Our editor meets two groundsmen plying their trade in a traditional hotbed of cricket - the Lancashire Leagues - and finds that both are putting their years of experience to good use as their respective clubs look to improve the facilities, both on and off the field of play
Lancashire is renowned for its love of cricket with well over 500 clubs playing in the various county leagues. As always the success of any club is down to the commitment of dedicated members, especially those who look after the grounds and prepare the pitches for play.
Paul Tatton and Esmond Howarth are two such groundsmen who, between them, can call on years of experience. They are responsible for the grounds at four clubs; Paul at Westhoughton and Haydock, and Esmond at Wigan and Orrell, where their primary objective is to provide safe and consistent tracks for demanding Lancastrians. Both men have played the game to a good standard, so know what is required from a players' perspective.
In addition to his work as a groundsman, Paul is also one of three ECB Pitch Advisors for the county and, at the weekend, can be found standing as an umpire. He even helps out with coaching, so is a well known figure in the leagues.
He started taking an interest in groundsmanship at the age of eighteen when he helped out at Farnworth CC. He played as a professional for a number of clubs, including Read CC, Atherton CC and the Walker Institute CC. During his playing career he represented the county at all age levels and playing for Lancashire seconds.
I caught up with Paul at Westhoughton, a club I had previously visited almost three years ago when I went to report on their new ground, the St George's Oval.
This came about after supermarket chain, Sainsburys, bought the old ground for the site of a new superstore in the town. The new ground and clubhouse cost £2 million; a far cry from the £30.12s. 5d they had to shell out for their ground in 1875!
The work was undertaken by John Mallinson (Ormskirk) Ltd., with Pete Marron, the former Old Trafford head groundsman, overseeing the construction of the square.
The ground is protected by a 6ft high perimeter fence and, whilst an expensive item in itself, was added to, to the tune of £25,000, when Great Crested Newts were found on the site. The extra cost was to comply with planning regulations, conducting a survey and building a 'newt run' to a nearby pond.
The club run three senior mens sides and provide a number of junior teams from under nines to under seventeen. Total membership hovers at around 1,000, providing an important social life for the town. They also have a thriving ladies rounders section, utilising spare ground away from the outfield. The club run five teams using two rounders courts.
The square is built on a gravel raft and has a perimeter drain and trap facilities. It was constructed using 100mm of Boughton Club Kettering loam, which was upgraded to Boughton County during renovations.
The outfield has a primary drainage system, installed at three metre centres, to ensure the ground can drain at a rate of thirteen litres per second, helping to reduce the number of games lost to rain. Existing soil was ameliorated with 50mm of sand to improve the surface drainage capabilities of the outfield.
Paul was keen to show me how well the square had come on since my last visit, emphasising how he had levelled out some of the uneven dips and undulations with a vigorous end of season maintenance over the last three years.
The work entailed a thorough scarification, aeration and the application of over six tonnes (twelve bags per strip) of Boughton County loam during each renovation. Paul has also been trialing a New Zealand Perennial ryegrass (Colosseum) to oversow the square and has been pleased with the results as it tends to thrive better during colder spells.
The square is maintained at 9mm during the growing season and reduced to a match height of 3mm via a ten to fourteen day preparation programme. Pre-season rolling begins with the cylinder mowers, gradually building up the weight until he can get his Poweroll on, starting with it unballasted at around one tonne and then, once filled with water, at a maximum of two tonnes.
Paul uses the Pythagoras theory to set up his square and pitches and then uses a marking frame which, once placed on the base line and set to the middle stump, enables him to mark the pitch out accurately.
He cuts the outfield two or three times a week in the summer using a John Deere 2653A triple mower set at 12mm, boxing off clippings. During the winter he will cut at 25mm and let the clippings fly.
Meanwhile, just a few miles down the road, in the centre of the town is Wigan CC - one of the oldest clubs in Lancashire - where Paul took me to meet Esmond Howarth, the club's groundsman for the past five years.
Much like Paul, Esmond has committed most of his sporting life to the game of cricket, playing for his beloved Orrell CC. When he eventually hung up his boots, he became the club's groundsman.
Esmond was an engineer by trade and, when he retired from work six years ago, was approached by Wigan to look after their grounds in a paid capacity, so he now divides his time between both clubs.
Wigan CC is run as a not-for-profit community club that is open to all. They run three senior and six junior sides. In recent years, under the stewardship of their current club captain Mark Rowe and juniors coordinator Steve Martlew, they have made improvements to the facilities, with large lottery grants affording them the opportunity to refurbish the clubhouse and reconstruct the square.
Mallinsons koroed off the square to remove saddled ends, re-levelled with new loam and overseeded. Gradually, after a lot of hard graft, the square is now considered as one of the best playing surfaces in the area, which was recognised when Esmond received an award for his work.
Now that the square is performing well, the club are switching their attention to the outfield which, for a number of years, has been poor. This was highlighted during last year's very wet summer, which saw the club having to cancel games because of the sodden outfield. Frustratingly, the square was often playable but the outfield remained waterlogged for long periods.
The ground is low lying, so a lot of water ingresses from higher ground. In addition, the native soil has a high clay content, and the old drainage system is simply not able to cope. This has resulted in a large build up of moss, which acts like a sponge and holds on to water.
After some investigation, the club are currently seeking costs to install a French drain to stop the ingress of water onto the outfield, install a new primary and secondary drainage system and deal with the moss. It was hoped that this work would be completed before the start of this season to avoid any repeat of last year's issues, should Mother Nature decide to 'not play ball' again.
Esmond has already started to tackle the moss problem which, he says, is outcompeting the grass. He does not really want to spray with a moss killer for the fear of being left with little or no grass cover for the coming season. So, with the help of local greenkeeper Richard Roberts, it's been a case of giving it a thorough scarification using springtime rake harrows; the large pile of arisings was a sight to behold!
Esmond says that he will be keeping on top of the moss content, gradually reducing it and oversowing to increase grass populations until the time comes when he can properly eradicate it with moss killer which, hopefully, will be some time next year.
Esmond is confident that the club are moving in the right direction and, with the continued investment in the ground, will see the benefit in the coming years when the next generation of players come through the club and into the first team.
Both Paul and Esmond are shining examples of the work done by dedicated groundsmen up and down the country who toil long hours in all weathers.