The route into groundsmanship is one that seems to seldom stray from a well-trodden path. Many of today's grounds managers entered the profession as young jobbing apprentices keen to learn and move on up.
The storyline differs somewhat in the case of Andy Mackay, enjoying his first full season as Head Groundsman at Sussex County Cricket Club. Following an unorthodox path, the 31-year-old Lancastrian read archaeology and ancient history at Lampeter University in Wales before switching to a career in groundsmanship, a pursuit he had always been passionate about.
Twelve months into his post at Hove, Andy is staring across the outfield at a uniformly brown surface, burnt bone dry by the unrelentingly fierce June and July sun beating down on the seaside ground.
"I wish I could show you it in a different state," he says rather sorrowfully, "but we have no irrigation system here yet, and it has only rained twice in the last six weeks. The ground looked a treat a couple of months ago though."
Andy wasted little time combining his passion with academic studies - completing his A levels while holding a part-time post at Lytham Cricket Club, in Lancashire, where he worked for four years.
In that time he graduated from Lampeter, before going on to gain an HND qualification in turf science and golf course management from Myerscough College in Preston while spending a further six years at St. Annes Cricket Club, and also three years at Blackpool Cricket Club, before moving, with his family, to Sussex as assistant head groundsman.
Admitting to being "obsessed with the 22-yd strip in the middle of the ground", Andy has clearly built on his scientific grounding gained at Myerscough to introduce some new thinking and logic into the Hove ground at what is a critical time in the life of the 140-year-old site.
Constrained by housing, Hove has little room to manoeuvre physically, despite the rising fortunes of the club in the top echelons of cricket. In 2003, it won the first county championship in its history, going on to win further titles in 2006 and 2007.
The recent success has laid the foundations for an action plan to improve ground facilities and turf conditions in, what will prove to be, nothing less than a transformation. Renowned for its 'low and slow' wickets, the square, also in its 140th year, is to be replaced progressively in a 5/6-year programme of excavation and relaying as part of an overall multi-million pound redevelopment that will also see an increase in seating capacity, catering facilities, improved turfcare amenities and new irrigation system.
Andy relishes the prospect of leading his team into a refurbishment that, he believes, will give Sussex some of the best wickets in the country.
A good grounding in the science behind what he does will stand him in good stead, he believes, as will possessing an avid interest in studying turf from a cricket perspective.
"I find the peculiarities of the wicket fascinating. After all, it's what we all strive to get right," Andy insists.
Pressure of fixtures is increasingly proving a headache for him and his team. "We have fifteen wickets in total here, ten of which are to first-class standard. The weight of fixtures means we've used every one of them so far, putting major pressure on the main square, which is showing its age under the strain."
With Sussex being one the 'driest' county clubs in the country, keeping a healthy green surface throughout the year is a task nigh on impossible to achieve, Andy adds, but he remains in bullish mood.
"There is no real solution to our problem. We just have to make it work as best we can and pump water on to it when we have the opportunity. Our shallow profile means the square naturally dries out quickly."
"We struggle to produce wickets with any pace in them here at Hove, although remedial measures last autumn have meant a slight improvement this season."
"This is based on the condition of the surface at Hove, which has a serious soil fracture - a deterioration typical of older cricket squares, in this instance caused by an incompatibility of loams.
The soil fracture - at 25-30mm deep - is the optimum level for ruining a wicket and the reason why our square has a low bounce and a lack of pace," he adds. "In addition, on some wickets, there is an 11-12% organic content in the soil that has built up over time.
This square is probably similar to most other First Class squares as they were back in the eighties and early nineties but, while other counties relaid their squares back then, our square was actually playing well at that time."
"It's time we relaid the square. The received wisdom says it needs relaying after 25 to 30 years. Ours is 140 years old. So, starting in September, we'll be excavating two wickets at a time under a plan to replace them all over a 5-6 year period. Although I'd love not to have to renew the whole square, I'd rather someone shoot me down for trying and failing than for not trying at all," he states in typically forthright fashion.
Andy explains the process to be undertaken. "We will use a Stihl saw to cut down the side of each wicket to give a good line, and a digger is then brought in to excavate to the required level. We'll be looking to lay no more than 125mm of cricket loam. This is laid at two inches at a time - we'll use a Surrey GOSTD mix similar to the 125 - we'll heel in well, rake over the surface and then add the next layer."
"Although several alternatives exist when replacing wickets, we ultimately want a solid base. The results of testing on our sub soil will be back from the STRI any day now, but it is likely that we will want to incorporate some sort of imported base material.
Although gravel is a possible option, the main drawback found with a gravel base is that, without a very deep construction, in hotter weather the wickets can dry out far quicker, and lead to settlement and cracking problems since it effectively severs the wicket from the water table. Other grounds on the south coast that have followed a similar route have come across comparable problems."
"We want to achieve the characteristics of a solid base without any of the problems that come with it. Having capillary movement of water is crucial and I am toying with the possibility of installing a blinding type layer/gritty sand to create a solid base, but allowing moisture movement upwards. This is one possibility anyway."
"After relaying, wickets can take from two to six years to settle and become established, with time needed to achieve a good bulk density."
Andy believes the relaying programme will give Hove a real opportunity to have the best wickets in the country. "We don't want to be known as a club who can only achieve average wickets. The work will hopefully show its benefits over the next six years, giving us the standards the club deserves."
"Preparing a wicket isn't the real skill - it's all the work that leads up to it that's the true test of a groundsman's worth, ensuring the bones of what you work with are good."
Sussex CCC have regular fixtures in the four domestic competitions: the LV County Championships, the Twenty20 league, the Natwest Pro40 and the Friends Provident Trophy, as well as the odd tourist match, Second XI and community games, giving the season an increasingly cramped make-up and groundstaff less time to keep the square in the condition that Andy wants.
That can only worsen with the advent of the English Premier League next year, he believes. "Short gaps between fixtures can give us a real headache," he declares. "In the hot sun the grass can't be kept alive long enough for it to establish properly after reseeding. Right now we have a twelve day gap which we will take full advantage of by reseeding, which should take seven or eight days, with establishment ideally by the twelfth day."
Andy's choice is 100% ryegrass - Barenbrug Bar extreme mix - finding that it produces "particularly fine turf, alongside a BarGold cultivar, which establishes well in the South-east", he explains.
But finding the right seed mix is not always straightforward. "Many clubs are a little in the dark, as conclusive results showing what works best for what soil type have still to be found," he says. Some believe the recent ECB funded STRI tests, conducted on a Yorkshire hillside over a two-year period, failed to bring about results representative of clubs in the south, but, he argues.
"At present, like many other groundsmen, I'm doing my best with what information I have. I still feel that the STRI 2003 grass trials should have been used to give us a good set of data, but they seem to have been criticised into non-existence rather than being the stepping stone for some really meaningful follow up work."
Rolling is an issue at the heart of his concerns, and Andy believes that the ECB recommendations on the most appropriate machines to use have failed to be as decisive as he would have wished. "I would have liked to have seen the Cranfield recommendations going a little further in order to actually effect change in the industry and in the manufacture of traditional rollers, particularly in regard to larger drum diameter and heavier roller weight." The recent acquisition of a Benford Terex TV1200 is proof of his commitment to that belief. "It's not yet ideal, but it is as close as I can currently get to what I see as ideal - it's a step in the right direction."
Helping Andy bring the long-term plans to fruition at Hove is a team of six staff.
Others work elsewhere for the club, including the Allfield Academy ground.
Three apprentices began work at the end of June, two 19-year-olds and a 27-year-old career-changer, further proof of Andy's commitment to people power for the good of the ground.
"Our team is really well looked after," says Andy. "We ensure their hours aren't ridiculous as they often have been in the past. We find it's important to rotate staff, allowing the legal requirement of an 11-hour break between shifts. This helps to improve productivity and give the men more time off - a win-win situation."
With working hours rising to eighty a week in some instances in the industry, Andy is keen to try to ensure his staff don't go beyond sixty. He says that, ideally, he would like to advocate a system that many view as a hindrance not a help - the EU's working hours directive.
"There is a huge amount of implied pressure in the industry to work reckless hours. Life and work suffers as a result, so I would like to see concrete measures introduced to make sure working hours are regulated," he says. "I remain utterly convinced that people could work less yet achieve more."
As a man intent on catering for the wellbeing of his working team, it is little surprise to discover that health and safety ranks high on Andy's agenda. "We take it seriously and have made a real effort to improve matters in recent years, providing all the necessary clothing, footwear, ear defenders and sun protection cream across a range of SPF levels," he explains.
"Ultimately, the point of it is to help us work safely, not to hinder us working, and is about a commonsense approach and being as professional as we can be. We make sure we not only do what is legally needed, but also what is right to do as a caring employer."
Matching the club's commitment to its groundstaff is the financial one that will enable a major redevelopment of facilities over the next few years, aimed at retaining Hove's intimate feel, while improving the square and outfield to a standard that, Andy believes, will rival that of any county side.
The redevelopment has proved possible thanks to a £10m bequest by local business tycoon and cricket lover, Spen Cama, on his death in 2001.
He also bequeathed a similar sum to Preston Nomads cricket club, which is linked to Sussex CCC and is based at Fulking at the foot of the Sussex Downs.
Carrying on Cama's charitable spirit, the Nomads have invested in ground facilities and have set up a trust in their past president's honour, enabling other clubs to apply for funding for ground improvements.
The Sussex CCC bequest will fund an expansion of seating capacity at Hove from 7,000 to 10,000, Andy explains, with installation of a £60,000 pop-up irrigation system scheduled within the next two years.
Phase one of the redevelopment begins in September under a £400,000 commitment to turfcare facilities and catering, Andy adds. New machinery sheds, tearoom, wash bays for grounds machinery and a wastewater recycling facility are all planned.
The windfall will allow Sussex to complete the work needed to bring ground facilities and the square up to the levels the members deserve, Andy explains. Yet, for many category C grounds, funds are increasingly tight and a groundswell of opinion among groundsmen favours a move by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to fund improvements of the outfield at such grounds.
"The Board needs to consider helping out the lower category sides financially, in the same spirit in which the category A and B have been helped," Andy maintains. "If not, there's a danger that a gulf will open up between category A and B clubs and others like us. The ECB may make deferential payments but this is still to be decided," he adds "and, in any case, there are no assurances that the money will be spent on the improvement of fine turf."
"I understand that there is only so much money in the pot, and that the intention was to improve facilities for the National side, however, when we get down to the nitty gritty of the domestic competitions, it feels like we've been left out."
Cricket grounds may soon benefit from investing in so-called 'grow lights' after witnessing their success in football and tennis. Clubs have experimented with them to help dry out grounds after heavy rainfall. But, again, Andy fears that it will be category C clubs that could miss out because only the wealthier ones will be able to afford them. "I would like to see them being used to also aid turf growth, yet I doubt this will happen anytime soon," he states, "and I worry that, if the ECB ever go down the route of funding the lights at the category A and B clubs, then it will further widen the void between them and the category C clubs - presumably giving those grounds an unfair advantage in the domestic game."
The Hove floodlights are due to be upgraded before the 2010 season rolls into action. "The eight floodlights currently installed are no longer considered bright enough, so it is vital to upgrade them prior to the launch of the English Premier League next year."
Sussex, always pro-active, was the first club in the northern hemisphere to install floodlights, so it's only natural that they would be among those to date first.
The current 750 lux floods will give way to 2000 lux stanchions delivering "almost daylight levels of illumination" Andy notes. "The eight current lights, two positioned at each corner of the ground, run on a generator and can be unreliable."
"We've had problems with the generators this year against Kent and Surrey. For the Surrey game we actually had a backup generator on site and so it only caused us minor delays," he adds. The new lights will run on mains electricity so should remove that worry."
The quality of turfcare at Hove has brought praise from the Australians, when Sussex played host to the tourists recently - particularly the practice nets, now being hailed as some of the finest in the country.
"Every team that comes here has made a point of complimenting us on their quality," Andy states proudly. "After the end of the season last year the club allowed me to invest both money and time in them and the results are showing."
But, it hasn't all been plain sailing. "The practice square, with thirteen strips, was relaid three years ago at dead level," explains Andy. "There was nowhere for the water to drain so, when it rained, puddles would lie everywhere. We addressed the problems last year with the use of a Koro Field Topmaker and managed to put a slope on the surface. We also completely reconstructed the run ups."
The major investment planned for Hove, coupled with the intelligence, courage and commitment of Andy and his team, has spelt an end to an era of under-investment in ground conditions that, Andy believes, had continued for far too long.
"What has been most evident to me since I came here is that a 'make do and mend' approach just isn't good enough and doesn't do us any favours in the long term.
"After a number of years of this approach - with all good intentions - the square has reached the stage where we need to start again from scratch."
With it, a new age of enlightenment will dawn to end an eon of 'low and slow' wickets at the country's most successful county side of recent years.