0 Arise Sir Keith...

Arise Sir Keith. Many must have voiced that sentiment about the doyen of cricket groundsmanship Keith Boyce. A pioneer and original thinker, he is renowned among cricket's top order for consistently conjuring up first-class wickets. But there's plenty more besides that to acknowledge about a legend and masterful man manager, reports Greg Rhodes


Marking fifty-eight years in groundsmanship is no mean accomplishment, even by this industry's record of long service. Keith Boyce appears just as up for the challenge as in his earliest days working within the sport that ingrains his existence.

The 80-year-old was a keen batsman and wicketkeeper and started out volunteering for grounds duties at local cricket clubs in North Yorkshire before he was headhunted for the big one.

Keith relives his glowing Headingley days from his armchair, positioned to allow him to gaze into the back garden at his pond, dovecote and squirrel feeders. "I love birds and was upset when a hawk discovered the doves and picked them off one by one," he tells me as we settle in.

The plastic heron, positioned to ward off raids from the real thing, was doomed to failure too, he notes.

"Dragonflies skirt the water regularly in summer, so there's still much to marvel at", he adds. With roe deer and rabbits threatening his garden foliage, Keith may have to suffer for his love of wildlife, but there's one aspect of life over which he can reign supreme - the Richmond Oval in the North Leeds village of Adel, West Yorkshire, which his bungalow overlooks.

New Rover Cricket Club built the bungalow specially for him when he took up residence as their groundsman in 2000, along with a treasury of cherished cricketing keepsakes he gathered over the years.

"The club has been magnificent," Keith declares. "They know this is my life and that I love what I do. It's all voluntary, of course. I wouldn't enjoy the work if it was salaried. I go at my own pace and do my own thing and I plan to stay here until the good Lord takes me."

This joyous setting is tinged with sadness though. On the wall by his armchair hangs a portrait of Bracken, his beloved Springer Spaniel, who died almost two years ago. "He was as daft as a brush," Keith reminisces, "a legend around the club and truly special."

Someone so passionate about his craft, as Keith, would have to suffer a body blow to match one of those infamous Bodyline deliveries, unleashed by England in the 1932-33 Ashes series, to be forced to desert the hallowed turf.

The death of Margaret, his inspiration, friend and lifelong partner, nearly twenty years ago was that body blow. 'Mother' to many of Keith's budding groundsmen, she was a great steadying influence to his protégés.

In memory of her, he planted a lime tree at the cricket ground when he moved here. "The leaves are heart-shaped, which I think is appropriate," he says. "I would like my ashes buried under it where I can see the square."

We raid the memory banks again. "I started at Headingley in 1978, just me and an assistant then. I'd had no grooming - I'm a 'do on my own' type of guy, a simple village green lad born in a hamlet. I thought I'd been given a knighthood when I landed there."

That hamlet was Kildale near Whitby - and a stone's throw from Castleton, Margaret's birthplace. Keith had started out working on the Guisborough Cricket Club ground for two years. "It was a right sight. The outfield grass was blowing in the wind. I said to them: 'If someone can tackle that, I'll handle the square'."

Then, in the early 1970s, fate intervened. Middlesbrough, one of Yorkshire's outgrounds, had a problem. "They might have lost county cricket. They had heard about me and wanted me to become full-time groundsman there," Keith relates.

"My day job was working at ICI Wilton. I had my own house and family. If I moved, it would mean a big cut in money, but Margaret said to me: 'I know your love is cricket', so off we went."

It was in 1977, his second season there, that he won a national award from Lord's. "It was the first time a groundsman working in Yorkshire had won." Two years later, Keith triumphed again. "I couldn't see what all the fuss was about," he states diffidently.

His career took another twist soon afterwards. "One of the Yorkshire committee asked me if I fancied coming to Headingley. I had no groundsmanship certificates, that sort of thing, and am very much a practical guy. I thought Headingley was too big for me and that it needed someone special to manage the ground."

But he mulled over the offer and Yorkshire courted him again, promising that the retiring head groundsman, George Cawthray, a former cricketer for the county, would be helping him in his first year.

Living in a bungalow on site, Keith prepared for his first test match, England v Pakistan in 1978, with some trepidation. "It was a nightmare, a graveyard for me," he recalls. "The weather was poor and interrupted my preparations, but we just got by."

The following year, Australia were the guests and, recalls Keith: "Everything was just right. I got on that roller and was watering, full of enthusiasm. The weather was perfect."

"The Aussies came on the Tuesday to practise. 'What a pitch', they said. 'Rock hard'. But I'd prepared it a day too early. It was in prime condition on the Wednesday not Thursday, the first day of the Test."

"They declared at over 400, then things started happening - the pitch became unstable. By day three, it was coming apart. By the fourth and fifth days, the pitch was not test match standard. I was really embarrassed." That said, Ian Botham did manage to notch up a ton on it. 'Fantastic' was his verdict," Keith remembers.

Despite Keith's protestations over the quality of the wicket, Yorkshire's powers-that-be decreed that the status quo continue. "Sponsors and spectators alike were enjoying the spectacle, as there was always something happening. Everyone thought it made great entertainment and the TV viewing figures were very high."

The media had a field day too. "'We're not knocking you personally', they'd say to me, 'but we'll always use Headingley to sell newspapers'."

Keith called in soil scientist Professor Bill Adams from Aberystwyth University to assess the square. His judgment was damning. "He said the whole square needed digging up and relaying." The problem was the age-old tradition of doping. "Yorkshire had been winning county championships year after year, so any suggestion that the wickets needed restructuring was frowned on by the management," explains Keith.

"Dope was a mixture of marl, soil, cow dung and water, stirred in a drum, watered on the pitch, then rolled until the surface was as flat as a fart. Eventually, the wickets became so slow that I knew doping had to stop. We had to build up the wickets with hard soil with high clay content."

Even before Keith arrived, pressure had been mounting for Headingley to adopt newer methods. "Lord's had started to use loams on their square and a top man at Bingley Research Centre was asked to find the hardest soils he could. They were tested to breaking point and, when one was found, three inches were taken off two pitches to try them out."

"Not good, the grass wouldn't grow as the soil would not support a rootzone and the surface curled up when it dried out." That was when Professor Adams' analysis revealed the low soil fertility.

"Botham did me no favours," laughs Keith. "If he had scored a duck, I would have had the square done the next season, relaying the Test pitch with good quality loam."

The new square saw its first action in 1989, when England captain David Gower put Australia in to launch the Ashes series after winning the toss. "I advised David to bat first as I knew that the wicket would lose pace later on, but he decided otherwise. In his book, David claims that I misled him, but we must agree to disagree over that."

The statistics do back Keith's claim that, whatever the results at the ground, his wickets could stand the rigours of Test battle. "We had the first drawn Test at Headingley since the 1960s when England played South Africa in 1992. With no rain delays, the pitch stood up to five days' cricket." And that proved to be a characteristic of Keith's work.

"I prepared pitches for seventeen Test matches and had fourteen results. Never was any Test over in less than four days - there were no three-day Tests. After that first embarrassment, I soon learned that you had to have the pitch right on the first morning, with just a touch of moisture, still good on day two, just starting to go on day three, so you would be sure to have at least four days' cricket."

The issue of moisture retention preyed on Keith's mind until he had his light bulb moment. Enter the Gas Board. "I called them about a machine I'd seen them using to compact the road surface. I then went to a local garden centre to buy a moisture meter so that I could test the pitch."

Sheets laid over the surface helped prevent it drying out too quickly, a major factor in Yorkshire's record of maintaining full four-day match action at Headingley.

Keith has entertained many Test captains about the state of the pitch. "Mike Brearley would chat to me for hours, he was so nice, until you had no secrets left. Ray [Illingworth] and Graham [Gooch] really understood pitches. Imran Khan would talk you me for quite a time too, while Viv Richards wouldn't be bothered. 'We won't complain about the pitch, but don't you complain when you come to the West Indies', he'd say."

It was in spring 1995 that Margaret was diagnosed with cancer. "We had bought a house outside the ground, but this put everything on hold. Ian [Barber] was my assistant and he did most of the manual work on the square which, in my view, reached the highest mark in quality and pace for any pitches at Headingley."

"I was sick that Margaret didn't see what we'd both worked so hard to achieve. That was it for me, I couldn't handle cricket there anymore."
In the early 1990s, Keith had given New Rover Cricket Club a programme of work to follow. Now was the time to make a move there. Under his watch, Yorkshire brought its Academy to the ground, beseeching Keith to go back on its books, but he preferred a voluntary role.

Standards never wavered and New Rover's ground was rated highly enough for the England Test squad to practise there under Michael Vaughan's captaincy. Now, newly appointed England captain Joe Root and team mate Jonny Bairstow loved to play there, he remembers.

Perhaps sounding startling to some, Keith's sentiments over pitches reveal the complexity of the task in hand and his mastery of it. "To my mind, they are basic - simple things, as long as you are clear what you are trying to produce."

He switches back to discussing management style. "I had a philosophy with the lads and told them: 'I don't want you to stay here. You have an opportunity to learn what I know, but if something comes along for you, take it. I don't want you sitting in my pockets year after year'."

Keith has a special fondness for Sheldon Bonner, who ended us as deputy head groundsman. "He came to Headingley in 1980 under a council scheme to place lads in work. I knew when I first met Sheldon that he had potential."

Following the era of Sheldon, Ian Barber and Jonathan Smith, came that of Jason Booth. "A good cricketer in Yorkshire's Academy, he arrived in the early 1990s and used to cut the outfield at first. I offered him the Leeds Rugby League pitch and, as soon as he started, it was clear that he was special."

Margaret may have been 'mother' to the Headingley grounds team, on hand early morning with 'sarnies and tea', but Keith was not in the habit of mollycoddling his lads.

"I didn't mess about and led from the front. I wouldn't tolerate lateness as that was unfair on the rest of them, and had to let one lad go after a habit of turning up late for work."

Any culture of 'throwing a sickie' was soon sorted. "I'd tell them: 'If you are unwell, you are unwell at 7.00am, not 9.00am', so I stopped all that. It's about being fair to everyone, setting standards and maintaining discipline - no messing about."

With Headingley memories still burning bright, sprightly octogenarian Keith manages to make room in his life for keeping close to his roots. "I love to help club and village groundsmen when I can," he reveals, "those who give their time freely and have no money to spend on machinery and materials."

He was preparing to host a group one Saturday afternoon this March. "Young and old come here for tips," he says. "They are so interested to hear how they can improve what they do."

It's a fitting venue to stage such gatherings. Adel is built on heavy clay. "The locals moan about it, but it's a gift to a groundsman," says Keith. "I love to get out on the square with the hosepipe, flash it off, then do an early morning roll. You can bowl more than 600 overs before you need to take a pitch out."

There is another key to that longevity though: "In fairness, the quality of cricket played here means the bowlers don't hit the seam hard enough to really hurt the pitch."

Keith Boyce has met many cricket legends in his time - Sir Len Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe et al - and advised a host of England captains on how to play Headingley.

On 27 June, old rivalries are rekindled when over-60s Yorkshire and Lancashire meet at New Rover. Whether age will lend a more gentlemanly air to the proceedings remains to be seen.

What is beyond doubt though is the quality of the wicket they'll battle it out on, prepared by a true master of the art of cricket groundsmanship and man management.


New Rover Cricket Club

Mel Reuben, New Rover's vice-president and vice-chairman, added a historical note on the eve of his youngest son Danny's departure for the Caribbean as head of team communications for England's West Indies tour.

"In 1934, whilst at a Scout camp, a group of Rover Scouts decided to form a cricket team. Lost for a name, they decided to call themselves New Rover Cricket Club after the Scout camp.

For the next fifty years or so, only interrupted by WWII, when numerous members were called up for King and Country, the club continued almost unchanged, playing friendly cricket on the same pitch at Soldiers Field, Roundhay, using a little second-hand garden shed they called a pavilion which, when erected, cost the princely sum of £20.

In 1988, after years of playing friendly cricket, the club took a monumental decision to apply to join The Dale Council Cricket League. With a flourishing club and a steadily progressing league side, the cramped, overworked surroundings and rapidly deteriorating facilities at Soldiers Field were stifling the club's ambitious plans to become a force in the local cricket scene.

A sub-committee was formed to find a suitable site for a new cricket ground. Those dreams became a reality in May 1993 when a 7.5-acre sloping cornfield in Adel was transformed into a cricket ground after it purchased the land with financial input of the Richmond family.

In 1998, it was decided that the time had come to play in a higher standard of cricket. The club applied and were accepted as members of The Leeds Cricket League and, in that same year, the club's new pavilion, which was partly funded by a generous Sport England Lottery grant, was opened.

In 1999, a unique partnership with Yorkshire CCC was set up, with the county's Academy squad using the club facilities for mid-week and the odd Sunday game.

Keith was appointed full-time groundsman and a bungalow was built on site for him, funded by the club.

The Yorkshire first and second team squads often used the club's superb facilities and the England team netted at the ground to prepare for the 2004 test match against New Zealand at Headingley.

With the imminent sad decline of The Leeds Cricket League, the club succeeded in their application to join The Wetherby Cricket League for the 2000 season.

After five years of a steady rise to the top division of The Wetherby League, and having players selected for the league representative squad, an opportunity for the club to further advance its playing standards arose when a vacancy occurred in The Airedale & Wharfedale Senior Cricket League. The club applied and were elected for the 2005 season.

Who would have thought that, back in 1934, a group of Rover Scouts playing an impromptu game of cricket would be the forerunners of the modern day New Rover Cricket Club and would be not only the partners of the greatest cricket club of them all, Yorkshire CCC, but also have cricket groundsman legend Keith Boyce to prepare superb cricket pitches.

During their formative years, Joe Root and other England past and present cricketers Johnnie Bairstow, Tim Bresnan, Adam Lyth, Garry Balance and most of the current Yorkshire first team including new coach Andrew Gale have all graced the Richmond Oval.

The likes of Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan, Darren Gough, Matthew Hoggard too have used Keith's terrific pitches to regain form and fitness.

Three years ago, New Rover hosted the first ever over-60s Ashes Test match, which England won. The Aussies raved about the pitch, which they said matched up to any Test and first-class ground they had ever played on. A fitting tribute to Keith's enduring mastery."

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