Pitch and Grounds Advisor for the England and Wales Cricket Board, Andy Mackay, had a slightly different road into the world of grounds management. The born and bred Lancastrian read Archaeology and Ancient History at Lampeter University in Wales before switching direction to pursue a career in the world of turf maintenance; until then, something he had only done part-time around his studies. Phil Helmn reports.
I think it fair to say, Andy is very passionate about the technical and scientific aspect of the fine art of wicket management. His thirst for knowledge explains how, in his early days, saw him completing his A-levels and graduating from university while holding down a part-time post at Lytham Cricket and Sports Club, in Lancashire, where he worked for four years. From Lytham he moved to St. Annes Cricket Club on a full-time basis where, during his six years, he went on to gain a Higher National Diploma qualification in turf science and golf course management from Myerscough College in Preston.
Three years in, he also took on Blackpool Cricket club, an out ground for Lancashire County Cricket Club, before making the leap from the Fylde coast to Sussex to join the team at Sussex County Cricket Club as Deputy Head Grounds Manager in 2006, before becoming Head Grounds Manager in 2008.
Fast forward twelve years, and following a remarkable transformation and renovation of the ground and the introduction of some innovative best practice methods (both on and off the square) at Hove, as well as improving himself further via undertaking a Bachelor of Science in Sports turf Science and Management, Andy had the calling from cricket's governing body, The England and Wales Cricket Board to help them replicate some of his ideologies and best practices as their new Pitch and Grounds advisor.
I hadn't seen Andy for over two and a half years, when he had supported both myself and the Head Groundsman Richard Geffen on the Goodwood cricket surfaces as we embarked on a wicket renovation programme.
After all the usual stuff 'turfie' blokes talk about when catching up after a while, I congratulated him on his new role and asked the obvious question, "So what do you actual do in your new job?" Andy, always gives measured and thoughtful answers, he replied, "I've always been fascinated by cricket pitches, outfields; well, turf in general really, and how it's managed." Andy went on, "My new role is to work towards the improvement of cricket playing surfaces, support the First Class Counties and their Head Grounds Managers, turf management practices at all levels of the game and to generally provide technical support with respect to pitches and turf for the first-class game and Team England. I'm expected to support the National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough University and develop and direct research projects on future innovations; something I feel passionate about."
Andy started his new role in March 2020, all fired up and ready and eager to go, however, as we all remember too well, March 2020 was the beginning of the COVID pandemic! Just like the rest of us at the time, Andy had the phone call one week into his new role to say, 'That's it Andy…the England Cricket Board (ECB) has gone into lockdown, you need to go home immediately and wait for further instructions.'
Andy recalls, "I remember quite vividly, I was in a hotel in the Midlands ready to visit Edgbaston County Cricket the next day when I was told to return home. Not the most ideal start to my new job. However, I set up on the family dining table, like the rest of the country, and did my best. I soon had to move out to the garden shed in desperation as the kids, who had also been sent home from school, had to use the table for their schoolwork, and I couldn't get anything done! I spent a lot of time talking to the Head Grounds Managers over the phone."
Andy busied himself supporting the Head groundsmen up and down the country who were still having to maintain their turf (often with skeleton teams) and advise how best to do that during an incredibly stressful time. Of course, mental awareness featured heavily (and still does), and Andy was able to reassure and provide moral support to his industry peers, something that could only be done by someone with Andy's experiences and history.
Andy is part of the Domestic Cricket Operations Department at the ECB but his role also works across Team England and the Facilities Team who, amongst many other things, take the lead on the bulk of the recreational grounds management support (approximately 3,500 clubs). Andy spends 90% of his time supporting the First Class professionals (nineteen venues) and working with the international pitches and venues, but always has one mind on the recreational game and its support network. He also supports the Loughborough cricket facilities where Will Relf heads up the National Cricket Performance Centre, the base for training the national squads.
He gives a lot of thought to the recreational game and the County Pitch Advisors. To that end, the ECB set up the Pitch Advisory Service (similar to the advisory services which support rugby and football surfaces) which is run by the Grounds Management Association (GMA). This is a cricket specific service, with three full-time members of staff, which exists to support recreational pitches.
Andy explained that they are re-writing the maintenance advice from TS4 and putting it on the Toolkit section of the GMA website for all to access. This will eventually link in with an app called 'Pitch Power', which I'm advised will hopefully be up and running soon. "This will be extremely beneficial to grounds managers as they can input some basic information and use this to access some advice. The County Pitch Advisors will be also able to access this information, so they can help if needed. I think it's going to be a hugely useful tool to promote better practices and assist in improving surfaces. Going forward, the bulk of our advice for recreational grounds management will be going out via the GMA."
Behind every pitch there's a person
Being an ex-cricket grounds manager himself, Andy can vouch that the role of a grounds manager is a very tricky business which inherently comes with a lot of stress and, potentially, anxiety, particularly in the world of elite sport. "When I landed my new role, I wanted to help grounds managers with the stresses and strains of the job. First and foremost because it was the right thing to do, but also because we need everyone to be able to perform in the best way possible. I'm focused on ideas which may help build strategies for coping with some of this pressure." Andy explained.
"I'm working on 'The First-Class Playing Facilities strategy' to answer the rapidly changing needs of the game, and the questions this asks of grounds teams on wellbeing, practice facilities, pitch quality, outfield performance and people skills, because at the moment many things simply feel unsustainable. An important part of this is the message that behind every pitch there's a person or people," Andy clarified.
"These potential solutions are directly related to drivers such as the rapid growth in women's cricket, the Hundred, climate change, the effects of Covid and the changing expectations of players, broadcast partners and spectators. Of course, when discussing climate change, it's equally important not just to look at how this is affecting grounds, but to ask how grounds are affecting the climate and the environment. So, a key objective for this strategy is sustainability, in all sorts of ways."
Recently, there has been increased pressure on venues to host music events and concerts to bring in revenue, which hugely impacts the groundsmen and their ability to produce good surface quality for the original intention of the ground. The overall goal of the Playing Facilities strategy is to respond to the current pressures and map a way forward, helping and supporting everyone so that professional cricket gets what it needs to be successful. Andy continued, "We also have a recruitment crisis brewing due to a distinct lack of skilled groundsmen in the industry now and I know that this is mirrored in most of the turf management sectors such as football, rugby and golf. I believe both Brexit and COVID seem to have played their part, but it's essential that we do something about this."
Data gathering, surveys and steering groups are being set up to better understand what's happening and what's required. "I'm hugely passionate about apprenticeships and feel that this could help provide some answers, if we can support it in the right way, but we'll look at a wide number of solutions, including partnering other sports. We also need to start answering the question of why approximately 99% of our workforce is male and why we have very little diversity in the workforce…that can't be right, that's a ridiculous scenario! The underlying challenge is to create more skilled people, but also to make grounds management visible and more attractive to work in… and we need to do it relatively quickly."
Pitch management has been described as something of a 'black art', but Andy's role is based much more on science and experience than mystic myth! He very much sees himself as a supportive, unbiased second pair of eyes, primarily there to support each head grounds manager to deliver best practice. "Each venue is inherently different, as you would expect." He explained, "Different environmental factors such as climate produce unique challenges, and coupled with different soil types, age of pitch and grass species, as well as different challenges from the end users, make for a complex approach to management. You also have different grounds managers with different ideas and different needs. They are all experts in their own right, so I get to have some fascinating conversations and frequently get to challenge my own ideas every bit as often as I might have the opportunity to challenge theirs. Pitch production is a science supported by the experience and art of the individual, and not something that you will ever learn just from a text book…but that doesn't mean that the text books and research papers aren't of huge value!"
Andy explained that the ECB ask that a venue prepare 'the best pitch possible' and have a 'Pitches Document' for quantifying pitch performance in the domestic game. "It's designed to set out the standards required and protect quality and prevent too-much home advantage," he said. "Understandably, we want certain performance criteria, but we are also sympathetic to the reality of the challenges in venues and make allowances. There's a match referee at every game and it is their responsibility to 'mark' the pitch on a scale of 1 to 6 on its performance."
Right: Andy and Phil Helmn
The pitch is rated on consistency of bounce, the amount of bounce and carry, the amount of seam movement, and the amount of spin (a three/four day pitch should deteriorate to offer more spin as the game goes on, whereas a one day pitch should not offer more than too much spin at any stage). The scoring is as follows:
- = Unfit
- = Poor
- = Below average
- = Above average (there is no average)
- = Good
- = Very good
Andy explained, "If a pitch scores 3 or below, it would usually instigate an investigation by the match referee. If they consider that the ground had genuinely attempted to prepare the best pitch possible, and that their actions have been reasonable, then they will report that no further action is required. But if they have doubts, then they might ask me to provide a technical inspection of the pitch and then, if they still have concerns, may ultimately look to take this matter further."
A technical report on the pitch is to better help understand why a particular pitch hasn't 'performed' and give the regulatory process more information. This will help officials to understand why a pitch has been sub-standard, but also it can help the venue understand and find ways to prevent it happening in the future. Mostly though, pitch marks are high across the board, reflecting the high standard of pitches in the English game, and it's very rare that a pitch investigation needs to be taken further than the Match Referees and a technical inspection.
Overall, pitch marking is a hugely emotive subject and the difference between one mark and another can be tough to call. Some people get upset and others are more stoical, and as you can imagine there is every emotion in between. However, it's a transparent process and the match referees are never more than one mark away from where they probably should be, and match referees also seek feedback from umpires out in the middle.
Emirates Old Trafford
"I'm there to support the process and to offer advice to match referees and grounds managers, if needed. I'm hugely sympathetic as to how difficult the role of the grounds manager is and I also understand the pressures they are under to produce what their home side needs, whilst trying to satisfy what the ECB want."
To finish (but not quite)!
It's always a pleasure to catch up with Andy, especially after such a long time, and I was delighted in hearing about some of the complexities of his new role. He is extremely passionate about all things cricket and pitches, as well as the people involved in the great game. Andy and the rest of the people at the ECB are working hard behind the scenes to support the game. It's a big job, but there's no doubt that his enthusiasm, passion and experience will win the day!
Whilst catching up with Andy at the beautiful and historic Goodwood ground, we began chatting about wicket stitching and all its complexities. We ran out of time but agreed to catch up soon to discuss his ideas, data and personal experiences on choice, installation, renovation and maintenance on this relatively new hybrid revolution!