Southern Wales has always been regarded as the pinnacle of Welsh Cricket, with big clubs around Cardiff and Swansea setting the trend. But no one should disregard the clubs to the north-west, which possess some of the best pitches and playing surfaces seen for hundreds of miles around.
One such cricket club is Northop Hall Cricket Club- located 30 miles west of Liverpool just over the Welsh border. The cricket club is the spiritual centre of the small village of Northop Hall, with some lifelong members supporting the club through sheer dedication, passion and tradition, as well as the occasional pint or two. The club hosted several matches between Welsh Minor Counties, and was the chosen venue for the Wales MC v Middlesex NatWest clash in 1994. Middlesex captain Mike Gatting commented on the quality of the ground saying, "the pitch is better than Lords! It's the best ground I've played on for a couple of years."
2008 was also the club's centenary year, with a whole week of celebrations dedicated for the occasion in July. Some of these included an exhibition match against the world's oldest and most famous cricket club- Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which included Australia's Callum Ferguson, and an 8 a side competition with the Lashings Wold XI, with big cricket names such as Alvin Kallicharran, Allan Mullally and Chris Harris taking part.
I had the pleasure of being offered to play cricket with the club during the 2008 summer, flying all the way from sunny Melbourne, Australia as a semi-professional player for the 2nd
XI teams, and competing in the Liverpool and District Competition. As well as playing cricket every week, the club employed me as assistant groundsman over the playing season, due to my employment at Riversdale Golf Club back in Melbourne. It was an area of turf management I hadn't experienced, but I was looking forward to learning the methods and procedures which past head groundsman, John Peers and current head groundsman, George Groves had implemented on the ground for the past thirty plus years.
During the first week of my trip I had the pleasure of meeting veteran groundsman, George Groves in the bar area of the club on a Wednesday night. With his lips wrapped around a pint of Ale whilst socializing with other life members of the club, I proceeded to sit next to George with my own pint of larger to discuss our future working relationship. From that point we became good mates, creating the foundations of a great working environment at the club. George isn't paid a penny for his countless hours of work on the ground each week. He does it out of love and passion for the club, which stands out as a remarkable effort during the current economic climate. His down to earth attitude and dedication continues to produce high quality cricket pitches and playing surfaces every season.
The majority clay based outfield is far from a conventional sand based outfield, but the results are of the highest quality, with drainage rarely becoming an issue. A mixture of different turf grass species are established over all playing surfaces which include Chewing Fescue, Browntop Bent, Perennial Ryegrass and Annual Meadow-Grass. The clay loam wicket is approximately 12 pitches in width which are used for senior fixtures, with two more provisional pitches used on the east and west sides of the wicket when junior fixtures are played. The outfield is surrounded by a picket white fence which reflects the character and tradition of the club, along with clubhouse and viewing areas overlooking the city of Liverpool. The wicket on many occasions has been described as a batsman's dream and subsequently a bowler's nightmare! Apart from the odd wet wicket when rain has been prolific prior to the match, the consistency of the pitches prepared are second to none, which is reflected in the high scores produced on match day.
At the start of the cricket season in April, preparations to the ground and its surroundings are undertaken to bring the venue up to code. These preparations include application of a liquid 'weed and feed' product on the outfield and wicket, strimming and mowing around the boundary, rolling out of the boundary rope, servicing of machinery, positioning and general maintenance of side screens, maintenance and testing of the electronic scoreboard, as well as any other general maintenance jobs around the club. The outfield during this time is mown at a height corresponding to the height of the grass, therefore a higher mowing height is usually set so the amount of clippings is reduced, and scalping damage to the outfield is minimized. The height of the cut will drop as the season progresses till the desired height is reached. At Northop Hall Cricket Club, the desired height of cut applied to the outfield is approximately 8 to 10 millimetres, which gives the batsman full value for their shots especially when conditions are dry. The entire wicket is mown at the same height as the outfield, with individual pitches mown at a height of approximately 5 millimetres. This leaves a desirable amount of grass on the pitch to hold the clay together in dry conditions, and during general match play.
Much of the machinery used to maintain the ground at the club has seen better days but as the saying goes, "oldies but goodies" and this certainly coincides with the majority of machinery in George's shed. The main piece of machine used throughout the cricket season is a second hand Toro Reelmaster 2300D, with a cutting width of 72 inches and a cutting height range from ¼ inch up to 1¾ inch
. This machine is used around 3 times a week, especially when the desired cutting height is reached to minimize clippings left on the outfield. The Reelmaster gives a great quality cut while striping up the outfield in both the north/south and east/west directions. The north - south direction is usually cut at end of the week or only hours prior to Saturday's match to present prominent stripes, which are visible from the clubhouse at the northern end of the ground.
The biggest and most important machine in Georges shed is the old Benford three wheeled roller which is the key input into the creation of a first class Northop Hall cricket pitch. This machine weighs over 1.5 tonnes, and the three wheeled design of this roller creates larger amount of downward force than that of a modern two wheeled roller, flattening and compacting any pitch into perfect condition. As a general rule the roller is used for approximately 10 - 12 hours a week, with 8 or 9 hours used on the pitch prepared in the week prior to the match, and 3 - 4 hours used on the pitch prepared for the following week. This system enables George to be organised and prepared for each match week after week, contributing to the high quality of pitches he produces.
Two Dennis walk behind cylinder mowers make up the cutting equipment used on the wicket and pitches at the club. The wicket as a whole is cut with a Dennis G860 which is 34 inches in width, whilst possessing a heavy duty drive system gives a top quality cut each time. The machine is also used to cut the outfield on the odd occasion when the ground is either too wet or when the grass is too long for the heavy Reelmaster. The light weight of the G860, along with its large catcher capacity and attachable seat, allow the outfield to be cut in most conditions without leaving clippings or causing substantial damage to the turf. The only downside is it takes considerably longer to cut the outfield with the G860 compared to the Reelmaster, but its high quality of cut and versatility in most conditions makes the longer cutting time worthwhile.
Individual pitches are cut with a Dennis FT510 walk behind mower which has a 20 inch cutting width and an interchangeable cassette design allowing the operator to change the mower into a scarifier, verticutter, brush, spiker and slitter, as well as 5 or 9 blade- cutter. This machine closely rivals the old Benford roller in terms of importance due to its versatile interchangeable cassette design, allowing the club to possess a brush and scarifier, as well as a walk behind mower. The machine gives a great cut each time and operating the machine is simple, allowing a part time groundsman to use the machine with ease. This is of great importance whilst George is away
getting some well earned rest, at his yearly holiday destination of Tenerife (OK for some). The FT comes out of the shed approximately 4 days a week, with the pitch prepared in the week prior to the match cut 4 - 5 times, while the pitch prepared for the following week is cut 2 - 3 times. The brush and scarifier cassette heads of the FT510 usually come out when too much grass is left of the pitch after cutting. In this situation the scarifier runs over the pitch until the desired amount of grass is removed, then the brush is applied to collect the deposits from the scarifier and remove any loose strains of grass left on the pitch. The pitch is then cut again to even out the surface of the pitch, hopefully giving the desired result. The FT is a fantastic machine with a high quality cut, while its added versatility only adds to its excellence, which greatly aids George in his preparation of a consistent pitch week after week.
When the weather is wet and the wicket is moist, Dog Lichen (Peltigera canina) becomes apparent and at times prolific, especially when heavy rain occurs at the start of the cricket season. The greyish-black scales (thallus) never have caused major problems for George, due to its ease of removal with a hardy broom or scarifier. As the season progresses the wet weather becomes less common and the Lichen dies off no longer causing a problem. If ever George wanted to eradicate the Lichen with a chemical application, any moss chemical treatments such as Ferrous Sulphate or Dichlorophen will do the job.
Fairy Ring Fungus is also apparent in the outfield, especially when conditions are dry later in the season. Three large rings are present on the boundaries of the outfield where dead or dying grass within the rings are visible, but due to their location these rings never become a major issue. Smaller rings are present around the ground and even on the wicket itself, but these rings do not have dead zones which impact the playing surface. These smaller infections only create a visible section of luxuriant grass where excessive nutrients are released, as the fungus decomposes organic debris. Control of the fungus is very difficult and most of the time impractical, therefore masking fungus where possible with an adequate fertilizer application, is the most viable option for George. When the fungus becomes developed, dead sections of grass are apparent due to high concentration thread-like structures (mycelia), which prevent water movement, weakening or killing the grass. The only possible options to treat the fungus are chemical treatment (most of which are very expensive), soil fumigation and total replacement of the infected turf and soil, all of which have no guarantee of success. George is yet to treat the three rings on the outfield boundary but if the dead areas of grass within the fungus start to become an issue in the future, total removal of the infected turf and soil would be the most realistic option in terms of cost and success.
At the end of the cricket season in mid September, renovations begin on the wicket to prepare for the next cricket season in six months time. The whole wicket is slit and spiked with a walk behind Aerator which has seen much better days, but year after year it keeps enduring each renovation whilst producing good results. The wicket is slit twice, once in the north/south direction and once in the east/ west direction. Slitting the wicket aerates and softens the surface of the wicket, as well as providing a good profile for seed germination. Spiking of the wicket is also done twice, again in the north/ south and east/ west directions. The wicket is spiked to aerate deeper into the profile to encourage root growth by providing greater levels of oxygen, whilst promoting seed germination. The wicket is then mown to clean up the surface of the wicket, before seed and fertilizer is applied. The seed used on the wicket at Northop Hall is a Rye and Fescue mix, and the fertilizer is a general granular fertilizer to promote growth. First the wicket is seeded by simply throwing handfuls of seed by hand over the entire area as evenly as possible, then fertilizer is applied with a simple spreader which is adjusted to apply the appropriate amount of fertilizer. Loam clay is then evenly applied and distributed over the surface of the wicket with approximately 8 bags of loam used for each individual pitch. Renovations usually take a whole week working part time, and at the mature age of 75, George needs all the help he can get from club members volunteering to help out.
The success of the 2008 season was unquestionable with the 1st
XI being promoted to the top division, whilst also making it to the final of the prestigious Welsh Cup, which we only narrowly lost in the final over of the match. The 2nd
XI retained their position in the top division and the 3rd
XI like the 1st
XI was also promoted to the top division. The centenary week in July was a major success with the club making a profit, and celebrating its 100th
spectacular fashion. On a personal note I too had one of the most successful seasons of my cricket career which had a lot to do with the high quality surfaces I played on, especially at Northop Hall. The ground itself was rated 2nd
best in terms of quality in the competition, only narrowly falling to Colwyn Bay Cricket Club, which is one of the home grounds of county club Glanmorgan. This was a great tribute to the work of George and the club, capping off a fantastic season.
Northop Hall Cricket Club is not an overly wealthy club in terms of money, and its volunteers such as George that are the life blood of the club season after season. The people at the club from the members to staff, are some of the nicest people around and it was a privilege to both work and play cricket there.