Old Trafford cricket ground celebrated its 150th birthday in 2007, making it one of the country's longest standing venues for the game. But, it also marked a milestone in the test site's multi-million pound redevelopment.
The ground forms the centrepiece of a planned 750,000 sq ft redevelopment that will include a 25,000-seat stadium with new stands, conferencing and banqueting facilities and hotel, education, training and community sports facilities under an estimated £190m project.
With phase one of the three-phase programme complete - the opening of The Point conference centre, a resplendently red angular adjunct to what has, until now, proved the rather unprepossessing headquarters for Lancashire County Cricket Club - phase two stepped into gear on 20th September as soon as stumps were drawn on the club's final home game.
This phase involves nothing less than the reorientation of the main square by 90 degrees, to run north/south rather than east/west, to add a new compass to the capacity to play cricket during the later stages of the season.
The reason for the realignment is to help prevent the low, early evening sun blinding batsmen and interrupting matches to the point where players march off until the wicket's 'playable' again.
Old Trafford has never been blessed with an oversupply of wickets on the main square - just eleven available, in fact - one of the fewest in the top flight, but soon to be rectified as phase two will see that number swell to sixteen.
Such rotations are rare in cricket. Derbyshire's headquarters at the County Ground in Derby undertook the process after trialling a number of quirky solutions to the sunlight problem - one an engagingly Heath Robinson affair, erecting a sight screen on top of a tall stanchion. It didn't work, and realignment proved the only workable option, the club decided (see article in issue 27).
Old Trafford will be out of action for a year as its transformation takes place under the watchful eyes of Head Groundsman and 'local boy', Matthew Merchant.
Now in his twentieth year at the home of Lancashire CCC, Matthew joined Old Trafford as a junior groundsman straight from school.
"Back then, like most 15-year olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but my parents were publicans and I knew that I didn't fancy serving in a pub forever," he says.
"The club took on a work placement for two weeks and my predecessor, Pete Marron - who was a customer at my parents' pub, The Quadrant in Stretford, asked me to come along to spend the time with him at Old Trafford, which was just over the road."
Matthew completed the fortnight's placement in summer 1989 and returned to school. "I didn't expect anything to come of it but, the following year, I got a call from Pete notifying me that a job had come up at the club and asked whether I wanted it."
He hasn't looked back since, taking on the head post when Pete retired from the permanent position in 2008 to provide consultancy and to work privately in leafy Bowden, nearby.
Whilst officially right hand man to Pete for most of his twenty years here, Matthew was guided in much of his early training by Pete's assistant, Andy Fogarty, now Head Groundsman at Headingley.
The major reconstruction at Old Trafford will form one of the last pieces of the multi-million pound jigsaw of redevelopment, which will take the ground from one of the smallest first class squares in the country to one of the largest. "Only ten of the current eleven strips are available, because the eleventh is closer to the boundary than the minimum permissible distance of 55 yards. On a good day, Flintoff will hit the ball over the pavilion, that's how small the ground is."
The right angle rotation of the main square was entering its final planning stages ahead of Lancashire's last home match on the 20th September. Next season, the club's home fixtures will switch to the three outgrounds at Liverpool Cricket Club in Aighburth, Blackpool Cricket Club near Stanley Park and Southport Cricket Club in Birkdale.
Once the renovation is completed, the ground is scheduled to reopen for the 2011-12 season, "subject to the success of the work", Matthew says.
The root of the problem at Old Trafford stems from the pitch's east-west orientation, which means that, from late August to early September, the late afternoon sun shines directly into the batsman's line of vision, which has forced players, on many occasions, to retire until the sun sets below surrounding structures.
Rotating the square will not only alleviate the problem but also allow more wickets to be added to the main square, Matthew says. "After a while in discussions, the club felt now was a good time to move forward the work on the pitch, as developments on the stand were already proceeding. The full three-stage plans for the whole site will see, in addition to the square being turned, a new players' room and full media centre, to an overall cost of nearly £60m. The development will be supported and part funded by the North West Development Fund, Trafford Borough Council, Ask Developments and Tesco.
Under further plans to refurbish Old Trafford, permanent floodlights will be installed, replacing the temporary crane-based lights that the club currently rent for day/night games.
At the same time, the new players' room and media and education pavilion will be built on the site of the Washbrook-Statham stand. Members will continue to use the present pavilion, which will have its sloped roof replaced with two modern glass storeys.
Another building similar in design to The Point, and two twin-tiered cantilever stands are planned, flanking the new pavilion. A canopy will also be built over the Old Trafford Lodge to standardise the ground's look. "The real problem with the site at the moment is that it's a bit of a mish-mash of buildings," Matt states. "Once we get more uniformity, things will look much better and everything will fit together nicely."
Following the award of test matches to Old Trafford in 2010, 2014 and 2015, and the possibility of others being awarded, construction plans have had to be built around these dates when arranging the schedule for the building programme.
Work on improving the outfield began two years ago, when money was made available through ECB grants to improve test venue outfields. "The club wanted to improve the drainage on the outfield ahead of the work we're now doing on the square," says Matthew. "We dug down 16 inches, laid a membrane with 4 four- inch gravel carpet and finished off with 12 inches of 70-30 rootzone."
"We've long had problems with our drainage, so it was important that it's now remedied before the major work on the square begins."
The foundations for the work on the new square are underway, following nomination of the contractor, who have recently koroed the old square and the surface that will become the five new wickets.
"The footholes will be dug out and the pitches laid there, giving a total of five new pitches on the old square and eleven new ones built alongside, giving sixteen in total."
Relaying of pitches over the decades has created a hump in the square, Matthew reveals, akin to that in crown green bowls so, before work on the new square can begin, the levels have to be sorted out - work that will start only once the contract has been awarded.
Five tenders were received, says Matthew, who, along with director of cricket, Mike Watkinson, made the final decision. "Price and experience were the winning factors and the contract includes some of the outfield renovation work later on in the year."
Although most of the reconstruction process is still in its infancy, Matthew and the team have already made their minds up on some of the suppliers they plan to use on the new wickets once they're laid.
One of the early confirmed companies is DLF Trifolium, whose Johnson's Ji Premier Wicket mix has already been sown on the main square after concluding, what he says, were highly successful trials on the iSeed coated system he conducted in August.
These were the first independent field trials ever conducted in Britain on this form of coated seed, and have brought dramatic results, generating a thicker sward and a richer, deeper green that was maintained for far longer during the weeks following germination.
He used Old Trafford's practice areas as his testbed, sowing in strips running side by side with a comparable non-coated competitor's seed.
"We trialled the two mixtures firstly on practice wicket strips for a week, using germinating sheets and our new lighting rigs bought to aid growth," he explains. "After seven days, we removed the sheets and found both mixtures were showing a similar colour and growth rate, so decided to return the lights for a few more days, continuing to water both at the same rate.
"It was then that iSeed really took off and began to flourish. Compared with the other seed, which started to yellow off, the iSeed seemed to get a second wind at ten days and we saw a huge difference in thickness, colour and coverage.
"We sowed each mixture at the same rate, which meant that there was actually fewer seeds of the Johnson's mix because of the coating on them, so the results are especially satisfying."
The difference between the two seed-types trialled was most startling in the larger test area that Matthew utilised to sow them adjacently in two blocks. "The sheer difference in greenness gave a clear impression of light and shade," he reports. "After ten days, the contrast was so great that I decided to overseed two of the four competitor's seeded strips with iSeed to bring them up to a comparable colour.
"After two weeks of growth, we'd never usually expect coverage as good as this," he adds. "The results we found with the iSeed would be comparable to another full overseeding with a non-coated seed, and, even then, the colour would not be as brilliant as this - we're extremely pleased with the results."
"Based on the overwhelming success of the tests, we decided to oversow the mixture on the existing wickets and sow it on the new ones," Matthew adds.
Further tests will take place later on in September on more wickets and the outfield before being sown for play.
Given the scope of the redevelopment at Old Trafford, the wish is for the ground to retain its character and as many of the original features as possible, albeit with new striking elements, of the likes of The Point, to create a stadium for cricket's modern era.
Matthew's intention is that the latest programme of work on the square will create another dimension in flexibility and be of an orientation that allows the fullest possible play at all levels of the game.