Leicestershire County Cricket Club is one of the eighteen major county clubs which make up the English and Welsh national cricket structure. Head Groundsman, Andy Ward, spoke to Kerry Haywood about its history and developments at the Club, leading to the 2013 ECB Groundsman Award for the best one day pitches.
The one day pitches accolade hasn't been achieved in the twenty-nine seasons Andy Ward has worked at Grace Road and he sees this as an indication that they're moving in the right direction and something he has strived for during his time at the club.
Forty-six year old Andy first came to Grace Road when he was seventeen on a youth training scheme in 1985 and he has held the position of Head Groundsman since 2010. Everything he has learnt is through experience of working at the club and, since the purchase of Grace Road in 1965, the ground has been steadily developed as a first class venue.
This is not an easy task as, like any groundsman, presentation ranks highly with Andy, but it's not straightforward in cricket as the square and pitches get battered by rolling and covering to keep everywhere dry. So, when it looks nice in April, its downhill all the way from there, but Andy has a solid team to do all they can and he is appreciative for the hard work of his dedicated groundstaff; Simon Brown, forty-seven, Deputy Head Groundsman (fourteen years service), Callumn Lewin, twenty-three, Assistant Groundsman (five years service), Chris Skinner, fifty-two, Assistant Groundsman (five years service), and two apprentices - Sean Graham, eighteen and Shane Sketchley, aged twenty.
Andy and his team look after twenty-one pitches on the square, fourteen net pitches and the biggest outfield on the county circuit. Andy told me: "I will do the majority of work on the square, my deputy Simon looks after the outdoor net facility and the two assistants look after the outfield and any extra work on the square or nets. Rolling the pitches can be very time consuming and a bit of a bind, so I tend to share that job out, unless I need a rest and fancy a sit down on the roller! The two apprentices generally help out wherever needed."
The soil profile on the square is an ageing one of a poor nature, which has had many different topdressings applied over the years, resulting in layering. Andy commented: "There was never the research into different dressings back when I started - the general thought was we can try one dressing this year and another the next. Being an assistant at the time, I never once thought anything of it, then you realise, years later, the damage changing dressings has caused to the profile."
"Back in 2010, I prepared a one day pitch, and over a few days the pitch dried out. I noticed cracks appearing which, at first, was not a massive concern, but then the cracks turned into a moving plate. By the day of the game, the plates on the pitch were rocking. Luckily the pitch played okay and, afterwards, I pulled the plate straight out of the surface which came out like a tile. That's when I realised we had a major problem with the Grace Road square. Since then, I always try and keep as much moisture in the profile as possible and stop it drying out at depth. The pitches play far better with a level of moisture retained below in the soil profile."
"Our net area is a fine example of a correctly maintained playing area. These pitches were laid in 1989 by Hewitts Sportsturf (who we still use today to verti-drain our outfield), and they were constructed using Boughton loam, which we have used ever since. Creating a block of the same soil, with no layering, has resulted in quick bouncy net pitches. I spent a number of years looking after the nets prior to being Head Groundsman and it was a real eye opener moving from quick bouncy net pitches to the square which was lacking in pace and bounce."
Andy is keen to adopt improvement of the square by using the correct maintenance techniques which include plenty of spiking to get the roots going through the problem layer approximately 3cm down. "So far, we have drilled nine pitches using the Ecosolve drill and fill regime and will aim to do two more this year and every year after. They use 1" (25mm) diameter, drilling depth: 6-7", centre spacings: 6" drills and the holes are then backfilled by hand with Ongar loam. This is a painstaking task but well worthwhile as it helps tie the surface of the wickets together by providing "nails" of loam down which the turf can root easily and strongly, thus providing more uniform and improved bounce and ball speed. Ongar loam has been used for the past thirteen seasons and Andy will not be changing topdressings again.
Andy continued: "I try to water whenever possible to maintain a level of moisture within the profile and not allow it to dry out at depth. This is not an easy task, for example our first four day Championship game this season was postponed due to a tragedy at Derbyshire, and this resulted in the game being rearranged leaving me with fifteen days first team cricket out of nineteen at the start of June, with the Indian Test team arriving the week after. Getting enough water on the square during June has been impossible, so I am very concerned about the state of my square for the second half of the season."
"We have experienced all Mother Nature throws at us in the weather department, such as flooding, high winds, excess snowfall and frosts, not just out of season, but during the season as well. Preparing pitches in England is often a challenging task as we have such variable weather, that's why I like to have a thirteen day pitch preparation regime, even in the height of summer - better to be on the safe side! So, if the pitch looks like it's getting ready too early, I just sheet it down with a Stuart Canvas Pro-tech sheet and hold back the drying process."
"The work done by cricket groundsmen in this country is undertaken in the most adverse weather conditions anywhere. Our season starts in early April, so the squad like to practice outside from mid-March onwards, which means we are covering from mid-February to give the pitches enough time to dry. That time of year we encounter frosts and snow; I don't imagine any other cricket playing country in the world have to prepare pitches in the conditions we do here in this country. Cricket is supposed to be a summer sport, not a winter sport! Years ago, the players wouldn't report back for training until April 1st. Nowadays, they expect to be out playing matches by then."
To help combat this, they have plenty of covers and numerous ground sheets. Covering has come on a long way since Andy started back in 1985. Back then, it was heavy vinyl ground sheets which weighed a tonne but, thankfully, the new lightweight sheets are far easier to handle and kinder on the muscles and joints. As well as the Pro-tech ground sheets, they also use county grade standard sheets, all far more user friendly than the sheets of years ago. "I always like to remind any new member of groundstaff of this as they have it so easy now. At the moment I have seven sheets on my square and run ups - each sheet measuring 80x40 feet plus six mobile wheeled covers. We also have two 80x40 sheets down in our net area."
"Pitch renovation is most important as I have to get each used pitch back as soon as possible to use again later in the season," commented Andy.
"This is always a battle as, no sooner does the new seed come up, we will have another four day game where the square has to be kept dry and the new grass perishes in the sun. I tend not to have weekly/monthly regimes as whatever work is undertaken is dictated by what cricket is being played. My pitch prep can vary, from taking five weeks in February to March to produce a decent playing surface, to twelve or thirteen days in the height of summer."
"Sometimes, I will have four or five pitches on the go at once, all in varying states of preparation. I am a bit of a traditionalist (some would say dinosaur) when it comes to kit… I still use an old Sisis rake when clearing out my pitches of any thatch prior to rolling, and we also have a couple of Sisis Autorakes which we use for cleaning out pitches and pitch renovation. We have two Auto-rollers for pitch preparation - one stays permanently in the net area throughout the cricket season - and we also have two Allett Shavers (one for each area) and two Ransomes Auto Certes for cutting the square and net area. We have two 36" ride on outfield mowers for cutting the outfield and a John Deere triple mower for the outfield when we are short of time. We also have a Sisis 600 for end of season renovation to work alongside our two Sisis scarifiers. I have never really bothered too much with cutting heights; most of the time the head coach will request whether to leave the grass on or off the match pitch depending on the opposition. I scarify the square regularly using a brush and tine combination; it is always a battle to keep on top of the annual meadow grass."
After the season has come to an end (if not before), Andy's aim is to take out as much of the old grass as possible by scarifying in numerous directions and finishing off with a mechanical brush. The equipment for this work extends to three pedestrian machines alongside the two Sisis Autorakes and the Sisis 600. They overseed with R9 grass seed using a cyclone spreader to apply the seed. Last year, Andy scarified and overseeded the majority of the square before the season ended, which gave him a head start in terms of germination, and he topdressed with Ongar loam when the grass was up. With the cricket season ending late September, the time for renovation and getting the new grass growing is very limited, so it helps to get on as early as possible. Then, its normal autumn/winter maintenance - cutting, spiking and keeping an eye out for disease.
The club employs an outside contractor, JMG Amenities, to undertake the control of weeds, worms and moss on the outfield. Fusarium is always a problem due to the heavy covering necessary which produces a perfect environment for Fusarium to take hold.
In terms of wildlife, foxes have been a problem in the past, ripping expensive groundsheets etc. The club tried to control them by bringing in an outside company who would trap them and release them miles away but, as soon as one was caught, another seemed to take its place. However, the problem is not too bad at the moment and they seem to be staying away from the covers and sheets.
The ground is hired out for corporate days four or five times a season, mainly at the back end in September. This is on top of playing every Leicestershire first team fixture at Grace Road (no outgrounds) and fourteen days of county second fixtures. Therefore, maintenance, planning, future developments and budgets are paramount to the successful running of the club.
As with any club, budgets are very tight so every penny counts. Andy reports to the Operations Manager regarding every aspect as it can be a real struggle to stay within budget. The main restriction is in terms of relaying pitches, which are mainly due to cost, but also the fact that so much cricket is played that it's not an option to have two or three pitches out of play - this would lead to massive pressure on the rest of the pitches for a good two or three years. However, Andy strongly feels the drill and fill regime has helped to combat the need for relaying.
During Andy's thirty years at the club, he has obviously seen vast development and improvement to the grounds, including a new pavilion with offices, changing rooms and committee room, followed by the addition of the Fernie and Cottesmore Sponsors Suites and the Fox Bar. New entrance gates and hundreds of trees, shrubs and roses now complete the picture.
These are all welcome changes to Andy and, during his long service at the club, operations have improved greatly. "I am now involved in meetings that discuss the ground and pitches etc. which, believe it or not, the groundsman never sat in on before" Andy told me. "The working conditions are much better and time off has certainly improved. When I started there was no such thing as lieu time, and working over twenty days without a day off was the norm - now we get lieu time, although this is never easy to take during the summer months, so we tend to have a lot of time off during the winter, but at least we now get the time off!"
"Times are changing in the industry too. I still believe we are undervalued in this country, but things are slowly improving. I feel It would help, during televised games, if the TV pundits actually asked the groundsman questions regarding the pitch. At least this would mean they have a better understanding of what has gone into the pitch preparation before criticising it."