4 Loam and love

alan hill.jpgAlan Hill, 83, has been Willington Cricket Club's groundsman for 44 years - despite living 13 miles away in Chester-le-Street.

In the latest of our Local Heroes series, Owen Amos asks what keeps him going.

Alan Hill started as a surveyor at Brancepeth Colliery in 1939, aged 14. Now, 69 years on, Alan works every day from March to November, unpaid, as Willington Cricket Club's groundsman. He's 83 and one knee needs replacing, but hard work, it seems, is a habit that dies hard.

"It becomes part of your life," says Alan in his Chester-le-Street home, a Willington CC Lifetime Achievement Award shining on the windowsill behind. "If you haven't anything to get up for, you'll just lay down and die. You have got to get out and work."

Work has kept the eyes sparkly and the body, bad knee aside, sprightly. He's been Willington's groundsman since 1966. When he began, he says, "you couldn't tell the square (the wickets) from the outfield - the place was full of daisies and dandelions". Now, Willington's wicket is one of the North-East's best. Durham, county champions, agree and play junior matches there.

Alan grew up in Rosedale Terrace, a straight six from the cricket ground. "In those days there was no television, just cinema," he says.

"In the summer time, we used to go down and play cricket."

At 14, Alan got the "occasional" game for Willington Seconds. He was, he says, a tweaky off-spinner, "but never a star". Either way, the Second World War snuffed out his chance to shine. Games were suspended and the tweaky off-spinner was sent to the colliery.

Alan married Freda in 1952 and moved 13 miles to Chester-le-Street, her home town, in 1956. A loyal lad, he kept playing for Willington, but in 1966 they had grounds for concern.

"They decided they were leaving the league, in order to join the Durham County League,"

he says. "They had a groundsman before the war and immediately after, but the ground had got into such a state. By that time I was more interested in the pitch, so I said I'd do it."

Though Alan, like his pitch, started green, he soon grew into it. After leaving the colliery, he worked as an officer at Northumberland County Council and, in his lunchtime, used the library. "I used to read all the books I could find on cricket and cricket pitch preparation," he says. "I gained all my knowledge from the libraries."

The secret, he says, is to start in autumn. "I discovered with all the reading that you need a top dressing, a good loam (soil composed of sand, silt and clay)" and aerate the soil after a summer's rolling. Loam, love and you're laughing.

"What you want is a playing surface where the ball comes through nice and fast for the batsmen," he says. "But if the bowler's good enough, and puts work in, he can get the ball to come up really high. You need good surfaces so the batsmen have confidence. You don't want a low bounce, or divots, or it hitting any worms."

By the 1970s, Alan's reputation meant he did Bishop Auckland's pitch, too. Then, Bishop's professional was Lance Cairns, who went on to play 43 tests for New Zealand and taught Alan's son, Chris, while his dad straightened the square. "He was a good little player," says Alan.

Which may be an understatement. Chris played 62 times for New Zealand, was described by Shane Warne as the world's best all-rounder and had better batting and bowling averages than Sir Ian Botham.

Even Alan's last competitive game, in his late 50s, was for Bishop. "I was doing the pitch one Friday night," he says. "The captain said 'Have you still got your gear, Al? We're a man short'.

I said 'It's in the coal house,' and played the next day at Leadgate."

He retired from the council at 65. "I didn't want to," he says, "but they made me" - which, of course, gave him more time for wickets.

"When I retired, I just thought 'I'll go back to cricket'," he says. "People grumble about work, saying 'I wish I was retired'. But throughout your working life, you're at home only for bed and breakfast. That's your life. Then you retire and think 'Hell, what am I going to do the rest of my life?' People take up golf, but I never played golf - I always preferred cricket."

So what does Freda make of it? "I don't mind, because he's doing something he wants to do,"

she says. But she can't see Alan much in the summer? "Never!"

He gave up Bishop, and gave up Willington's outfield. "I was walking 14 miles just cutting the grass," he says. So, like a fine artist, he concentrates on the minutiae of the middle; the strip of Saturday afternoon dreams. There's plenty to keep him busy. Willington has three senior teams, juniors from Under-18s to Under- 11s, and even a women's team. There are others ready to take his place, but Alan's not leaving his loam yet. "As long as I'm fit and able, I'll just keep carrying on," he says. "I'm always learning."

Despite 44 years of hard work, the Local Heroes nomination was a surprise. "I didn't ask for it, they just decided they would do it," he says. "They rang and informed me I'd got on the shortlist out of 400. That was a surprise.

You don't ask for these things. It's just recognition for something you like doing.

"Ask any groundsman - it's a passion. You put work into making proper pitches and you can see the results. If the players and the opposition say it was a good pitch and they enjoyed playing on it, that spurs you on. Ten came from the club to the awards, but I didn't think I would get it. You never think you're going to get it - although I did notice every winner was sitting on our side of the room."

And when he did win? "I was gobsmacked,"

he says. A case, if ever there was, of reaping what you sow.

Source:-The Northern Echo

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