When the news broke of the impending retirement of Steve Rouse, Head Groundsman at Edgbaston, our intrepid editor was on the case immediately to find out what had prompted his decision.
A trip to Edgbaston by Laurence usually signals rain - on the last visit Steve described it as "being so black, I thought God had turned the lights off", after three month's worth fell in just a few hours. And, as the Pitchcaremobile swung into the car park, the storm clouds gathered!
Steve has served Warwickshire County Cricket Club man and boy, both as a player - he was a left-arm pace bowler who took 270 wickets at 30.78 in his 127 games for the club - and then as a groundsman. Born in Glamorgan in 1949, his father, a former hurricane pilot, had wanted him to join the RAF and, dutifully, Steve sat and passed his entrance exams at RAF Cranwell.
So, how did you come to join the staff at Warwickshire County Cricket Club?
During the winter, I came down to Edgbaston to catch up with a couple of mates. One of them was the rugby fullback, John Gray, who was training at the indoor school in preparation for a game that afternoon between his side, Coventry, and Moseley. Well, in those days, there was no heating in the indoor school and I was sat at the back freezing my proverbials off, thinking, let's just go for a pint. I was approached by the then cricket coach, Derief Taylor, who said, in his broad Jamaican accent, 'come and have a bowl man'. I told him I was a big rugby man and knew nothing about cricket, but I gave it a go, just to keep warm. He must have seen some ability because, after the session, he suggested I joined the groundstaff at Edgbaston. I had no idea what that was, but Derief said that, if I was good enough, I stood a chance of becoming a professional cricketer. Once I knew I would get paid for the job, I jumped at the chance!
So, on Monday morning, I was back at the ground to meet Head Groundsman, Bernard Flack, and started the following Monday. Sadly, my dad never ever forgave me. He had always wanted me to become an RAF officer. He died a few years later of a heart attack whilst filling up his car with petrol. Very sad.
I started here, straight out of school, in 1966, aged sixteen. We were working with Kings Norton loam back then. It was very light and used to crack easily. The ground would actually move. I was told a story that, on one occasion, over 500 plugs were put into a Test wicket to stop the plates shifting.
What was it like working for Bernhard Flack?
Bernard was a hard taskmaster. He was officious and thorough. We started work at 8.00am. Not a minute after! Tea break was ten minutes. You finished at 10.00am on the dot and started again at 10.10am. Lunch was from 12.00 noon to 12.40pm, and then it was straight through to 5.00pm. No breaks, nothing. You either grafted or got out. Bernhard used to say, 'the only reason for being late is if you are dead'.
Those principles have stuck with me - I can't stand people being late.
When did you become head groundsman?
Andy Atkinson took over from Bernard, and I took over from him in 1994.
What prompted your decision to retire?
I'd been thinking about it for a couple of years. Both Jill, my wife, and I love travelling. I mean we 'love' it. She's got a high pressure job in Birmingham, working long hours, as I do, and we hardly see each other.
We've got a place in Cape Town which we go to every March. We love Africa and we love the Cape especially. I have done ever since I played there. We've been going for over twenty years. I love the people and I love the heat. I can't stand the cold. I've helped out at Newlands too, I just love the lifestyle. So, we sat down and talked very seriously - probably over the fifth bottle of red - about what we should do. What decided it for us was a friend of ours, who came back from holiday complaining of stomach cramps and, within weeks, had passed away from cancer of the pancreas. So I said, right, God gives us seventy years, I'm sixty-three now, hopefully I've got another seven to enjoy the travelling.
So, it was nothing to do with the pressures of the job?
No, you make your own pressure. My shoulders are big enough to take the pressure, and the guys I work with really are first rate. The best any head groundsman could wish for.
What has been the highlight of your career, both as a player and groundsman?
As a player, the Lord's finals. It's such a fantastic atmosphere playing at Lord's. I've played with some top players; Rohan Kanhai, probably one of the best batters I have ever seen, Dennis Amis, who is still a very good mate - although he yaps on about his golf too much these days - and Gary Sobers, without doubt the best cricketer I have ever seen.
As a groundsman, the highlights have to be the 1999 World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Australia, when South Africa needed one run to win off the last ball and Allan Donald didn't run, and the Ashes Test of 2005, when Australia were eight wickets down and eighty odd runs adrift. I came to the ground in the morning and there were thousands of people waiting to get in. The whole five days were fantastic and so noisy but, when Australia got down to wanting just two to win, you could have heard a pin drop, such was the tension. Me and the crew had stood waiting to go out with the hoses, thinking it'll be all over in a few minutes. Two hours it lasted for! When Harmy got the last wicket the place went ballistic.
How has cricket groundsmanship changed over the years?
Undoubtedly, the soils. they are far more consistent now. And the amount of cricket being played. If you ask any of the county groundsmen they'll all say the same thing. There's simply no time to carry out proper preps. What gets my goat though is the misuse of the net facilities. Constant throw downs from the same spot, and then they complain that the top's gone. They still carry on though, even though I tell them not to do it!
Machinery has improved too. We used to cut the outfield with the old 1950s 36" Dennis mowers that plodded along at about 1mph. Then we got four Alletts, with four gears, that were capable of going over 20mph. The speed of them shocked our then chairman who, when he saw them being used for the first time, came out and said [puts on posh voice] "this is not a race track". We told Bernard what had happened, thinking it might raise a smile, but he just gave us an almighty bollocking. He wasn't afraid of using the F word, I can tell you. After that we never cut any faster than 5mph, but were always dying to open them up. It used to take four blokes around six hours just to cut the outfield.
Now, we use a Toro triple, which was chosen after we trialed all the major brands. It was the personal preference of the groundsman that had to use it. They are upgraded every three years. They're a great secondhand buy for anyone who wants one, as they only ever go from the shed to the outfield.
What innovation has made your life easier?
The hover cover. I'd never go back to pushing those roll-on covers and dragging flat sheets about. It's brilliant. No mucking around with tractors towing on the covers, putting out the flat sheets and pipes, blokes waiting around in the middle to join the covers together. The hover takes about twenty-five seconds to get out into the middle. It' so quick it's unbelievable. And, of course, the reverse is true when play needs to resume.
We now have machines like the BLEC seeders, the Verti-drains, Groundsman Aerators and Gradens. They have made things so much easier.
The blotter is another great innovation. They saved a Test match against Australia in 2009. It started to rain at lunchtime on Saturday and it was torrential. The place was like a lake. We had six blotters going all afternoon and evening, and right through the night, to take away the water as it continued to fall. We used something like 140 gallons of petrol that night. By 8.00 on Sunday morning we were able to cut the outfield and the match started on time. The Sky TV boys were gobsmacked.
They couldn't believe what we had achieved. Mind you, we were all knackered. It's a brilliant piece of kit. It saved the club over a million pounds.
But, this is how daft the schedules are. The day after the Test match, we started a four day county game. At least those four days were dry - we spent the time sleeping!
The Climate Cover germination sheets that total-play Ltd supply have been brilliant too. Dave Bates has done a great job with them.
So, what would you say was your favourite bit of equipment?
The keys to the office when I shut up to go home!
I enjoy all aspects of the job; spiking, vertidraining. Cutting the square I find especially relaxing actually.
Should all Test wickets be the same?
I know that most Test grounds are on Ongar now, with the exception of Old Trafford, where Matt is still using Pete Marron's mix, and possibly Trent Bridge. I'm not sure what Steve is using there. The trouble is, it will create boring cricket. Once upon a time you could say that, if the weather turned overcast at Headingley, the ball would swing. Or, at the Oval in August, it would turn square. The only way we can change the way the wicket responds now is by how much grass we leave on or take off.
We still get requests to produce a certain type of wicket and, when we do, the players still complain, for example, that it "turned square". It's not my fault that the opposition brought a spinner as well!
What tips would you give cricket groundsmen at any level?
Don't be afraid to leave grass on. As soon as the strip is finished with, get it opened up by spiking, get air down into the roots so that it is ahead of itself for next season. Aeration is so important. We'll go down six inches with the Groundsman and then put the vertidrain through once it's soft enough. At the end of the season we'll vertidrain longways and then wicket to wicket. I'm a great believer in vertidraining. We go down about twelve inches. Terrific bit of kit.
How much has Edgbaston changed over the years?
You wouldn't recognise it as the same place. You've only got to look at that new pavilion - over thirty million quids worth! The RES Wyatt stand used to be an open area where wooden seats were put out, and there was a grass bank that we cut with a Flymo on a piece of rope. We couldn't do that now. Health & Safety didn't exist in those days; what a joke!
Not one stand is the same as when I first came here in 1966. The only thing that remains is the old scoreboard, and that will be incorporated into any new development.
As well as the new stand, we've had five new floodlight stacks installed.
The outfield has been completely replaced. The work was carried out by Steven Pask - the best in the business in my book. I wouldn't use anyone else. Over the years, he's done my squares, the training ground and the number one practice area. When the outfield work was being planned, the chairman asked me who I wanted to to do the job, and I told him 'Pasky - book him now, otherwise someone else will get him!' You know that he'll do the job. Not 100%, but 120%.
Every little detail was documented, right from the first machines coming in to the final sweep up and taking the machines out.
We had a ten foot drop from one end of the ground to the other, and that has now gone. The new drainage has made a huge difference, as has the sprinkler system. The turf was supplied by Inturf, it was a Barenbrug mix and was magnificent. The only thing that's not new here is me!
What's the funniest thing you have seen in your time here?
Streakers. It doesn't happen so much now and, when it does, it's usually a man! [there follows a discussion about Erica Roe's famous Twickenham streak, which is not for public consumption].
Back in the days of uncovered wickets, we were playing against Yorkshire on an absolutely sodden track. Only the ends were covered back then. MJK Smith, our captain, had been recalled to the Test side but, before he left, warned us of a chap called Johnson, who fielded at cover, and to 'watch out because he was ambidextrous'.
Dennis Amis was batting with a lad called Jamieson - and, on the fourth ball of the over, pushed the ball to backward cover and took off for a quick single to the fielder's left arm. Half way down, he remembered what MJK had told him and shouted 'no'. Amis fell on his face in the wet conditions, Jamieson was in full flow and tried to put the brakes on, and Bairstow, the Yorkshire keeper, ran to the wicket to collect Johnson's throw, grabbing the ball with his right hand, slipped, demolished the stumps with his crotch [the polite version] and gouged a huge trench, about three inches deep, right down the wicket. Jamieson was run out at the bowlers end and stormed off cussing Amis, hurling his bat into the ladies bog in the process. Dennis had to come off to clean off the mud and sawdust - and face the wrath of Jamieson - and it took the groundstaff half an hour to repair the wicket! It was hilarious - and we lost.
Has Twenty20 helped or hindered?
It's certainly brought the crowds in, although, saying that, it's noticeable how they have dwindled in the last couple of seasons. There are too many games. A dad and his son have to pay £30 for their tickets. Throw in a coke and a hot dog, transport costs etc. and you're looking at the best part of sixty quid for an evening out. Then you ask them to turn up two or three times a week. They just can't afford it. There's now eight home games before a club reaches the quarter finals. It's daft.
And we have no time for preparation. It used to be that we had ten days to prep a wicket. We are lucky if we get seven now. There's so many more games, but we only have the same number of strips to work with, which means that they have to be reused over and over again. That brings complaints from players and commentators, but what can we do?
What more could be done to support the head groundsmen at county grounds?
I think they need to be paid a considerable amount more, respected more by the players and not taken for granted and, if at all possible, shorter working hours. A thirty-four working week? ... you're having a laugh! We don't get paid overtime, we have to take time off in lieu. This means that some of the lads can take three months holiday. It makes planning my schedules very difficult. But it's the fault of the system, not the staff.
What do you think of the ECBs role in all this?
They do some very good courses for groundsmen, which are to be commended. But they've got to look at the fixture levels to give us a chance. The county board here certainly supports the clubs at grassroots level very well. We had one club that needed a new roller as their old one would only start when it felt like it, would reverse when put into forward gear and, when put in reverse, wouldn't go at all. Funding was provided by the board.
As you hang up your boots do you have any regrets?
None at all. To be honest, I'm just looking forward to having the time to travel. Last year, Jill and I took the ferry to Santander and drove back through France. It was beautiful. We want to do and see so much more of that.
And I want to play more golf. I might even get the chance to play John Richards - he owes me one!
The plan is to spend six months in South Africa and six months back here. I don't like the cold.
What advice would you give to your successor?
Keep an open mind and think before you speak. Whoever it is, they can certainly trust in the team they've got here. They are a great bunch of lads and very good grafters.
So, after giving forty-five years service to Warwickshire County Cricket Club, the wanderlust has got the better of Steve Rouse. Let's hope God is kind to him and gives him a good few extra years.