Nether Winchendon is every bit as rural as it sounds and it is the home of one of 21st century cricket's biggest on field influences. Neville Johnson went to this delightful corner of Buckinghamshire to talk to Ian Perkins, the man who, in a way, has outplayed the Aussies when it comes to saving matches
Ian Perkins had just spent all five days at Lord's for the Test match against Sri Lanka. Ah, those lazy, hazy days of summer. Sounds like heaven to a cricket lover. Not quite, because, for Ian, it was five days on duty as standby engineer to head groundsman Mick Hunt, something he's been doing for the best part of thirty years.
He's not joking when he says that getting up to go to the ground each day at 5.00am is totally draining. It has a ring of irony when you know that, as well as being on hand if anything goes wrong with any of the Home of Cricket's machinery - including the Hovercover and the sight screens, he has to keep an eye on the Blotters that take up, at speed, any excess rainwater that mars the outfield.
Blotters are recognised as industry standard in water removal, and they're Ian's 'babies'. Since the turn of the century, he's been making them at converted pig and dairy cattle buildings.
As a young man, Ian studied agricultural engineering at Askham Bryan College and Rycotewood College, eventually becoming service manager at Risborough Turf with Mark Barthelmie. It was on a work visit to Lord's that Mick Hunt asked him if he'd ever thought of going out on his own? He wanted an engineering mechanic on permanent call. CMS (Contract Maintenance Services), servicing all manner of machinery, was soon under way. Wyke Green Golf Club was Ian's first client, then Lord's, Twickenham, Stamford Bridge and other big name venues soon followed.
One day at Lord's working on Mick's kit, the then ECB pitch inspector, the late, great Harry Brind, came up to Ian and asked if he would be interested in looking after their Super Soppers, or Whales as they were better known, and taking them around the country to Test and county grounds. These were then the answer to mopping up areas of excess rainwater and, like all things doing well in cricket at the time, came from Australia. Ian, of course, said yes.
"It was a great piece of design by Gorden Withall from Australia. He was a very clever man," said Ian
The engineer inside him took over. The Super Sopper was 1970s design work and it had plenty of what he saw as 'shortcomings'. "You had to wind the wheels up, which was hard work and inefficient when time was of the essence," said Ian. "More significantly, it had insufficient safety guards."
There was work to do, but Ian, as a 'get it 100 percent right' mechanic, knew improvements could be made. In his words, he wanted to do to the Whale what the Japanese motorbike industry had done to the UK industry decades earlier - whip their butts and get things to be much more reliable!
Ian set about redesigning the whole machine, with hydraulics introduced to make it more efficient and user-friendly. He saw a benefit to the groundsman in making it out of stronger material too. An abundance of safety guards were also added, winning further favourable attention from groundsmen.
"I did loads and loads of doodles and sketches to get a better Whale. I suppose I was re-inventing it, helping it evolve," said Ian. "Hydraulic enhancement meant you no longer had turn a handle, you just push or pull a lever. That had to be an obvious improvement for groundsmen."
Hydraulics has always been Ian's speciality and there was a Eureka moment when he knew he'd got it right. The new embryo machine was very much his brainchild but, like all babies, it needed a name. He tells me that he and Richard Taylor of nearby RT Machinery, hit upon Blotter over a bottle of whisky one evening in his workshop. It was the simple idea of a blotter's capacity to soak up. "Obvious link when you think about it, but it took a glass or two to get there," said Ian with a smile.
That was fifteen years ago. He's since had a bit of a battle getting commentators to refer to it as the Blotter rather than the Whale or Super Sopper. He once went as far as emailing Aggers (BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew) telling him it was the Blotter soaking up the water, and it was British. It provoked a bit of Test Match Special on air discussion, Ian recalls.
On television screens it's unmistakable because the name is 'writ' large on the machine. Sky Sports has, now and again, joked about Blotter being emblazoned on screen, requiring stickers to be placed over the name to dampen what they see as free six figure advertising behind the bowlers arm or batsman's guard.
"There were very few early teething troubles. I'm glad to say I pretty much got the design right first go," said Ian.
"I believe in old fashioned engineering. If you make it big and strong enough, it ain't going to bust. Don't make something cheaper for the sake of it, and never skimp on materials." This must strike a chord with the pitchcare business where equipment reliability is everything.
The ECB was instrumental in introducing water removal equipment to cricket here by providing the earlier Australian machines to grounds. Ian's involvement has made sure the game here has home produced - and better - kit for the job.
All the test and county grounds up and down the country have at least one Blotter now. Some have two, or even three. Ian says that, right now, there are thirty-five Super Blotters and forty of the more recent Mini Blotters out there soaking it up.
All the Super Blotters in county cricket are owned by the clubs, and most of them are now ten years or so old. "We make them too well," said Ian, tongue in cheek. "They do last. The chassis is indestructible, but the drums and other parts do eventually need replacing."
In cricket, maybe the growth of what's referred to as the white ball game has something to do with the Blotter's commercial worth. There's so much more pressure to get a game on when there are large numbers of paying customers sitting there expecting play, not to mention television viewers. The media and sponsors demand that the game is on, and quickly. Groundsmen and staff are put under so much pressure.
"The slow handclap is depressing in sport, yet a great motivator to groundsmen and us the technical support," said Ian.
"The Lord's crowd at the Sri Lanka Test were amazed and delighted to see the Super Blotter soak up ninety gallons of water from the outfield in seconds after a heavy rain interruption. It's great to be appreciated, but the lions share of credit must always go to the groundstaff, who do an amazing job."
Cricket has always been, and still is, the mainstay of the Blotter's purpose and market, but its horizon is ever widening. Tennis, rugby, golf, rock concerts; they've all benefitted from Blotters. Anywhere, in fact, where excessive rainfall can damage an event and, more especially, its income. Blotters were even used on the set of Downton Abbey for the cricket match scenes where, just prior to filming, the pitch was absolutely flooded. What started out as a day's hire ended up being a three-week stint.
The latest very big appearance was on the set of the sequel to big box office spy-spoof film Kingsman, not just called Kingsman 2 but now officially Kingsman, the Golden Circle starring Colin Firth. One from the hire fleet was on duty for this and, just to add a bit of water pressure so to speak, Ian had a call for 'drying out' help from Buckingham Palace. There's hardly a dull moment for the Blotter in our wet climate.
CMS Blotter is a small firm. Ian wants it to stay just that, so they can carry on giving personal attention to all Blotter users. The lineup is Toby Sampson - with CMS Blotter for twenty-two years and is the electronics wizard; 'Webbie' - as he is always known - who does most of the delivery driving and spraying, and Ian, who's the hydraulics expert. The three of them help each other out daily. They're a very together team.
"Without Toby and Webbie, Blotter would just not exist," said Ian. "Toby is like a son: Webbie is like a brother. We bounce off each other."
In a day or two's time, Toby was to go to Hurlingham to talk to Peter Craig about its use there.
It takes eight to ten weeks to build a Super Blotter, and about three weeks for the Mini version. Assembly is totally by hand in the firm's workshops. Usually, they are made to order but, two years ago, they made one to have in reserve. It sat there for a while then, out of the blue, Ian had a call from Sunderland FC. The Stadium of Light had to postpone its first Premiership home game in August at great cost due to heavy rain. Ian shipped the standby up to Weirside the next day and they've never had to postpone a game because of surface water since. When things are quiet, which isn't very often, the team now build stand-by machines for such unexpected demand.
"One is all that can be held in reserve, because they're not cheap - just short of £30,000 these days for the large unit - and it ties up a lot of cash," said Ian.
The Mini Blotter is aimed at clubs that don't have the money for a large one. Ian got the idea from seeing the roller in action at Lord's and came up with a more compact unit that can stand up to repetitive use, and one that goes backwards as well as forwards. The weight pressure ratio means the foams don't go like they inevitably do in time with the bigger unit. Many of the counties have them and use them for the nets and nursery areas. Ian has just sold two to Scotland cricket.
They cost about £7,000 and, like the big Blotter, the Mini is completely hand-built and lasts. The company is in the process of designing and making a cheaper hand-pushed machine.
The metal parts are all plasma cut or made individually for them by local manufacturer CFC Profiling. All the welding, assembly and finishing is carried out by Ian, Toby and Webbie. All units feature thirty-five hydraulic hoses. Every component part is kept in stock, and they never run out.
The Super Blotter does its job quite simply by soaking up surface water, collecting it in two troughs and, by means of a pump, depositing the contents into a drainage outlet or jetting it beyond the boundary or play area.
As soon as the cricket season is over, the Blotters all come back for annual service. "There's a great, long line of them," said Ian.
"Many of the groundsmen bring them in themselves and have a day here. We strip them right down and give them a complete overhaul. We make every effort to see they don't break down after the winter service."
"The main problem area is invariably the drums. They can get damaged going over rough surfaces like concrete and can get beaten up. It takes us about seven to ten days to overhaul one. CMS Blotter are busy all year round, but early autumn is a seriously busy time. We knock the drums out by hand and weld them up - there's no other way - and remove and replace the foams."
"It costs about £2000 a year for a basic service, but the machine lasts for years and years. Maintenance - foam replacement especially - is a specialist skill and we don't recommend it is ever attempted in a club's own workshop. We go through each machine with a fine toothcomb."
Should there ever be a problem on site at a club, one of the team will there next day - the same day if possible - to sort it out. Ian and his colleagues pride themselves on their willingness, day in day out, to bend over backwards for their clients. The 24-hour parts guarantee is a real bonus to anyone in charge of outdoor facilities. "We've never lost one yet. Everybody keeps coming back to us," said Ian.
"Getting Blotters into universities and schools is our next goal. Grounds where Test cricket is played still get back-up machines from us for matches, but no pun intended, the cricket market is pretty nearly flooded."
"The machine offers great benefits to any establishment where avoiding postponement or delay to outdoor events is a money saver. We"ve already sold a machine to Loughborough University and several private schools."
"I've been very lucky. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. If it hadn't been for Mick Hunt and Richard Taylor, then being asked by the ECB to take care of their Whales, who knows? We still work closely with ECB Pitch Inspector Chris Woods and I'm pretty sure my machine's name has stuck because, often as not, I get called Mr Blotter."