For an amateur club with a ground that is looked after by three willing and able volunteers, Mumbles Cricket Club on South Wales' scenic Gower peninsula deserves to be mighty proud of its achievements, both on the cricket and turf maintenance fronts.
In 2010, the club enjoyed a record season, winning five titles at senior and junior levels, headed by the 1st XI which became undefeated champions of the South Wales Cricket Association's First Division and winners of the SWCA Cup.
Having secured promotion to the top tier of the SWALEC South Wales Premier League, Mumbles Cricket Club's first team finished the 2011 season in a creditable sixth place out of a total of ten teams in Division One.
The part-time groundsmen, who prepare wickets for more than eighty home games involving the club's three senior and seven junior teams, have also earned themselves a pat on the back for the overall standards achieved across a ground which gained ECB Clubmark Accreditation in 2007.
Mumbles Cricket Club's Marespool ground has also achieved Minor Counties status, having hosted a number of Wales' home matches, the most recent being an MCCA Knock-Out Trophy match on 20th May.
Assessed in early April this year by ECB Pitch Adviser, Wayne Duggan, the standard of the square is categorised as 'Club' in the Performance Quality Standards (PQS) laid down by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
According to the report, the square is rated as Premier standard in ten separate areas, and is not far short of achieving the highest standard in six other categories. Items requiring attention are highlighted in the report, including the need to let the grass on the square grow longer and increase both the clay content and pH level of the soil beneath the square.
"The first can be accomplished quite easily by raising the height of cut," points out Wayne. "The latter two will take longer to achieve by means of regular and appropriate topdressing and soil exchange."
Head Groundsman, John Blyth, stressed that the information and recommendations provided within ECB pitch reports are of immense value, both to himself and his two part-time assistants, in helping maintain and raise the standard of a ground created almost forty years ago out of farmland using the indigenous clay-loam soils.
"The club was established formally as a league side in 1925, playing its games for many years in a public park close to the centre of Mumbles village," he explained. "In the early 1970s, the decision was taken to look for land where the cricket club could base itself with its own ground, pavilion and machinery."
The committee at the time did not have to look too far, as one of the members knew a farmer who was renting locally a suitable area of land from the Duke of Beaufort.
Located on the stunning Gower coast, a mile or so from the club's existing pitch, the field was purchased in 1975 from the Duke who attended the first official game played in 1979 at the Marespool Ground against the MCC.
The time between purchase and opening was spent levelling the ground, building the square and constructing a pavilion for, what proved to be, a successful first season playing in the South Wales Cricket Association League.
One of the club's members who played at the new ground in its first season was John Blyth who, in addition to his groundsman's responsibilities today, is also honorary secretary of Mumbles Cricket Club.
So how did John become involved in cricket pitch maintenance? "I started volunteering at the club about fifteen years ago," he explained. "The head groundsman at the time, Geoff Thomas, was looking for helpers and I put my hand up. One of the first things I did was attend a basic cricket groundsmen's course in Cardiff presented by Len Smith, who was head groundsman at Glamorgan County Cricket Club at the time."
"That provided a very sound grounding, and I've been learning more and more about the skills involved ever since, primarily from Geoff, but also from suppliers' representatives, magazines and online resources such as Pitchcare."
A former Swansea City professional footballer, Geoff Thomas, started playing cricket for Mumbles at around the same time as John Blyth.
His keen interest in grounds maintenance led to his appointment as the club's head groundsman shortly after his retirement from football, a position he held until last autumn when illness forced him to hand over responsibilities to John.
Fortunately, Geoff and John had previously encouraged two other club members to help out with grounds maintenance and pitch preparation to meet the demand from a burgeoning membership and the growing number of teams requiring wickets on which to play.
"I have a part-time job which enables me to be at the ground every day of the week from around 9.00am onwards, and earlier on match days," commented John. "Helping out increasingly throughout the week are my cousin, Nick Blyth, and life member, Allan Baglow, who has been involved with Mumbles Cricket Club for more than fifty years.
"Although I take overall responsibility for ensuring that the ground and wickets are ready in good time for every game, there is no demarcation and we are all capable and happy to do whatever job might be needed," pointed out John.
"From time to time, we are able also to call on supporters and members of the club who work professionally on sports grounds in the area or on local farms. This provides access to tractors and specialist machinery that the club cannot justify nor afford, for example, spraying equipment, trailers and a deep-tine aerator."
That said, Mumbles Cricket Club has accumulated, over the years, a respectable fleet of ride-on, walk-behind and hand-held equipment enabling the three "part-time" groundsmen to carry out, in-house, every task involved in preparing the ground for its next game of cricket.
As is the case with most amateur clubs and organisations across the country, virtually every item of equipment housed in the club's secure lock-up containers has had at least one previous owner. Securing a new or replacement machine is down primarily to the good relationships that have been built with local dealers who know the sort of machines that Mumbles Cricket Club is looking for, contacting John when a useful trade-in is imminent.
Other sources of pre-owned machinery include professional sports clubs and grounds across South Wales who prefer to dispose of end-of-finance equipment privately to a good and appreciative home.
"Most of the equipment we acquire is in very good condition and capable of giving five or more years' reliable service, without costing the club too much money," said John. "This is an important factor, as virtually every penny spent by Mumbles Cricket Club comes from subscriptions and our own fund-raising efforts. We do have some excellent sponsors and long-term supporters, but costs continue to rise, so we are grateful when a useful machine becomes available at a reasonable price."
Because it receives the highest level of use during the season, mowing equipment takes pride-of-place on the ground.
The most recent acquisition, purchased last winter, is a Toro Reelmaster 2000D ride-on triple which is used at least once a week to cut the outfield at a summer height of 11mm. John Blyth commented that the attractive striped finish produced by the mower provides an excellent initial impression to those driving into the car park as a long-time member or for the very first time.
The square is cut by a pair of Lloyds 21in Paladin mowers equipped with 11-bladed cylinders. The most recent arrival - a Paladin TG model - was purchased in early 2010 as an ex-demonstration machine complete with turf groomer.
"This mower is used to prepare the wickets for every game," explained John. "It's the first machine we've ever had fitted with a groomer, and I like the consistent finish it produces."
The second Paladin is at least twelve year's old and is kept solely for the initial cutting of wickets earmarked for games coming up a week or two ahead, enabling two men to mow simultaneously, albeit at different heights of cut.
"The ECB assessment states that grass length needs to be longer across our square, so height of cut has been raised on the older machine to more than 10mm, leaving the newer Paladin to prepare the final strip at around 5mm," said John. "In between, we use a hand-operated scarifier/brush to help stand-up the grass and prevent runners, finishing off with a heavy roller."
Despite the somewhat negative feedback received regarding the length of the grass sward, John Blyth pointed out that spring grass cover across the square had been the best he had seen for many years.
"Although the ground drains really well overall, we like to verti-drain out-of-season to break up compaction and encourage infiltration rather than suffer from run-off," he said. "Last winter, the verti-drain was set to work at around 175mm deep instead of the normal 100mm, helping produce deeper rooting of the new grass seed sown as part of last autumn's square renovations. Early season growth was excellent."
When it comes to the supply of grass seed, fertilisers and pesticides, Mumbles Cricket Club has relied, for a number of years, on the recommendations of a specialist amenity adviser.
Last autumn, the seed mixture recommended for the square was TT23 for tees and wicket renovation, a perennial ryegrass mix with a Gromax seed coating sown at a rate of 35gm/sq metre.
Prior to broadcasting and luting-in the seed across the heavily-scarified surface, the groundstaff applied Headland's Xtend 15:2:20, a slow-release granular fertiliser with added magnesium, also at a rate of 35gm/sq metre.
This treatment was complemented, a week or two later, by Headland's Greentec Moss Killer Pro, a 4:0:4+9% iron mini-granule, designed to control moss whilst helping harden up the turf ahead of winter.
During the spring and summer, the square receives applications "as and when necessary" of Headland's Xtend 22:2:8, a slow-release granular fertiliser, also with added magnesium, applied at a rate of around 35gm/sq metre.
When Pitchcare visited last month, the outfield was scheduled to receive a late May application of Evolution Pro-Long N liquid fertiliser, a 30:0:0 formulation designed to provide controlled nitrogen feeding over a period of up to eight weeks.
It will be applied by a farmer friend of the club using his tractor and mounted sprayer "when weather and ground conditions are right," said John.
Other products recommended and used when necessary by the club include T2 Green, a selective broad-spectrum herbicide weed-killer for the control of annual and perennial weeds in managed amenity turf and amenity grassland.
Worm activity is controlled by Caste Off, whilst Gostd from Surrey Loams Ltd is the preferred topdressing material.
In 2012, the square will host between eighty and one hundred mid-week and weekend cricket matches, putting tremendous pressure on an area of grass that measures little more than 40m wide by 25m deep.
Only six of the twelve senior-level wickets across the square provide sufficient boundary distances for Premier League games, leaving the remainder for use by the club's second and third elevens and seven junior teams.
Although the two under-11 sides play all of their games on a strip of artificial turf, the high level of use across the rest of the square demands close and regular attention throughout the season from John Blyth and his two assistants. The result is wickets that draw constant praise from all who bowl or bat on them ... and from the umpires.
Whilst the turfed areas at the Marespool Ground naturally receive close attention, the 2ha ground has undergone many changes over the past thirty-five years, including the construction of three all-weather nets, an electronic scorebox and, last winter, a £50,000 pavilion extension financed from the club's reserves.
The result has produced new changing rooms and toilet facilities for club members, visiting players and umpires, freeing up valuable space in the original building, which should help ensure that teas at Mumbles Cricket Club remain among the very best in South Wales.