Turning round an international cricket square 90 degrees and absorbing ever busier sporting calendars have only served to further raise standards at Emirates Old Trafford, where Greg Rhodes caught up with multi-award winning Head Groundsman Matt Merchant.
When someone has won three ECB Grounds Manager of the Year awards, we feel compelled to ask the recipient the secret of their success, which is why Pitchcare returned to Emirates Old Trafford pre-season to ask Head Groundsman Matt Merchant that very question.
Once again, he has been recognised and honoured for producing outstanding pitches for three- and four-day cricket but Matt knows the importance of the team dynamic in lifting those accolades.
"No-one is ever going to win such an award unless they have a quality team around them and I certainly have that here," he states.
Well before Matt received the first of his three Bernard Flack trophies in 2009, you sensed something special was afoot at Lancashire Cricket and, by the time the transformative changes began to raise the club to new heights of provision and excellence, he had steeped himself in its culture and values.
"I've seen many changes to Emirates Old Trafford during my time here and plenty of hard work has gone into preparing these pitches over the years."
Arriving as a 16-year-old in 1990, Matt served under industry doyen Peter Marron, working his way up to the top spot in 2009. His ﬁrst award was bestowed just a year before the monumental feat of turning the Old Trafford square 90 degrees to aid batsmen's visibility.
Four years later he notched up his second honour. After his most recent triumph, can he keep the trophy, akin to Brazil after they had won their third World Cup in 1970?
"No, you can retain it for a season before returning it to the ECB," Matt explains. "I brought it into work and kept it in the brew room though so we could all see, as winning the trophy was really a team effort."
Is he leading the ﬁeld in terms of past winners of the mounted silver trophy? "Bill Gordon at Surrey won it ﬁve or six times I think, so I've a long way to go yet."
In fact, Bert Flack was employed at Old Trafford for a few years, Matt continues. "The Cricket secretary at the time got confused over names and took him on by mistake, instead of Bernard Flack."
The turning of the square marked a turbulent and triumphant period in Lancashire's fortunes. "We won the championship in 2010/2011, after we'd played in the strips, then a year later we were relegated, before bouncing back from the second division the next season."
Lifting the ECB Grounds Manager of the Year award reflects not so much a high point in time as a level of pitch standard unequalled by one's peers across an entire season.
"A match referee marks pitches for pace, bounce, carry, turn and quality at all the grounds throughout the season, and the highest scoring ground takes the honours," Matt explains.
Emirates Old Trafford was not the only ground in the Lancashire Cricket 'family' to be singled out for pitch quality. Alex Kegg received a commendation for his work on the Chester Boughton Hall outground.
Covid impacted the ground as it has done at so many venues over the last two years, although the grounds team were kept busy preparing pitches for matches held behind closed doors.
"Many of the staff weren't furloughed," Matt recalls. "In 2020, we hosted West Indies, who used the ground as a training camp for three weeks before their Test at the Ageas Bowl. Then we had back to back Tests with the Windies (two games), Pakistan (one game) - never been done before - plus three T20s against Pakistan and three ODIs against Australia.
Currently, the Emirates Old Trafford pitches comprise eighteen wickets, eleven for ﬁrst class matches, ﬁve of which are TV strips, the remainder are used for practising on (the boundaries are too short).
The dearth of cricket during lockdown fostered strong grass cover on the square, Matt notes. "We had no-one in from April to May, so we just kept the square well-watered and groomed." Meanwhile the grounds team were temperature monitored every morning then lateral ﬂow tested by the nurse every three days.
With mental wellbeing so prominent an issue, how does Matt manage the pressures of the job? "Talking helps a hell of a lot," he says. "My wife Debbie is a social worker - her job involves adults with learning disabilities. We've been together a long time now and she knows to prompt me to talk about the day, rather than keeping things under wraps."
"Debbie can tell if it's been a bad day. We are both good listeners and I'll ask her how her day has gone too."
Seldom do grounds teams stay static for long and that applies at Emirates Old Trafford too, with Harry Morton and Andrew McHale both recently turning full-time.
"Harry has taken up from Colin Bury, who looked after the nets before retiring last year. Les Stephens is now full-time, after three years as a seasonal."
New apprentice Clifford Herd, 'CJ', is already a hit with the team. "Currently taking Sportsturf Management at Myerscough College, he spends 80% of his time on the job and the rest as study days."
Sadly perhaps, the team's sole women member departed to pursue other opportunities. "Tracy lived in Cumbria and helped out for two seasons. She's a cricket umpire and follows the Barmy Army so travels a lot," Matt says. "She was in the West Indies recently, following England."
Hopes rose of a replacement when a woman was set for interview for an apprenticeship - "but she never turned up!"
The rise of women's cricket and a wealth of formats, including the onset of the 100-ball game, creates added demand for staff, Matt maintains, and has sparked a shift in work patterns.
"Between mid-March and the end of September, no-one has a day off because of our workload. That's the way it's always been since my first day here. By the end of the season, we're all absolutely goosed. This is something we are looking to change with more staff to achieve a better work, life balance."
"Now the lads get three days to themselves, away from work pressures."
Matt is seeking to further strengthen the team, with two seasonal and an outground supervisor, which links us to Matt's most intriguing news - the prospect of a brand new ground.
Farmland in Farrington Moss, near Preston, is earmarked for the creation of a major facility that includes Lancashire Cricket's Academy, 12-wicket first team ground for men and women, 12-wicket recreational ground, pavilion in the middle of them, and a practice area and two artificial strips.
"We're in the planning stages now," Matt confirms, "and hope to get the go-ahead soon." If they do, the first spade could break soil for the squares in August, with first games following in the 2024 season.
"Wicket construction will be the same as for those at Emirates Old Trafford," Matt adds. "The recreational ground's use is still under review - possibly for second elevens men and women and community games."
Which is where the outground supervisor position fits in. "The plan is for this person to become head of the grounds team at the new site, with me becoming grounds manager for the two centres."
Back to Emirates Old Trafford, where recent seasons have seen some turf developments. The Johnson Premier Wicket ryegrass mix trialled on the nets nearly a decade ago has proved its worth, Matt says - so much that it has outgrown its boundaries to set seed across the whole stadium.
"After Mallinsons Koroed the outfield three years ago, we sowed Premier Wicket throughout and four varieties in the mix have done the job for us."
After that kind of backing, you have to give it odds on for the new ground.
Like many a stadium with perimeter overhangs, Emirates Old Trafford has seasonal issues with grass growth. "For six months of the year, the outfield under the building housing the players' areas and media centre receives no sun, so we invested in two MU50 lighting rigs, previously across the road at Manchester United."
"We've been using the rigs throughout the winter to encourage better grass growth - and the cost of the electricity it uses is not a massive problem." Maybe by the time this article is out it will be with the energy price hike!
Deeply ironic as the club's reason for turning the square was too much glare for batsmen. "We must have been the only cricket ground where players went off because of sunlight," Matt jokes.
Under Lancashire Cricket's strategy of growth is construction of a new stand to replace the Red Rose suite, currently being demolished.
"The stand should boost stadium capacity by around 5,000," Matt estimates, "and should be ready for our Ashes test in 2023 if the 18-month build programme runs to schedule."
With heightened interest around the change from diesel and petrol to electric, no surprise that Lancashire is moving ahead on this front. "We plan to change all existing machinery to electric within the next few years," Matt reveals, "and have already purchased two Inﬁnicut cylinder wicket mowers with groomers, and a Dennis ES-36 electric mower to replace our mighty machine, the 42in Allett Regal."
The move to silent service for machinery has been prompted from another source, however. "When Sky Sports ﬁlm here, they ask us to stop mowing because of the sound of the motors. They say it's just for ten minutes, but usually they're ﬁlming for far longer than that, which means we lose a fair bit of work time. It's frustrating but we have to live with it at the moment."
Also new in the shed is a ﬁve cylinder Toro outﬁeld mower and a new electric utility vehicle. The stadium's replacement pitch roller is a gleaming 2 tonne Autoguide Auto-Roller, replacing a smaller predecessor, soon to ﬁnd a second home at the Southport outground.
Probably this season's biggest challenge will be coping with ﬁve concerts in a fortnight, slap bang in the middle of Lancashire's cricket calendar, from 11th to 25th June.
"Seven days after the last event, we host Warwickshire Bears," notes Matt, "after two weeks protecting the ground with a 25mm covering protecting the turf from audiences of up to 55,000." As they say, 'good luck with that one'.
There is a silver lining to consider as Matt points out. "Once the second ground is completed, the concerts might well be held there. "Only joking, no chance of that happening."
Communication with and among the team is critical, of course, but the importance of a healthy working relationship with your line manager is just as key.
Matt's enjoyed a great rapport with Lancashire's head coach Glen Chapple over the years. Leaving aside the age-old discussion over home advantage, Matt says of his line manager: "Glen always wants us to prepare the best pitch we can in all formats, then says they'll try and do the rest."
It's all change though, as Matt now reports to new director of cricket Mark Chilton, whose predecessor and former Lancashire bowler Paul Allott retired last October.
"Mark was an opening bat for the club and was captain for a time. It's ironic that roles have reversed and Mark is now Glen's boss, when, eighteen months ago, Glen was Mark's."
The recent seismic upheaval that has shaken Yorkshire CCC to its foundations has sent shockwaves through every nook and cranny of cricket.
With its own eye on inclusivity, Lancashire is set to introduce revised job title nomenclature across the club reportedly, as Matt explains. "We'll be termed groundspersons, to reﬂect lack of gender bias and a policy of inclusivity," he notes. All part of the game's move to modernity across the board, you'd have to argue."
As a parting shot, I ask Matt if, thirty-two years in, he sees himself moving to pastures new. "You can never say never but I guess this is my forever job, for several reasons. I like it here, and am settled in the area, as is Debbie and our daughters Kara and Abby."
And who would not wish to stick around with a brand new cricket ground on the horizon, if given the green light. Certainly the next era of an already illustrious career is beckoning for Matt Merchant.
Since our last visit
- Relaid two new wickets last year which were part of the outﬁeld to accommodate more training sessions on the square
- Having to divert irrigation and drainage on the outﬁeld
- Practice strips relaid with Johnson's Premier Wicket. "Good results, fast germination and hardwearing"
- Four SIS stitched pitches installed on square - 2 green and 2 beige
- Four SIS stitched pitches installed on the practice area, same again 2 green and 2 beige
Matt Merchant, Head Groundsman David Shortt, assistant
Clifford Herd, apprentice
Andy Carney, gardener