not left on for long periods, perhaps just for an hour or so from 7.00am prior to pitch preparations, coupled with ten minutes rolling. He would repeat the process in the afternoon. Care was required not to cook/crust the top of the profile or use the rolling programme to bring up soil moisture to the surface where it would be lost by evapotranspiration.
He has been pleased with the results and found that, after several days, his pitches were fairly hard for the time of the year.
Keith is always keen to trial new methods and ways of working to help achieve his goals. His trials with the LED lights has resulted in the ECB setting up a research programme at Loughborough University to understand the benefits of using such technology.
Keith explains the processes in more detail:
"All was going well with pitch 20, using the hover and heater/blower. The pitch was drying to depth without any major cracking, that is, until we had 50mm of rain on Thursday 21st and Friday 22nd March, just two days before the Worcestershire fixture. I was unable to get the hover and side sheets off until Saturday morning because of the weather, and, when I did, I found that pitch 20 was absolutely sodden. Water had leaked onto not only pitch 20, but 19, 18, 17, 16 were all sodden as well.
Without further ado, the blotter was employed to remove the standing surface water, the grass was brushed up and the hover was placed back into position with the heater at one end, and the hover's integral circulation fans running just above tick over to push the warm air out of the vents at the other end.
With the forecast predicting fine but dull and cloudy days on Saturday and Sunday, plus the amount of water that had soaked into the surface, it was going to be impossible to get any of the pitches dried out for Monday's one day game against Worcestershire.
So, phone calls were made and a new schedule was drawn up. Gloucestershire's three day match was originally due to start on the Tuesday after the Worcestershire one-dayer, but was reduced to a two day match starting on Wednesday, with Worcestershire playing their one day game on Friday 29th.
That at least gave us four days to get a pitch dry. The forecast was still poor, with cloudy days and frost at night. So the heating, blowing, rolling process continued.
Stepping up the length of time the heater was deployed as the pitch dried was a trial in itself, but it was obvious, by Tuesday afternoon, that the combination of all the practices put into action had worked, and the pitch would be fit for play to begin at 11.00am on the Wednesday morning.
To obtain such a result was fantastic, but we are not talking an 8.00am to 4.00pm kind of day!
Heaters and engines were not left running all night, with only the LED lights and the small electric circulation fans contained within the hover cover left on after 9.00pm at night.
Was it all worth it? Ask Worcestershire CCC; they had had all their other three friendly matches cancelled due to the poor weather conditions and, yes, a process has been devised whereby a pitch can be dried in inclement conditions within a short time frame.
Who would have believed that in eight days of a biting east winds, with just a bit of sunshine through daylight hours and frosts at nights, that the irrigation system would have been needed? Yet, it was put on twice in the three days before the start a three day game against Cardiff MCCU which began on 5th April.
We've also been watering the square, not just for new pitch preparation but for general maintenance, such has been the massive evapotranspiration caused by the incessant east wind and night-time frosts.
It may well be drying very quickly, but nothing, under the natural conditions, is growing; the mowers are wondering when they will get a decent run!
Meanwhile, back in the marquee, we have had good results on the strips used earlier in March, with the warmth, and being shaded from the east wind, the rejuvenated pitches are coming back well, and the MM50 seed used has germinated within fifteen days. I have had seed in the outfield for over five weeks and there's not a hint of a fresh shoot.
So, it is not just a case of getting the cricketers on grass decks earlier, it does have the advantage of being like a propagating frame to get the rejuvenation process well advanced, especially this year.
Last year was much warmer in March and April, so results were easier to achieve. What will next year's early season bring us, I wonder? Who knows, but after experiencing the marquee management I can honestly say I would rather look to advance the theory than be without one for next year and, if any governing bodies out there want facts and figures to take any of these simple innovations to the next level, please let's get off the fence and sit round a table, continue trials, get some sponsors if need be, so that we are in a position to ensure that a lot more cricketers can benefit from these small beginnings.
With pressures that come with hosting international and county cricket on a regular basis, it is nice to be able to think that there is another piece of armoury in the cupboard to help and, if we have another poor summer like last year, who knows how many more times the process may have to be used? I hope not many because, at the end of the day, you can't beat Mother Nature. Let's hope she is kinder to us this year and we get the warm, UV light and the gentle rains all when we ask for them.
Yeah, dream on fellas, that Gulf Stream and Jet Stream are still a long way south!"
Middlesex's marquee approach to pre-season
Essex started a trend in 2012 by erecting a steel-framed structure on their square at Chelmsford and practising 'outdoors' on grass pre-season.
By happy coincidence, the weather in 2012 was blazing hot. This year, with players facing snow and wind chill temperature of -2OC, Essex have been joined in the experiment by other counties such as Middlesex, Kent, Worcestershire and Glamorgan.
Angus Fraser (right), the Middlesex director of cricket, said he was thinking about ways of conducting covered outdoor practice last year. "Lo and behold they did it at Essex," he said. "We went over there to have a look and it seemed to work."
Middlesex's marquee at Radlett Cricket Club, their training facility, has proved to be a learning process for Fraser, the head groundsman, Nick Searle, and his New Zealander assistant, Regan Sinclair.
Angus said: "We've obviously made an investment at Radlett and want to base ourselves here. Nick, the groundsman, is as keen as mustard to help, so we said we'd go ahead with it. In a sense it has been a challenge because you learn as you go along."
Standing inside the marquee - Kent call it their "greenhouse" at Canterbury - there is constant noise as the wind rattles ropes and material against the metal framework, but the light is surprisingly clear.The struts throw shadows across the mown strips, but the batsmen hardly noticed.
The Radlett marquee was erected in early February to ensure the soil had dried by the time net practice started a month later. The use of four hired industrial heaters helped the process after the heavy winter rain, and the players were glad to have one heater on duty during practice to keep them tolerably warm.
The surface played true and easy-paced and not dissimilar to an early season Championship pitch, though sounds were deadened and deliveries from fast bowlers occasionally proved hard for the eye to judge in overcast conditions.
"There are two reasons for doing it," Angus said. "One is financial. If you send a group of twenty-five people to South Africa for a week or ten days, it costs you the thick end of £45,000. This net here is probably going to cost us in the region of £12,000 to £15,000. And also, I question whether training in Dubai or Barbados, places like that, on dead, shirt-front pitches in 40-degree heat prepares you for the sort of conditions we're training in today, when it's quite cold and soft underfoot and the ball is nipping around. It's a completely different sensation of bat on ball."
"So there's a cricketing and a financial aspect. I think this is going to be the way forward. If we don't go on a pre-season tour and we use this, we can almost afford another player on the staff."