The small west Hampshire market town of New Milton lies midway between Lymington and Christchuch on the south coast. Tending the two ovals at the town's thriving cricket club is Head Groundsman, Andrew Beck. Peter Britton called to see him as the season, and the evening, was drawing to a close
It's a late August Tuesday evening at the end of one of the hottest days of the year thus far as I head up the well maintained driveway to New Milton Cricket Club. Two groundsmen go about their work; one on a Poweroll Club on the 1st and 2nd XI square, and one behind a Dennis 560 a couple of hundred yards distant on the 3rd and 4th XI square. As the law of sod would have it, the man I am here to speak to is the furthest away, and it's one of those evenings when even the slightest effort brings you out in a sweat that never leaves you!
As I trudge off to meet the man behind the mower, I swing past the Poweroll to take a couple of shots of it in action. I later learn that the man behind the wheel is Dave Crossley, one of four volunteers that assist the club's Head Groundsman Andrew Beck. For the record, the other three are Richard Dawson, Matt Baker and Dan Wooster - known affectionately as Jeeves.
As I approach Andrew, he gives me a look that says "I'm busy, how much of my time do you need?", but he is too polite to say as much. I explain that I only need twenty minutes to ask a few questions and scribble down some notes, but I assure him he can finish what he is doing first; a perhaps dangerous suggestion given the amount of work he has to complete before the sun goes down.
He has already cut out a track for a Hampshire Junior tournament that runs from Thursday through to Sunday, and has moved on to marking out a nineteen yard pitch in readiness. As he completes this task, I begin my questioning and I soon find that Andrew is happy to talk.
We retire to a bench under an old walnut tree that sits between the 'top' and 'bottom' ovals. Here, I ask him how he got into the industry.
"I worked for the town council and, whilst there, began looking after the squares here," he explains. "That was in 2007, so I've been here coming up ten years."
A short spell working at the neighbouring Ballard School, as Maintenance Supervisor, saw Andrew continue to work on the square on a volunteer basis. He has since set up his own lawn and garden maintenance business - Strim & Trim - and confesses to having "loads of work", but still spends close to twenty hours a week at the cricket ground.
New Milton Cricket Club was founded in 1927 and, until 2003, ground shared with Ashley Rugby Club; "not ideal" suggests Andrew.
The council, with some prodding from the cricket club no doubt, set about building a new cricket ground, complete with clubhouse, on a disused field alongside Ballard School. It was officially opened in 2003 by Ian Wooldridge, the highly respected Daily Mail cricket journalist.
The ground is owned by the council, who provide all the equipment and materials needed to maintain it. "But we do all the work throughout the season," says Andrew.
End of season renovations are carried out by Kestrel Contractors, who are employed by the council to undertake the work. "They come in for a day in mid-September, but I am here to keep a close eye on them," he says with a smile. "The work comprises scarifying three ways, cleaning out, seeding, overseeding and dressing with Mendip loam. This year, I would like them to scarify down to 8mm as we have a bit of thatch I'd like taken out. I'll have my metal ruler ready and waiting," he confirms.
The quality of the pitches are paramount as the 1st XI play in the Southern Premier League, whose opponents include South Wilts, Havant, Hampshire Academy and Ventnor on the Isle of Wight; the latter venue can cost the club upwards of £300 to take a team over on the ferry from Lymington ... and the 2nd XI play a Ventnor side as well!
"Our second team play in Hampshire County Division 1, our third team play in Hampshire Regional 1 (West) and our 4th team play in Hampshire Regional 3 (West)." The club also run one Sunday side, a midweek side and a Twenty20 side. The Junior Section consists of U9, U11, U13, U15, U17 and U19s, supported by sixteen ECB qualified coaches. Andrew is, himself, a level 2 coach. The club is ECB Clubmark accredited.
Clearly, Andrew has to cater for a lot of cricket, and not just club games but additional tournaments, such as the one he is preparing for as we speak.
"It's never ending," confirms Andrew. "The under 9s play on a Friday evening, the 11s and 15s on Sunday mornings, the 13s and 17s on Thursday evenings and the under 19s at any time! But they are the lifeblood of the club. One of our under 19s, Toby Edwards, scored a maiden century against the Hampshire Academy over the weekend; he's a fabulous cricketer."
The top square is reserved for 1st and 2nd XI matches. It comprises fourteen tracks, with the 1st XI using tracks 6, 7, 8 and 9 and, on occasions, 5 and 10. The 2nd XI reuse these tracks as Andrew sees fit. 12, 13 and 14 are used once early in the season, before being handed over for net practice, utilising a mobile cage, for the remainder of the season. Tracks 1, 2 and 3 are too close to the clubhouse for senior cricket.
The club do have a two lane net facility, but that is in need of refurbishment. "In truth," explains Andrew, " it needs moving. It's in a rather shaded area of the ground alongside the clubhouse, so the light is never the best. But we need to find a sponsor first!" A preferred spot would seem to be where we are sitting between the two ovals, and close to the electronic scoreboard, but removal of the walnut tree seems unlikely!
The bottom pitch consists of nine tracks, which is where the 3rds, 4ths and juniors play the majority of their matches.
The Dennis 560 is used to cut out a match pitch - the club like them at ten and a half feet wide; a Dennis cylinder mower with sulky seat cuts the square and a Ransomes Commander 5-gang is used on the outfield. 'Outside the fence' is maintained by the council to a high standard. They also clean the clubhouse once a week.
During the winter, the council cut the outfield, but Andrew believes that may change any time soon. One suspects that Andrew won't object too much, and he has already planned to take a day off a week to take over the job if it's required.
In March, Andrew and his helpers will be back at the ground to begin their preparations for the coming season.
It begins with a NatWest Cricket Force day when around forty members put out all the sponsors advertising boards, clean the sight screens and undertake countless other tasks.
Meanwhile, Andrew, together with his trusty volunteers, will be carrying out twenty-five hours worth of rolling on both squares, and it is at that point that he fully appreciates the end of season renovations that allow him to provide the quality of pitches required.
As the sun starts to sink, and there are about two hours of daylight left, I have obviously exceeded my 'twenty minutes' and Andrew is clearly itching to get back to doing what he does best; looking after some of the finest cricket pitches in Hampshire.