November has been anything but dull for Loughborough University's Head Cricket Groundsman, Will Relf, as he and his team have helped pioneer natural turf cricket nets for the England Performance Programme and Lions squad ahead of their tours to the southern hemisphere.
Here, our editor discusses how the project came about and then conducts a Q&A with the ECB's Pitches Consultant, Chris Wood
There's been some interesting developments going on at Loughborough University, the home of the England Cricket Performance Centre. With greater demands being put on players, the need for specific training facilities is always paramount and, whilst many cricket clubs provide indoor and outdoor practice net facilities, running them outside, in November, has to be a first.
Recent winters have seen marquees being used at a few of the county grounds to enable the players to train 'outdoors' earlier than the usual April start. Clever use of heaters, flat sheets and lights allowed these county groundsmen to prepare 'outdoor' tracks for practice in early March.
Perhaps 'outdoor' is an incorrect term, but practice on 'natural wickets' has been the ultimate aim; anyone who has played cricket will tell you that indoor nets will never replicate the playing characteristics of the real thing.
These initial projects proved, perhaps surprisingly to some, rather successful, which led to the ECB undertaking a similar project of their own at Loughborough University - in November - with the aim of providing natural turf practice wickets for the England Lions and Academy teams before they set of on their respective tours to Australia and Sri Lanka.
Overseeing the project has been Chris Wood, the ECB Inspector of Pitches, who invited me to Loughborough to see how things had been going. Chris began the project in March 2013 by preparing specifications that met both ECB and Heath & Safety guidelines.
I was met by Will Relf, Loughborough's Head Cricket Groundsman, and the man tasked with preparing the wickets in this unique environment, whilst having to cope with air flow, condensation and fluctuating temperatures.
The England performance squad practised twice a day - morning and afternoon - and Will's first job was to put the heaters on to help dry the playing surfaces and heat up the marquee to make it comfortable for the players. This was achieved by running three large propane gas heaters for a couple of hours between 8.00am and 10.00am. A huge fan helped circulate the warming air around the marquee.
Will explained that, at this time of year, temperatures would fluctuate considerably, usually starting somewhere between 6-10OC in the morning, and rising to 15OC once the the heaters had taken effect. If the sun came out, the temperature inside the marquee could get as high as 25OC. Equally, temperatures would drop quite rapidly in the afternoons. This caused a significant build up of condensation internally, which produced a lot of water that needed removing when it had run down the roof panels of the marquee.
The marquee used was a large 50x15 metre structure, giving enough length for full bowlers run ups and wide enough to accommodate a maximum of three net bays.
Inside the marquee, a fully rigged ECB approved integral net system, supplied and installed by AT Bone, was used to protect the side panels, and enabled the coaches to split the practice area into different sessions.
The pitches - two Ongar loam and two Boughton loam - had been used earlier in the summer for net practice, but were set aside in August when they were scarified, reseeded and vertidrained.
In September, when the rest of the square was being renovated, Will applied a fungicide and Primo Maxx to the four strips to minimise the likelihood of disease and reduce growth rates, before covering them with flat sheets to keep them dry until the marquee was erected on 14th October.
Once erected, it was back to the daily routine of mowing, prepping and rolling the pitches for play; not a 'normal' occurrence for a cricket groundsman heading into early winter!
Prepping pitches under canvas in November certainly brought some fresh challenges, and the microclimate that had been created, with its high level of condensation, made it difficult to completely dry out the surface, the top 2-3mm tending to remain damp.
There were signs of fusarium taking hold on the bowler's run ups, with the marquee providing the ideal conditions for its spread. Will suggested that, next year, he may need to increase air flow using additional or larger fans. He may even consider removing some of the side panels if air flow and high temperatures continued to be a problem.
It may also require the heaters being run during the night - controlled by thermostats - to keep an optimum temperature inside the marquee to reduce condensation and humidity.
Other issues that were highlighted included the need for a gutter system to deal with the sheer amount of surface water run off from the roof and side panels of the marquee. But, as he says, it's all part of the learning curve.
Once the training had been completed in late November, Will was tasked with renovating the four pitches as quickly as he could. This was completed within two days, whilst still under cover for a two week period to aid germination, and involved scarifying with a Graden, aeration and overseeding.
The marquee was then dismantled and taken off site, leaving Will to topdress, seed and cover with germination sheets, hoping that the weather would remain favourable for quick establishment.
It has been an interesting experience for Will and his team. The complexity of the project has highlighted the skills of the groundstaff to produce top quality playing surfaces in the midst of winter, under canvas.
There will be plenty of discussion taking place in an around the counties to see if the project is viable. To date, the project has cost £28,000, but much of that money has been set-up costs, buying the net system and marquee covers. Second time around, the costs will be dramatically reduced to just hiring the frame, heating systems and fans.
Compare that to the cost of taking the team on a pre-season tour abroad, and there's a lot of positives in employing this system.
Once the optimum operating conditions have been realised, through the provision of better heating systems, fans, lighting rigs and guttering systems, it should not be long before more clubs invest in something more permanent to provide much needed early training facilities on natural grass pitches.
Certainly, the players and coaches confirmed that they had been very pleased with the results and enjoyed working in a unique facility that offered a far more realistic surface to bat and bowl on, with the added benefit of putting less stress on the bowlers' joints.
Whilst on site, I was able to talk to some of the England players, along with Chris Wood and Mark Ramprakash, to get some feedback on how well this innovative facility had been received.
Q&A with Chris Wood
Pitchcare: What's your current role at the ECB?
Chris Wood: I am Pitches Consultant for the ECB, Inspector of Pitches for International, Test and County monitoring, Technical Advisor to pitch panels whenever convened, A member of the Pitches Research Group and I have a duty to monitor the recreational game. I am involved here at the England National Performance Centre as well.
PC: What is the role of the performance centre?
CW: It's a national academy in reality. It's where the England team and the Lions train. The facilities at the indoor school are state of the art; they have player analysis computer/video banks and all sorts of technology. All the performance skill sets and player conditioning for the England and Lions tour parties are based here, and they use the facilities in the summer as well, including the full senior England squad to train, usually when they are playing at Trent Bridge.
PC: How did the marquee project come about?
CW: Well, in 2009, I was asked by another group that I sit on - The England Equipment and Management Group - if we had the technology to utilise the outdoor facilities for practice out of season, i.e. in the winter months. I said I would be lying if I said there wasn't, but that we needed to investigate further. My initial thought was a sort of air blown hall with a semi-rigid structure. This proved too costly at the time, and there were also light issues, so we put it on the shelf for two years until Stuart Kerrison at Essex took a punt and found a marquee company. As soon as I saw it, I thought that is where we need to go.
PC: What prompted you to start the project then?
CW: I think it was when we first utilised two goalmouth lighting rigs at Trent Bridge. It was another punt that I took; the pitch just wasn't drying, from my fist visit to the second. We were only a couple of days out from a Test Match and the Notts CCC Chief Executive at the time, called me in with Head Groundman, Steve Birks, and asked if there was any technology which could be used to dry out their pitches. I said we could use fans, but the timescale wasn't right.
So I rang up my colleague Darren Baldwin, the Head Groundsman at Spurs, and asked him whether or not their lighting rigs throw out heat, and he said yes, about five degrees, and they always have to water their goalmouths now. So Darren, bless him, who was on the training ground when I spoke to him, went straight to White Hart Lane, dismantled them and brought them up to Trent Bridge - they arrived at 6:30pm. We got them fired up by about 8:00pm, once the rain had stopped, and had them on all night; they worked to a certain extent. This was repeated later that season at Durham under cover of one of Nigel Felton's stadium McCloud systems and using Sunderland FC's borrowed lighting rigs.
We then thought this technology could be utilised in an environment to create unnatural conditions, and we are where we are now because that is where it started. We have certainly moved on since 2009.
PC: Clubs want to get practice in earlier and later?
CW: Yeah, and you know what it is like, technology marches on. We have outdoor facilities here at Loughborough that are probably under used. We are unique here because, unlike clubs, we have extensive facilities that are not being utilised as they should be because the players are often away on tours.
PC: What is the extent of this project, what have you actually done?
CW: The aim of this project is to give the Lions squad, the England Performance Programme and the under 19s some outdoor net practice before they go on tour. One party is going to Sri Lanka the others are going to Australia, so here we are, just past Guy Fawkes Night, and able to get full outdoor facilities with a spinning net and a pace net, which they can't replicate indoors. Having project managed for the past four weeks, it has been hugely successful. We are not 100% there, we still have some issues to solve with guttering and condensation, but we have learned so much and, of course, I couldn't have done it without the assistance and expertise of Will Relf and his crew and the companies involved.
We now have an ECB Flagship project with set minimum standards that would suffice for an indoor hall. Essentially, it is just an outdoor net with a roof over it, but we have to have set standards as we would for an indoor facility. That means safety nets and curtains, minimum distances, height etc.
The way the net system works, there are no metal support posts. It's the full 25m length which runs beyond the bowling stump line. That means balls which are angled out won't interfere across run-ups. There is no metalwork to rebound off. There is a limited area behind the stumps for wicketkeeper training, and we can easily and instantly have a configuration of three individual net bays, or two wide bays, which the players seem to prefer, or even an individual skill set lane. So we have full flexibility.
PC: How has it gone down with the people who have been using it?
CW: The feedback I've had from Mark Ramprakash, Graham Thorpe and other coaches is they are absolutely delighted with it. I haven't had any negative feedback so far, apart from the condensation. Maybe there's some boffins out there who might assist.
We are still learning. I am delighted though, it has been a lot of labour, but the companies that have been involved have been really good. We have survived two nasty storms with minimum damage, so you can't say the big guy upstairs hasn't thrown everything at us.
PC: What was the budget?
CW: We had many specifications to meet, so we did go slightly over budget, along with the cost of the heating and the development of the bespoke net system, which we now own. The marquee is actually hired over a six week period. That will remain in situ until two weeks after practice when the grass has grown back. The overall cost was probably around £28,000, but the next time we use it, the cost will be much reduced as we already have things like the nets and the transparent panels. So, we will only be paying for the hire of the marquee and the heating system.
PC: Could you see it being rolled out to other clubs?
CW: Certainly, there were five marquees that went out last year, all of which I was monitoring. The feedback from them was excellent and that's what kick-started this project really. I also know that there are at least three other counties interested, so it could possibly be eight in 2014.
PC: Can you see the lighting rig technology being used as well?
CW: Yes, most certainly. As a heat source and also a way to recover the pitches as well. We are going to utilise the greenhouse effect to get some germination. Then we will oversow in the spring just to support it, and then they will probably be ready by July.
PC: So, this project was running for six weeks?
CW: Yes, it was a six week hire period. My instructions to the groundstaff were to sheet up at the end of the season to ensure that the area didn't get excessively wet - for a good period of two weeks before the marquee arrived. Then a period of a week under this environment to prepare the surface and finish the drying, utilising the heaters as well. It's probably easier to prepare in late autumn than the early spring because the ground temperatures are still higher.
With the temperature variations, it was important that the players were comfortable in the environment. The plan now is to get all the players' feedback sheets. Was it comfortable, were they happy? That's where we are at, we are learning all the time.
PC: With regard to match pitches, is it the ECB's aim to get county pitches all the same standard?
CW: No. Across the world there's a view that pitches have become 'samey' and that they have lost their pace and individual characteristics.
When you start covering up pitches and squares, with the technology the groundsmen have today, you are going to have a degree of sameness, but you will never get the same conditions in, say, Durham which is quite unique, compared with Essex.
PC: But you want consistent, safe pitches, don't you?
CW: Absolutely, that's the most important thing. The individual quality is down to the county sides and the ability of their groundsmen. Ideally, we would like to have all the county pitches achieving quality ratings (marked by umpires) consistently over 5, but with climatic, fixture and television demands, it is a hard task over the course of a season. Don't forget, it is also expected now to have lush, green and beautifully striped outfields!
PC: Do you think clubs invest enough in their cricket pitches?
CW: Possibly not, you ask any head groundsman and there is always a wish list. My opinion is that these grounds are now stadiums, they are not just cricket grounds anymore. The international grounds, the investment into that, you want a return. Some of the other county clubs have been struggling a little bit. It costs a lot of money to run a ground or stadium that is only used for six months, and that is where the big corporate facilities come into it, like the big hotels and concerts etc. We are actually pushing the boundaries now and getting use out of everywhere.
PC: Do you think there is room for improvement at grassroots level?
CW: There is always room for improvement. We now have technology that we have never had before. I would say the problem we have now is the workforce. When I was in club cricket, I was fully employed. I had a house and a wage; they really looked after me. I was happy there and I could really experiment. For example, in Hertfordshire, I can count the number of full-time employed groundsmen on one hand.
PC: Do you think that is a worry for the future - the possible demise of volunteer groundsmen?
CW: Volunteers are very important but, with today's lifestyle, people come out of the office, finish work, have to contend with rush hour - which seems more like three hours - then go to the ground and then go home. Some of them might have to sit on committees as well, and I am not certain the youngsters of today have got that will.
You seem to have the same characters sitting on the committees, but they just seem to be getting older. I think it is symptomatic of today's modern life.
Every village used to have a cricket club, certainly in my native Yorkshire anyway, and the local villages would play derbies, and volunteers weren't a problem. Now, especially where grounds are corporate, if they are owned by local authorities, the standard is dropping because it is a fly in the ointment for them, to be honest, because of the safety aspect and remuneration. Let's face it, if you are a groundsman in this day and age, you are not going to be rich.
PC: It's not all about that though, is it?
CW: No, it's not all about that. I think clubs are placing higher demands on their facilities because they watch the TV and expect their pitches to look like the county grounds, so there is a lot of pressure. But, if they don't have the equipment budget or expertise, it's hard to achieve.
They can do a lot to improve it though by utilising the ECB Pitch Advisers. Probably 80% of my time now is at England international level, but I still have an overview. We have a brilliant regional overview system.
PC: There are nine new posts coming in, when will they take effect?
CW: I'm not certain. I know the interviews are currently taking place but, as we are working, at last, with the other sporting organisations - the RFU, the RFL and the FA - we have to combine and that has taken years to do. They will be multi-sport advisers now, because they are being funded by other sporting organisations.
PC: Won't that dilute cricket?
CW: You can speak to most of our present County Advisers at the moment and they say that they haven't got enough time because they have their main jobs as well. So, hopefully it won't, but it is something that we will have to wait to find out. There is no excuse today really as we have all the contemporary technical knowledge to pass on.
One of the biggest innovations is the internet. We have the technology, we have the will and we have the resources. What we haven't got, possibly, is the workforce to act upon the advice.
PC: When might we see the results of the Cranfield aeration project?
CW: The problem has been the format. The technical data behind it is enormous. The person producing it, Dr. Ian James, is tasked with the way it is being presented. Maybe a split document - one with the technical detail and one more simplistic version "for the man in the field" - but we have to get right before it goes out.
PC: So what are the outcomes for you?
CW: For me, the concept of aeration has changed since I have been monitoring pitches. It has altered my view of aeration now. Personally, I wouldn't mess around with a pedestrian aerator on a cricket square. If you can get such a machine in at full depth immediately at the end of the season, then there is probably something wrong with the make-up of the square.
The two forms of aeration I'd go for would be the Deep Drill and what Keith Exton at the SWALEC has been doing with his deep aerator - if it is done properly, at the right time, in the right conditions, with the right machine and the right operator, the findings from the research leans towards the benefit of a one-off operation being suffice.
I take hundreds of cores across the country and, more often than not, I see breaks at exactly 50mm, which suggests that the affect of the roller is dissipating at 50mm.
Every time you roll, you are compressing the soil particles and you can get to a point where the soil structure is compromised. We were always told as youngsters the first remedial operation at the end of the season was to spike to relieve the compaction. We know now that standard aeration does not decompact the square. If anything, it almost pushes the soil aside and increases the density. However, if you use lift or heave of any kind, that is decompaction, just like you want to achieve on a standard outfield or winter sportsfield. What we are also doing is forming a channel for grass roots to develop through the soil profile to get a good soil environment.
The roots not only bind any layered profile together, they also go deeper so, when you do pitch preparation, the deeper roots actually draw the moisture through and dry the pitch out more evenly.
I have looked at Keith's programme and, to my mind, he has developed a perfectly sound aeration environment. Time will tell. With his methodology, I would even seriously start looking at having a heavier 'heavy' roller as part of my armoury. Put a really heavy roller on (possibly up to 4 tonne) as and when the conditions are right, then continue with a standard one until the pitch no longer needs it. That's where I think the future might lie.
Of course, all this is leaning away from the recreational game. I used to visit recreational clubs to give out advice and I would look in their sheds. As long as they had a pitch mower, a heavy roller and a scarifier, technically they could produce a decent pitch. It's down to correct knowledge and time.
And it's not just about what's on the surface, it's about what's underneath. We have developed a really good band of contractors now, and they really know their stuff, so you can get them to do it really quickly; in a day in fact - it used to take me weeks on my hands and knees - then you know that it has been done properly.
Outside of thatch, I think years of over application of topdressing is one of the biggest killers of bounce on squares, and a waste of money.
I really do wish that I had the knowledge I have now back when I was in village and club cricket, but then hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it?
With this game, truly the older you get the wiser you get.
PC: Thank you for your time.
A few words from England batting coach, Mark Ramprakash
PC: How is it going for you at this new facility?
MR: Very, very well. I have to admit I didn't know too much about it before I came up to Loughborough, and I was very sceptical, given how difficult the weather can be at this time of year. But it has worked a treat. We've actually got some very willing bowlers who are happy to come out and bowl on grass because it is so much more forgiving than bowling indoors. So, that has been fantastic, and it's allowed the batsmen to bat outside.
In terms of the two pitches, the one with the pace bowlers on had pace and bounce and moved about a bit, which is great. We have also had a very dry net which has been good and produced plenty of turn for the spinners, which is excellent, as that is what we want our batsmen to be exposed to - the turning ball - so they have to work on their footwork.
To be outside at this time of year is pretty amazing and the facilities have been very, very good.
PC: Do you wish you had facilities like these when you were playing?
MR: Absolutely, because when you go away on tour often, preceding that, is a period at home and, in England, we could never practise outside. So, if you can practise outside before you go away on tour, of course you are acclimatised so much quicker. So these guys nowadays don't know how lucky they are.
PC: I have spoken to one or two of the bowlers and they like the way they are running up on grass.
MR: Yes, it's more forgiving for them and also more realistic because, as with the batsman, the odd ball will seam about and there might be a little bit of indifferent bounce, which is good. I think that is what playing outside is all about. So batsmen have to cope with that, and I think it has been a really big test.
PC: I suppose it also raises the mindset, doesn't it?
MR: Yes, if you bat in indoor nets they are often very artificial, so the fact you are outside means the guys are more into a match mentality.