After spending a couple of days visiting the groundstaff at Northants, I was able to see the rewards of all their hard work at a Friends Provident Twenty20 game against Yorkshire, which ended in a high scoring, 180 run tie and satisfied a large, appreciative crowd of cricket supporters, with the pitch also gaining a very good mark from the umpires.
Twenty20 cricket has become the financial lifeblood of county cricket, so much so that the ECB has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in erecting top specification lighting systems at many of the county grounds, to enable clubs to arrange evening fixtures to increase revenue streams.
The new lights at Northants are impressive. They are amongst the highest (50 metres) and most technically advanced in the country. The high definition quality system offers reduced light pollution, saves power, whilst still delivering a staggering 3000 lux of lighting power. The lights are also self cleaning and are guaranteed for ten years.
The system consists of six columns - four with 72 lamps, and the two central columns with 48. They were designed and installed by Musco Lighting, and are one of several new sets that have been installed at various county grounds around the country.
The lights only take ten minutes to warm up, and are very efficient to run. They are currently powered by a large mobile generator, a temporary arrangement until they decide on a permanent location for the switch gear and incoming feed.
The Head Groundsman at Northants is Paul Marshall, who has been at the club for over twenty years. He has four staff who help him; assistant head groundsman Paul Taylor, who has been at the club eight years, Craig Harvey (8 years) Daryl Day (2 years) and Paul's son, Rikki Marshall, who joined the team at the start of the season. Rikki has recently enrolled at Myerscough College, whilst Craig and Daryl have, respectively, just completed the second and third years of their degree courses at the college.
Paul became head groundsman in 2002, inheriting a significant layering problem into the bargain. The desire to improve the condition of the square required an innovative programme of end of season renovations, and Paul chose to combine deep scarifying, deep drilling and drill and fill, using Ecosolve's tried and tested methods.
The drills used have been designed and developed by Ecosolve and the ECB Pitches Consultant, Chris Wood, for specific use on cricket wickets. A number of different designs and dimensions were tried before reaching these bespoke items. There was, says Paul, no real alternative, other than digging up several tracks and starting again.
They have been drilling four wickets a year since 2004, and identify which pitches need to be done, either because they are next in line for the ongoing programme or perhaps have not performed as well as they would have liked that year.
The drilling programme usually consists of drilling at 165mm (6.5") centres using a 25mm (1") diameter drill bit to a depth of 250mm (10"). This equates to over 1700 holes per wicket. The holes are then back filled with the desired loam, either Boughton County or Ongar depending on which wickets are being worked on. It usually takes three to four days to complete the whole process.
They have perfected a good method of working. As soon has the holes have been drilled, a metal rod is hammered into each one to smooth the sides, ready to ensure the new loam material can be worked to the bottom of the holes. The same rod is used to consolidate the back filling material.
Once the drilling has been completed, the whole square is then scarified in several passes, using a Graden scarifier, to remove thatch and debris, with all the arisings cleaned up using brushes, rotary mowers and blowers. The square is then soaked, using a couple of oscillating sprinklers, ready for sowing with R9, a dwarf perennial rye grass mix, sowing in several directions.
Paul may use germination sheets to help force the seed to germinate but, in most cases, the seed is up within seven days. Grass is left to mature before cutting with a pedestrian rotary mower.
An autumn granular feed is applied to help promote growth, followed by applications of liquid iron, amino and bio stimulants once aeration takes place; the aim is to promote microbial activity in the soil profile, which helps improve the soil structure, along with maintaining a decent sward colour during the winter months.
Ecosolve usually come back in November each year to undertake deep drilling and aeration on both the square and net areas, drilling down to a depth of 250mm (10") using 12mm diameter drills set at 175mm spacing. More aeration is undertaken in December using a Groundsman spiker set at 100mm. This completes the renovation programme, allowing Paul and his staff to take some much earned rest and recuperation.
However, the club always seem to find additional work for the groundstaff, who usually get a number of interior jobs to undertake. These may include painting and decorating offices and stands. The club, like many of the older county grounds, are continually trying to improve their infrastructure with better facilities. Many of the older stands are in need of refurbishment and modernisation.
During the winter, working hours are 8.30am to 5.00pm. During the season the set start time is 7.30am and they finish 'whenever'! On match days, though, Paul staggers the start times to give his team slightly more sensible hours.
Paul does not have a great deal of equipment to hand. His old Massey Ferguson tractor is currently in for repair, so he is having to hire one (a Kubota STV40) until he gets it back. He is hoping budgets will allow him to upgrade his tractor soon. All the mowers are serviced in January to ensure they remain sharp and fit for purpose.
Match wickets are cut using either a Lloyds Paladin or a 24" Allett, whilst a John Deere triple mower is used on the outfield. A few years ago, Paul decided to use only pedestrian rear roller rotaries for cutting the square, with the aim of reducing compaction. The square is kept at between 15-20mm in the summer and 20-25mm in the winter. The Paladin is set between 3-5mm for final cut.
Pre season rolling gets going as early as possible to accommodate the practice matches scheduled for mid March. They begin by using the weight of the Allett mower, gradually building up to the 1.5 tonne heavy roller. Paul does not roll 'for the sake of it', preferring to roll as the weather dictates and maximising what moisture is in the ground. This year, he managed to get all his wickets done with less than thirty hours of rolling.
The square is fed with granular and liquid feeds - 14:0:7 spring and summer fertiliser along with a 17:2:5 liquid - throughout the growing season, as and when needed.
Time allotted to prepare wickets is set between 10-14 days, which is generally determined by weather conditions and the time between games. Both Pauls like to keep a bit of grass on their wickets and not cut too short. The wicket is prepared by a combination of brushing, scarifying, watering, rolling (the pitches get an initial roll of 45 minutes at the start of preparations and then rolled for twenty minutes for subsequent rolling days, with no more than three hours of total rolling carried out for each pitch prepared), covering and cutting.
The club have invested in a number of covers, both flat and raised, to protect the wickets. These include three 85 x 50 feet TTS Climate Covers, two sets of raised covers (with side sheets) to protect match wickets and net areas. Having manageable sheets and covers is essential in the modern game.
With just twenty wickets on the square allocation for matches is crucial. The central twelve are used for first class matches, and two of these have to be set aside for international games, leaving just ten to accommodate an ever increasing fixture list. This means that Paul has to make the wickets last as long as possible. For example, the wicket used for the Twenty20 game against Yorkshire had already had three games - two 50 over A Internationals and another Twenty20 - played on it.
Pitch repairs are, therefore, essential and Paul Taylor has perfected a robust method using, perhaps surprisingly, Kaloam. This is mixed into a solution of water and Perma-zyme, a bonding agent developed by Flicx Cricket. 300ml of Perma-zyme is diluted into 20 litres of water and the loam is mixed into a tacky mass and left to air for a couple of hours before being bagged for use. The Perma-zyme helps bond the soil particles together, giving it more strength. The damaged foot holes are then chiselled out to create a key for the new loam mix and then tampered down. This method has proved very successful. As soon as a pitch is finished with, usually after four or five matches, it is soaked up, scarified in several directions and sown with R9 perennial rye grass. It is covered to speed up germination.
With the square approaching somewhere near the standard that Paul wants, he will now turn his attention to the outfield which, he admits, is some way behind other county grounds. It needs to have a pop up watering system installed, along with some work to address levels and undulations. Paul hopes that this work will happen in the not too distant future.
We follow Paul and his team through a typical day ahead of the Northants Steelbacks v Yorkshire Carnegie Friends Provident Twenty20 match - a game with a surprising twist in the tail!
...Dateline Friday 2nd July... Northants Steelbacks v Yorkshire Carnegie...
I arrive at the county ground in Northampton on the morning of the Twenty20 match against Yorkshire Carnegie. Accompanying me was Bob Stretton, former ECB Pitches Advisor for Warwickshire and current Head Groundsman at Massey Ferguson Sports Club. It was to be a great opportunity to see what goes on before, during and after a match - and what a match it turned out to be!
07:30 Paul Marshall arrives to check the pitch and see what the weather forecast is predicting for the day. The pitch was covered overnight, with both the raised covers and TTS Climate Covers, to protect it from some forecasted rain.
08:00 Paul oversees the parking and setting up of the lighting generator.
08:30 Paul meets up with other heads of department for final team briefing.
09:30 Paul checks out the weather forecast and briefs his staff on what was said at the heads of department meeting whilst, at the same time, reminding the team what they need to do as their final preparations for the game.
10:00 First cup of tea of the day. Met up with the electricians who had come in to check the generator. They would stay on site for the remainder of the day.
11:00 Daryl gets out the John Deere Triple and begins mowing and striping up the outfield. This takes over three hours.
12:00 Groundstaff inspect and set up the practice nets areas for both teams.
13:00 Paul keeps an eye on the weather to see if he can take the covers off. He also liaises with other departments to check when the players, coaches and umpires are due to arrive.
The staff take the chance to refuel with some lunch, and keep an eye on how Andy Murray is getting on at Wimbledon.
14:30 Paul decides to remove the covers and begins setting up the pitch, and it's all hands on deck. It takes about 20 minutes to remove all the covers and store them away. Daryl is just finishing mowing the outfield!
15:00 Paul Taylor inspects the pitch - not too much to worry about. He is confident it will perform well, based on its performance in the last two games (28th and 29th June). It had been cleaned up and rolled the previous day. It was simply a case of marking out for tonight's game.
16:00 A few of the home players begin to arrive and wander out onto the ground to discuss the condition of the wicket with Paul. Paul Taylor and Daryl mark out the pitch using a straight edge and paint brush. Paul then decides to stripe up the square with his Sarp pedestrian rotary.
16:30 Gates open and supporters start arriving. Mark Tagg, the club's Chief Executive, appears out on the square to see how things are. I am introduced to him and he tells me that he receives the Pitchcare magazine and how much he enjoys reading it. He is very supportive of Paul and his staff, knowing only too well the role they play in making Northampton a successful club. A near to capacity crowd of 4,000 is expected for tonight's game.
17:00 Both teams come out to begin their warm up routines, utilising areas of the outfield, practice nets and bowling on two of the tracks.
17:45 The floodlight generator is started up, lights are up and running after ten minutes
18:00 Paul and his staff carry out the final preparations to the square and outfield. This involves taking down the practice nets, covering over adjacent pitches with coconut matting, placing out the stumps, putting out the infield markers and sorting out the boundary rope.
18:30 The umpires and captains (Steelbacks' Andrew Hall and Carnegies' Jacque Rudolph) meet out on the pitch, are introduced to the crowd and carry out the toss which Yorkshire win, choosing to bat first.
19:00 The game begins. Yorkshire get off to a flier, with Herschelle Gibbs (don't worry, we'll mention an Englishman later) scoring his first T20 century of the summer. The innings closes on 180-3. The wicket produces plenty of bounce and pace, with the ball coming on to the bat nicely.
20:30 Between innings, Paul and his team have just ten minutes to clean up the square ready for the Steelbacks innings. This involves sweeping the wicket, repainting lines, rolling the wicket with a light hand roller and resetting the stumps.
20:40 The Steelbacks are chasing a very competitive score. Openers Chaminda Vaas and David Sales (there's our first Englishman) race to 50 off just 27 balls. However, wickets fall regularly and, as the sun sets in stunning fashion, the Steelbacks require 13 runs off the last ball to win.
It can't possibly happen ... enter Englishman, Richard Pyrah, to write himself into the record books. An above waist height no-ball from him is smashed for a six by Nicky Boje (sorry, not English) totalling eight runs scored. The rebowled ball is then hit for four, resulting in 'twelve' runs off the last ball, and a tied game. Henceforth are the visitors to be known as the Yorkshire Puddings?
Incidentally, this was the second tied game for the Steelbacks in four T20 matches!
22:00 With the game finished, the stumps are removed as quickly as possible, to deter souvenir hunters, and the wicket is covered. It's all hands on deck for fifteen minutes.
22:20 And then it's time to go home. It's another early start the next day to prepare the same pitch for a Twenty20 game against Pakistan which starts at 15.00.
22:30 The floodlights are switched off and the ground is plunged into almost darkness, with just a faint red glow in the sky from that fantastic sunset. It's time for me to drive home after a long, yet rewarding and exhilarating day with a great team of groundsmen who are a credit to our industry and the cricket club they serve so well.