It's that time of the year again. A time when cricket groundsmen will be starting up their trusty roller and heading out to the square to begin pre-season rolling. ECB Pitch Advisor for Lincolnshire, Martin Deans, offers some advice on how to approach the task and what to avoid
There are many factors to consider before the pre-season rolling regime begins. Firstly, study the ECB document Guidelines on Rolling; this was produced in conjunction with Cranfield University and provides, in my opinion, a fascinating insight into the science of rolling and, more importantly, how much is necessary for recreational cricket squares.
There has been much debate around the accuracy of its findings since it was published and, of course, there are many grounds with differing constructions to the rootzones which were used in this instance, so its findings may have to be adapted accordingly from site to site. The key factor, however, is the time we spend on the roller. This no longer has to be the notoriously mind numbingly boring stints of several hours at a time, which now not only saves man hours, but also fuel costs and possible hire costs.
Before any rolling begins - at any time of the year - make sure the grass plant is strong enough to cope. Growth wants to have begun, the plant of a healthy condition and not under stress of any form. Ideally, it wants to be standing to a strong vertical position and the soil surface of the square completely free of any debris and organic matter.
The soil profile of the square wants to be moist, but not saturated. If any water comes up around your boots when walking across the square, then not only don't roll, but leave well alone until it is possible to walk across the square without causing any skid damage.
Ideally, the weather conditions want to be dry and bright, with a little warmth; overcast, drizzly days are of little use for rolling and will only create more problems. If your washing won't dry outside, then don't roll! Timing is key and, like comedy, it's the secret to rolling. Getting this right will create a well compacted square to depth. It must be able to dry sufficiently for several hours after rolling has finished.
Windows for pre-season rolling during early spring are limited, so become a weather enthusiast. Study as many local forecasts as possible before you begin and during the rolling programme. Dry days, coupled with wet days, will be of little use. Several days of dry weather together are, ideally, what is required. However, for the part time or volunteer groundsman, weekends may be the only time available to work on the square which, if the weather is inclement, will pose problems, so planning is a must.
Who else can be trusted to operate the roller if there is a window open during the week? There will nearly always be somebody of this nature within a club who can help out; students often arrive back home from university around the rolling window, players on shift rotas or the retired member who may be able to help. Get the club together as early as possible after Christmas for a rota planning meeting and have an action plan ready to roll out (no pun intended) if the only realistic weather window falls within the week.
As groundsmen, we need to be proactive in this role. Moaning about the lack of help come mid-season is of no use and, at times, we only have ourselves to blame. Don't be frightened of sharing responsibilities. Early organisation of this process will lead to a superior surface for the coming season and help raise further the role of the groundsman in the club. Getting as many people involved in this process will be beneficial to all.
Before you take the roller out onto the square, make sure what your soil profile consists of and, indeed, looks like. Have a chemical analysis done to determine the clay content. Ideally, this should have been done in the early autumn. Higher clay soils may not require the amount of rolling a lower clay soil will.
If renovations have been done correctly, there will be no thatch present. If there is, then this will prevent any lasting compaction. Try to determine the amount of available pore space within the profile which will be holding water; this will give an idea of how long it will take to dry out and reach its maximum density level.
Have a good look under the bonnet; doing this will not only help with rolling, but with the future management of the square.
If your washing won't dry outside, then don't roll!"
Make sure the roller is in full working order and all drums are clean and undamaged. There is nothing worse than getting halfway across a moist square when the roller breaks down or, having made the first pass, a lump of last season's grass clippings wrapped in soil falls from the drums and compresses into the surface! This can cause untold damage and be of severe inconvenience. Not only that, it makes the groundsman, as an individual, look unprofessional and unprepared.
Servicing should have been carried out in the winter months and all working parts greased. Run the engine a couple of weeks before just to make sure everything is okay, as this will allow adequate time to repair it if there are any problems.
With full preparation achieved, pre-season rolling can begin; take down all the fencing surrounding the square and move well away from the roller's path. Give yourself as much fighting room as possible; running over road pins and rope left at the side of the square can create unwanted problems. With full PPE in place, a full fuel tank and clean drums, the roller can be taken onto the square, going at a firm walking pace.
I always start going against the line of play left to right across the square. I normally include approximately five yards behind either stumps, I split the square into half and proceed by leaving the square at one end and rejoining in the middle, working my way across. Once this has been completed which, for a standard square of, say, ten pitches, should take around thirty to forty minutes, I do the same formation in the line of play, splitting the square, this time into quarters, and working my way across it. This direction can take a little longer but, without hiccups, should be completed in around an hour.
I do each direction twice in the same period of rolling, always finishing with the line of play. So, after around three hours, the first phase of rolling will be complete. Allow the square to dry for two days, then return and repeat this action.
Not only is this firming the square, but also the immediate areas around it, aiding the close fielding positions. Again, once completed, leave for a couple of days. When I return, I now start to reduce the amount of time I go across the square, but only if I am satisfied with the results so far. I now only go across once, and with the line of play.
Moisture levels will begin to reduce quite quickly, particularly if the weather has been favourable. Therefore, I may well return the following day and go solely in the line of play without going off the square, i.e. go up and then reverse back down the same path.
Once completed, moisture levels need to be assessed. This can be down with a pointed tent peg, or similar, by just applying minimal pressure to the top and seeing how far it can be pushed into the surface. If it meets with no resistance, and the square takes in most of the peg, then much more rolling still needs to be done in better conditions. If resistance is met within the first inch or so, then compaction is being achieved and rolling the whole square can now be reduced to little and often.
If, however, you experience a heavy period of rain or a sharp frost or two, then, providing the frost has come out of the grass plant and the surface is not saturated, a further pass over the square may be required.
As groundsmen, we tend to have a sixth sense in the touch and feel department; this is vital in all aspects of groundsmanship. Take the time to feel the surface, and get to recognise its tendencies after certain operations have been carried out, particularly after rolling. How does it feel to the touch? If it's firm, without being able to depress your thump into it, then it's just about there.
It is now time to go into normal pitch preparation mode and get ready for the first game, all the time keeping a focused eye on the weather forecast. It's not uncommon to have to apply water to the pitch at this time of year, especially if the wind blows easterly for long periods or we experience mild temperatures without rain.
Keep monitoring your square's compaction levels throughout the season. If you endure a period of prolonged rain, or a couple of days of rain, then it may well be that the square will require a further roll outside of normal pitch preparations to maintain it to its current standard; clay soils can quickly swell and, indeed, shrink, so timing is key.
To summarise, try and get as many of your club members involved, plan the process and educate yourselves as much as possible on the square's composition, machinery, and the weather forecast.
Pre-season rolling is one of the most vital operations that needs to be carried out in cricket groundsmanship. Done correctly, it will provide the rewards throughout the season; incorrectly, and problems will arise!
If, at any time, you are unsure or have questions, then seek help. The ECB Advisory service is a great place to start. Get in touch with your local advisor through your cricket board. The network of experienced help that is available through the message board on Pitchcare is another; a simple question posed will always generate a response. Never suffer in silence.