"At first, I caused myself no end of problems, often ripping great lumps out of the surface but, as time has passed, I have perfected a technique that serves me well"
Keith Exton, Head Groundsman, SWALEC Stadium
Many of the county cricket clubs have undertaken major ground improvements in recent years, which began with the pioneering work on the outfield drainage system at Lord's back in 2003. So successful was this that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) took the decision to improve the outfield drainage at other senior county cricket grounds.
The work centred mainly on the complete refurbishment of the outfields, which saw the installation of new primary and secondary drainage systems, along with pop-up watering systems and new floodlights. The work was carried out to combat 'rain stopped play' when, often, standing water would delay the restart of the game long after the clouds had rolled by, and frustrated spectators were sat in glorious sunshine watching the groundstaff mopping up. Two clubs also took the opportunity to address other significant weather related problems, with Derbyshire and Lancashire turning their squares through ninety degrees to combat that other well known cricket phrase 'sunshine stopped play' - the setting sun causing problems at both grounds during evening games - whilst others took a couple of tracks out of play each year, on a rolling programme, to rebuild them.
One of the newer Test grounds, Glamorgan's Swalec Stadium (aka Sophia Gardens), had already had new outfield drainage installed but, on his arrival at the club three years ago, Head Groundsman, Keith Exton, wanted to concentrate on relaying the square, a task that his predecessor, Len Smith, had also wanted to undertake, but the finances were not available at the time.
The ground had already undergone significant improvements to the off field facilities with new stands, floodlights and corporate hospitality areas. Now, three years down the line, Keith has the opportunity to begin the major refurbishment works on the square. The initial project involved digging out two tracks and replacing with new loam. However, this would not be possible because of the levels of the square. So, it was agreed that a total of fourteen pitches had to be laser graded to allow for the two new pitches to blend perfectly and, as this project is for two new pitches every year for a five year period, levels would not be a problem at any further stage of the project.
So, why now? Glamorgan's tracks were renowned for their slow pace and bounce and, with televised Test and One Day International cricket now a regular occurrence, this simply was not acceptable. Even so, creating a brand new playing surface, and effectively getting rid of fifty years of history and many layers of differing loam, was a brave move by the committee and the head groundsman.
Even prior to this work being carried out, there had been a significant improvement to the square during Keith's time. Pitch markings improved and many of the players noted a marked improvement in pace and bounce. Keith had always been confident that his maintenance practices would achieve this, up to a point.
"From the day I started, I knew I would be under the spotlight," said Keith. "I needed to improve the condition of the sward and to get those layers pinned together, and get a deeper rooting system; presentation goes a long way to setting the standards."
"More attention to detail was needed. We were now a ground that was fully in the media spotlight, with all its inherent dissection of the playing surface. Glamorgan was no longer a little club tucked away in a small corner of South Wales. Don't forget, our first Test match was the first of the 2009 Ashes series, and the first ever 'home' test to be staged outside England. They don't come any bigger than that, and everything had to be right. And I mean, everything!"
In the end, after Monty Panasar and James Anderson had secured an unlikely draw, Glamorgan were roundly praised for their hospitality, whilst the field of play did not suffer too much at the hands of Botham, Atherton et al. Even though, deep down, I knew it was not good enough," admits Keith
He was able to improve the pace and bounce by carrying out techniques he has been using since the late 1980s.
"More emphasis was put on the preparation and repair of the pitches. I knew the only way I was going to improve the bounce and pace of the square was to introduce more loam." The only times he was able to achieve this was during pitch repairs and at the end of the season, with a robust renovation programme.
"Way back in the 1980s I was looking at new ways to improve the condition of my squares. Aeration was becoming a popular maintenance operation and, with the arrival on the scene of the vertidrain, I decided to try it out on some of my squares."
"At first, I caused myself no end of problems, often ripping great lumps out of the surface but, as time has passed, I have perfected a technique that serves me well. I can now spike in the height of the playing season, down to a depth of 125mm, without disturbing the playing surface."
Keith now uses a Weidenmann XF solid tine spiker. "The combination of the speed, tine size (9mm and 13mm diameter), and controlling the moisture content in the top 50mm, is the key to its success. I now regularly use this technique to repair pitches."
Once a pitch is finished, Keith will water it, scarify to clean out, leaving grooves for the new seed - Limagrain MM50 - which is worked into the pitch. Germination sheets will be used to speed up germination and, once there is some decent grass showing, he will then deep spike (125mm at 50mm x 50mm centres) and topdress with Ongar loam, which is then worked into the profile and down into the holes. The pitch is then watered to help wash in the loam. "I call it a bottom dressing, as very little loam is left on the surface that, in itself, then causes little or no effects on the mowing or playing programme."
"The results have been very good," says Keith. "There's been a steady improvement in the performance of the pitches since this work began. The bulk density of clay loam in the square has dramatically increased, with the added benefit that I can bring these pitches back into play later on in the season."
There is no doubt that the work undertaken by Keith and his staff has improved the performance of the pitches. However, the underlying problem is still there - years of layering. "The fact is that binding between the original indigenous soil and applied loams was non-existent," explains Keith. "This created a low energy response from any compaction work undertaken."
"As I saw it, the only way to rectify the problems was to reconstruct the square. Obviously, this cannot be done overnight, so a rolling programme will be required to rebuild a number of the pitches, digging out to a depth of 225mm and replacing with new loam."
It was a Test match at the Rose Bowl in Southampton in June 2011 that changed the mindset of the Glamorgan committee. Nigel Gray's wicket was declared to be a 'proper' Test wicket - a fair contest between bat and ball - with many of the pundits stating that all Test wickets should be more like it.
The Glamorgan committee knew that, if they failed to rectify the problems associated with the square, even though Keith had already made huge improvements, the club may lose out on securing more top fixtures. So, after much deliberation and discussion, Keith finally got the go-ahead to begin reconstruction of the square.
Steven Pask was the successful contractor awarded the work, with over twenty-five years experience of working on cricket pitches. "I've known Steve for all of those years, watching how things have changed over that period, and what equipment and processes have been upgraded. Now, Steve is considered the number one contractor by many of the county groundsmen for the quality of work that they constantly produce."
Work began on the 26th September 2011. Jim Colman, his brother Paul and Steve Stafford - all with over twenty years experience - were tasked with putting those skills into practice.
"Prior to the lads coming on site, a survey of the ground was done to identify any issues that may affect the work," explained Keith. "Old drains, cables and water points were flagged up, and all the underground cables for the stump cameras were taken up before the contractors moved on to the site."
Access to the square was achieved by placing a 'road' of boards to protect the outfield. Every couple of days the boards would be taken up and placed in a different area to prevent too much stress on the outfield grass.
A fully automated GPS survey system was set up to determine working levels, with laser guided equipment fitted to the tractors. The first task was to Koro off all the surface vegetation. About forty tonnes of material was removed, leaving the site clean and ready for Jim to start ripping up the square. They soon came across some old metal drainage channels that had been put in many years ago. These had all silted up, and were removed from the site.
Initially, the aim was to rip down to 100mm to the original local indigenous soil and the old flood plain. However, it was decided to go a bit deeper to enable a key to be formed to help integrate the new mixed top layer (100mm) of existing loam.
he first two days were spent ripping up, power harrowing and getting levels correct; essentially a cultivate, tread and rake effect. Attention to detail was important. The John Deere 3720, with its mid mounted grader blade, spent the whole day grading the formation to 40mm below finish level, consolidating, and tracking in as the operation unfolded.
The next stage was to introduce 20mm of Ongar loam. This was graded out, apart from tracks thirteen and fourteen which were the two that were to be dug out and replaced completely. The 20mm of loam was then Harley power raked to ameliorate it into the already graded area. "This mixing of loams is a very important," explains Keith, "so as not to have the new loam sitting on top of the existing profile, causing a new layer with differing expansion and contraction rates, which would have caused the very same problem that we were trying to alleviate."
"We then laser graded again, and added the final 20mm of loam, tracking in to achieve the finish levels - which had been calculated to be a 1 in 200 fall across the direction of play - so as to blend in with the net area, and the other parts of the square that had been untouched. Settlement was calculated to be 1cm."
During the final process of the project, the team took the opportunity to dig out the two new pitches, excavating to a depth of 225mm, ensuring the base of the excavation was true and level. Then, in 25mm layers, the new loam was placed and compacted down.
Keith enlisted the help of Mark Atkins from Soil Harmony who, for the past three years, has advised him on feeding regimes. Mark was sent to Binder Loams to undertake an independent analysis of the loam. The finished product was screened at 4mm, but Mark noted that its Ph was at 7.9, a little lower than material they had used in the past, so advised that Keith apply some magnesium and manganese to help improve the tensile strength and the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of the loam. The magnesium, manganese and sulphur were added at each stage of the laying process, the sulphur to reduce the PH level even further, and an application of 8:12:8 NPK pre-seeding fertiliser, was mixed into the top 100mm.
The whole square was then seeded with MM50 in several directions.
The whole job took eight days to complete. The weather that week was ideal - dry and sunny, with little wind. It was then a case of watering the square and waiting for the seed to germinate. With temperatures still in double figures, it was not surprising that, within a week, the seed had successfully germinated.
With less than six months to the start of competitive cricket, Keith is hoping the weather during the winter months will be favourable to allow the grass to establish. "I'll be cutting the square with pedestrian rotaries and, when conditions are right, may get some cylinder mowers on to help consolidate."
"I've even thought about getting some lighting rigs on to help promote grass growth," says Keith. "I thought about asking Lee Evans at the Millennium Stadium if I could use some of his lights but, in reality, I could do with my own set."
"The lighting rig would need to cover the complete length of the wicket, some 25 metres. It's not an impossible task but, at the moment, there is nothing on the market that is at the right price."
"I'm more than confident, having seen for myself the extent of the layering and the distinct break between the 30mm of Ongar loam sitting on top of the original mixture of three loams - a mix of Mendip, Surrey, and Nottingham Marl laid some forty years ago. In its day it would have been seen as a massive improvement on what the evidence showed from this excavation profiles. It is quite clear to see that the original pitches were built on top of the indigenous silt soils with what would appear to be a very cream colour loam, a Banbury or Surrey.
Three distinctive layers were very evident, before the three mix construction was placed over the top of the base mix. Now all this material has been stirred up and relaid, hopefully getting rid of the layering breaks, the performance of the square next year can only be better and, over time, will continue to improve."
The two new pitches will take a bit longer to settle down and come into play, but they will, no doubt, play an important part in securing important fixtures in the coming years.
Keith is also confident that, once the powers that be see the performance of these new pitches, they will agree an ongoing programme to reconstruct more in the coming years.
"As I sit reading Laurence's draft article, some three weeks later on a very wet morning in Cardiff, I am very pleased with the germination of the seed - some 90% on the twelve pitches that were ripped up - with around an 80% take on the two pitches that were dug out and relayed," says Keith
"A secondary overseed has been given, and inspection indicates that most of this was just chitting. It has been mown with a 24" Dennis 610 eight times, all in differing directions. The first mow was nine days from seeding, at 13mm, and kept at 13mm for the next two cuts. Then we put it up to 15mm, and it is now at 17mm, which I will hold, depending on the weather, with the mower only tipping the new grass each cut. It is more about light rolling, ironing out the rake marks, and pushing the overseeding into the surface."
"An application of liquid feed has been given, along with a granular at 20gm and a wetting agent. The final ingredient was an application of Headway axoxstrobin fungicide."
As you can tell, I have been so lucky with the weather. To be able to achieve all these activities on a newly laid square is brilliant, and it is still firm to walk on, even though we have had good rains in the last week."
"As I sit in the office completing this article - by my myself, as my staff are off for some seventy days, in lieu and holiday entitlement - it is absolutely lashing it down! So, all the aforementioned materials applied to the new lay and netting areas will possibly be washed off into the drainage system. Ah well, back to reality and the good old Welsh weather!"
"This work has been fairly monumental in terms of ripping up fifty years of cricketing history. To think of all the great players who have played on the square is quite mind blowing," says Keith.
However, as he rightly says, it is time to move on and encourage the future generation of cricketers to ply their trade on the next generation of pitches at Glamorgan, hopefully in front of large crowds which, in turn, will bring in much needed revenue for the club.