Canterbury's The Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence is smack, bang in the middle of Man of Kent territory, as all those born to the east and north of the River Medway are known. Kent County Cricket Club's Head Groundsman, Simon Williamson, may be West Bromwich born and a lifelong Baggies fan, but he's a 'Man of Kent' if ever there was one. Neville Johnson went to the home of Kent cricket to see him at work and get a feel of life at one of our most traditional, yet now very go-ahead grounds as the 2014 season beckoned
It's a grey, chill March day, but a dry one, and Simon Williamson and his team are at full throttle after weeks of frustration. There's a huge irony in seeing an engineering contractor fitting and testing eight replacement sprinkler heads around the 19-pitch table. The covers are on to ward off these necessary, but unwelcome, showers. It does look a little strange, but then it has been a strange time for everyone in the business of preparing summer sports pitches.
It's an unchartered time ahead for cricket, too. The juggling act between the traditional four-day county game and the Twenty20 goes on as a fresh look at match scheduling gets an airing in the coming season. The domestic game keeps trying to get the balance right between the cash benefits of the short game and its appeal to what some call the non-cricket loving public, and championship matches, the core of the game for nearly two centuries, but where numbers continue to dwindle. It is the uppermost challenge these days for counties as much as it is for those that run the game.
At Kent cricket's spiritual home, you get a clear impression that the club is not just taking up this challenge, it is moving ahead very purposefully on all fronts. Everywhere you look there's tradition, but the ground, which first staged county cricket in 1847, has the look of a venue for 21st century cricket. Its telescopic floodlight pylons and electronic scoreboards are fit enough for any big match, day or night.
A nine million pound redevelopment scheme, initially held back by the credit-crunch, has now burgeoned and given one of the grand-old icons of county cricket a pleasing uplift. Giving up some of its territory for an impressive facelift to the pavilion and surrounding stands, a fresh HQ, and better facilities generally looks a pretty good deal for Kent now that work is complete. The Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence looks ready for whatever direction cricket will head in the future.
The ECB, under its Chairman David Morgan, has had a serious look at the state of county cricket over the last couple of years, taking stock of what over 25,000 cricket followers had to say about things. Its so-called Morgan Review came up with a re-shaped fixture schedule, which comes into force this season and is due to run until 2017. It means Sunday starts for most 4-day LV= County Championship matches, with nearly all Twenty20s - to be known now as the NatWest T20 Blast - being played on Fridays. There's a new one-day competition, the 50-over Royal London Cup, too. The hope is that this overhaul will market the game better and bring more into grounds like the Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence.
Away from the chill out-in-the middle, in the relative comfort of the groundstaff room, Simon is very positive about the new look St Lawrence Ground. "I think it's fantastic and a big step forward," he says.
Had the redevelopment brought about changes to the way he prepares outfield and pitches? "Not really. The only change in the way we do things was the loss of the permanent nets practice area behind the main stands, sold to build new homes. It means that practice strips have to be prepared on the outfield and it does get pretty busy on match day mornings, putting up and taking down nets. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same," he said.
He's a little less keen on the effect Twenty20 can have on pitch work. "The 20-over game can sometimes make us groundsmen pull our hair out," he says.
"It pulls in the crowds and it's exciting, but they play on in pretty well all conditions, players sliding about all over the place. It poses problems when you've got a four-day championship game coming up. This year's new format, with Twenty20s being played on Fridays throughout the summer rather than in a block of games in June and July, is going to be testing, as there's nearly always a Championship game starting forty-eight hours later on Sundays."
"It was fairly workable when there was a Twenty20 'season' and other cricket took a back seat. Often as not, you could use a strip twice. The powers in the game seem to want the best pitches for Twenty20 nowadays, with Championship fixtures maybe playing second fiddle. I think television has a big say in this and Sky cameras are going to be here this summer for four matches at least."
It was the record-breaking wet winter that was Simon's immediate concern though. Players were due back from their various winter assignments on St Patrick's Day and the first pre-season friendly due before March was out. A sequence of downpours had washed away seed from the square, Simon tells me, and re-seeding was under way that very day. As I walk back towards the pitch, between the Woolley and Cowdrey stands, I can see a Sisis Variseeder in action. Warmer spring conditions were in the offing, but Simon said germination sheets would be used to speed things up, if necessary.
Fifteen of the strips across the square would be used this coming season for First Class cricket, four of them - plus the practice area in front of the Frank Woolley stand - would be used by the players pretty soon in the warm-up to actual fixtures.
The re-seeding, incidentally, was being done by Simon's Assistant Head Groundsman Adrian Llong, whose brother Nigel was a distinguished Kent player not so long ago and is now on the ICC's elite umpiring panel handling tests and ODIs around the world.
For Simon, now in his second year as Head Groundsman, the weather had made it one of the worst pre-seasons he could remember since joining Kent's ground staff in 1997. Even in the first week of March the outfield had been under water because of the relentless rainfall, and he and his team had been unable to get on the square for weeks on end.
There is a system of lateral drainage channels that feed into main drains at either end of the square, which run into a soakaway at the bottom end of the ground. It works well and had been put to the test day after day. Installation was done in 2000 and has been a very effective investment for the club, says Simon.
It is the steep slope from one side of the ground to the other that provides a natural flow, yet puts the square under threat after heavy rainfall. It was Brian Fitch, perhaps Kent's most celebrated groundsman, in charge at the ground for twenty-nine years, who actually measured it. The near 12-foot drop from the stand-alone Les Ames Stand at the ground's Nackington Road end to the Pavilion area is actually steeper than the much-hyped Lord's slope.
Simon tells me that in normal rainfall conditions they don't have to cover anywhere near as much as they did pre-drainage channel days to divert water from the Ames Stand high point from affecting the square. Since December, rainfall had been unprecedented and covering became a priority as never before.
"We started putting covers on half the square and all of the practice area in the last week of January because we knew that, if we didn't, we'd not get the work done in time for pre-season," said Simon.
"We just had to keep this area dry so that, when and if there were breaks in the weather, we could get to work. Sometimes the covers were on for three or four days at a time. It was very frustrating."
The covers did manage to keep them ahead of the game, yet covering brings its own problems of course and a contact fungicide (Chipco Green) application became an extra job that had to be conducted on the square once they were off.
"Damp, humid conditions encourage disease, so we had to keep on top of it," said Simon.
The Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence, apart from being one of the world's oldest first class cricket venues, has - or rather had - one other distinction, a tree within the boundary. It was one of only two first-class grounds worldwide with this rare feature. Kent's celebrated lime tree had reigned supreme as a cricketing icon for 160-odd years until disease and a storm force wind got the better of it in January 2005.
The Canterbury ground, first known as the Beverley Ground in early Victorian times, was actually built around the tree reckoned to have been on the site since the first years of the 19th century; round about the Battle of Trafalgar to put it in an historic context. The 'sacred' Laws of Cricket even had a local adjustment to accommodate it. If a batsman struck it, it was always four whether the boundary was passed or not.
Only four batsmen in history ever cleared it for a clean six, the last being Kent and West Indies Carl Hooper in 1999. For generations of Kent followers the giant lime was literally the heartbeat of county cricket. Its passing was genuinely mourned.
The demise of the Kent lime, in its pomp a towering 120 feet high, wasn't unexpected and a replacement had been planted nearby, though outside the boundary, in 1999 by another Kent legend, cricket broadcaster E W Swanton.
The future of the still fledging lime may be chartered by further development of part of the site. Kent County Cricket Club has announced plans for part of the ground to be acquired for retirement apartments. It's another statement of the club's ambitions, financial and cricketing.
It may mean a bit of shift in field placements, but you can be sure that the ground will retain its charm and character.
The ground these days has a 6,500 capacity and is tailor made for big games. It has hosted four One-Day Internationals and Kent's CEO Jamie Clifford says the club has its sights set on being a venue for the 2019 Twenty20 World Cup.
Simon Williamson shares the ambition and relishes the prospect of more ODIs at the Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence. "The facilities here are fantastic and it's definitely achievable. My team and I would absolutely love it."
Looking across the ground, it's not difficult to imagine. It has the look and feel of a big match ground. The joy is that it retains its history and county ground charm.