Jez Sadler is the Head Groundsman at the Colchester and East Essex cricket ground, situated in the picturesque Colchester Castle Park and, by far and away, the most attractive of the out-grounds used by Essex County Cricket Club. Lying to the north of the High Street, and below the level of the town and castle itself, the nine hectare park is bordered by the remains of an ancient Roman perimeter wall and the old Colchester by-pass.
During Colchester Cricket Week, the park is transformed by the arrival of tiered seating, the blue and white marquees and, of course, the mobile scoreboard. The pavilion is quite an elegant building, backed by trees through which the tower of the Victorian town hall and the Jumbo water tower, two Colchester landmarks, are visible in the distance. To the south of the ground, the willow-lined River Colne meanders through the park.
The Castle Park ground is steeped in history; it staged the first game in 1908 and Essex played their first fixture in 1914, returning after the Great War and remaining through to 1966 when they transferred to the nearby Garrison Cricket Ground because of consistently poor drainage - in 1958, one festival match was abandoned as deckchairs floated across the outfield. They remained at the Garrison until 1975 when the drainage system at Castle Park was extensively upgraded and have continued to play matches there since. However, the return did not go without its problems; a match against Kent in early June 1975 was disrupted by snow!
As head groundsman, Jez is responsible for the two squares and outfield and is one happy man; content in what he considers a great job and doing it well, he sleeps easy at night. That's not always been the case, as he was somewhat thrown in at the deep end when he was appointed, mid-season, in 2012.
However, let's turn the clock back to 2007, when he joined the Colchester Borough Council staff as groundsman at the Old Heath Recreation Ground, responsible for maintaining bowling greens in the south of Colchester. A local lad, born and bred in England's oldest recorded town, he was educated at St Helena School, before joining the family engineering business, where he became a qualified welder and steel erector.
This took him around the UK, travelling extensively and away from his young and growing family. He wasn't enjoying the lifestyle; he missed his family and had a hankering for an outdoor job. So, in 2007, he applied for the position with the local council and was successful. Most of his training was 'on the job' and he found he had a real aptitude for groundsmanship.
That same year he was asked, and accepted the offer, to join the support staff at the Colchester Cricket Festival.
"I thoroughly enjoyed it," he said. "That first year everything was new to me and I was taking in as much information as I could. It was a great experience; only a few months earlier I had been welding and erecting steel structures and now I was helping out at one of Colchester's major sporting events."
In 2009, Jez was promoted and went to manage the sports facilities at the Mile End Recreation Ground in the north of the borough. The 9.6 hectare site includes six full size football pitches and a cricket pitch, the home of Great Horkesley and Lexden Cricket Club. The same year he was invited by Essex County Cricket Club head groundsman, Stuart Kerrison, to help out at a T20 game at the Chelmsford county ground and continued on the support team at successive Colchester Cricket Festivals.
Then came the career-changing opportunity when, in the middle of the 2012 cricket season, the head groundsman at Colchester and East Essex resigned. Jez accepted the offer to take over and, although hectic, he got through the season without too much fuss.
His first full year in 2013 he describes as 'difficult' as he got to grips with the job, although he did win the North Essex Cricket League's Groundsman of the Year award. From thereon in, he has been revelling in the job. You only need to look on the clubhouse wall at the awards he has won to appreciate he's now extremely competent in his role.
• 2013 Groundsman of the Year, North Essex Cricket League
• 2014 Groundsman of the Year, Shepherd Neame Essex League
• 2015 Commendation Outgrounds, England & Wales Cricket Board
• 2015 Groundsman of the Year, Shepherd Neame Essex League
Jez is employed by idverde UK, a grounds maintenance company in the UK, formed by the merger of The Landscape Group and Quadron Services Ltd in February 2016. Sitting on the clubhouse veranda on a lovely spring morning in early April, I asked Jez to outline his responsibilities at the ground.
"My responsibilities are very easy to describe; it's everything inside the boundary ropes. All of the grass and green space outside the rope is maintained by my colleagues at idverde under our seven-year contract with Colchester Borough Council, which began last year. So I look after the two squares, the outfields and I'm also responsible for the maintenance of the covers. Pitch choice, who plays where and when, is also down to me."
The club has a total of eleven teams - Men: First XI, Second XI, Third XI, Sunday: First XI, T20: First XI; Boys: Under 19, Under 16, Under 12; Women: First XI; Girls: Under 16, Under 13. That takes a lot of management, but Jez has two squares with a total of twenty-three pitches, nineteen on the Main and four on the Junior square. With this resource he can cope with 50-60 matches a season that are hosted at Colchester.
I ask Jez what communication he has, and what direction he takes, from Essex headquarters in Chelmsford as an Essex outground.
"Stuart Kerrison comes down early in the year to have a look at the square, and we discuss how it's come through the winter and what I might need to do for the coming season. The main requirement is that it's a flat track with carry and bounce. I prepare five pitches at the end of the main square and Stuart selects two of them. They are used by the first and second XI for games in April, then I reseed and topdress with Ongar Loam Plus and they are not used again until the Festival in late July or early August. This year, they have come out of winter really well but, for the first time in many years, there will be no Colchester Festival."
This is a very emotive subject for cricket-lovers in north Essex and one that has created quite a storm in the local media. The event had been under threat after financial losses were made in the last few years. Last year, the seat numbers were cut in a bid to reduce costs.
In November 2016, the Essex County Cricket management issued the following statement: Essex County Cricket Club regrets to announce that the Colchester Cricket Festival will not take place in 2017. This does not signify the end of the Colchester Cricket Festival, and a decision will be made next year regarding this event during the 2018 season, which will largely depend on the fixture schedule.
The fixture schedule for 2017, compiled by the ECB, presents a three month period in the season where Essex have only one home Specsavers County Championship match taking place. Club Chairman, John Faragher, expressed his disappointment in seeing the Festival suspended for the forthcoming season. However, he is confident that this decision has been made in the best interests of the club's membership.
John said: "This was a very difficult decision to make; the Colchester Festival week has always been an integral part of the season, with players and members always enjoying the experience of visiting Castle Park."
"However, the club's committee decided that it was simply not acceptable to agree a fixture plan that would result in no County Championship cricket at Chelmsford for nearly three months in the middle of the summer. Going forward, we will review this decision and, depending on the fixtures, hope to see Colchester back in the schedule for 2018."
Jez's opinion on the decision was philosophical; one of acceptance, tinged with regret. "I can see why they took this decision; to have no games at Chelmsford for nearly three months is ludicrous, but I will miss the build-up and excitement that Festival Week brings. It's good fun and I will miss being part of it. There used to be issues with the weather, but in the last six or seven years we've only lost one, possibly two days. There's usually some pretty spectacular scoring here."
It has been the scene of several notable cricketing achievements. When Essex entertained Kent at Colchester in 1938, A.E. Fagg became the only batsman ever to hit a double century in each innings, scoring 244 in his first and 202 in his second. Ken McEwan, always a prolific scorer, hit five hundreds in four consecutive visits to Castle Park between 1981 and 1984. He surpassed himself in 1983, scoring 181 against Gloucestershire and then, in the same week, 189 against Worcestershire, on both occasions securing a comfortable victory for his adoptive county.
Javed Miandad has good cause to remember Castle Park. In 1981, after Glamorgan had secured a first innings lead, a century each from Gooch and Hardie allowed Essex to declare their second innings at 411 for 9. Undeterred at being set 325 runs with very little time left, he raced away to 200 not out, and it was only when he ran out of partners, fourteen runs short of the required total, that Essex and a nervous crowd of supporters could breathe freely again. Last season, in their second innings against Sussex, Essex players Ryan ten Doeschate hit 109 and Graham Napier scored 124 in a total of 470 for 8 declared.
Jez has some minor changes to the pitch usage this year that will result in the Men's Third XI playing on the Junior square, with five pitches allocated to the Second XI on the Main square.
"I'm just trying to even out the usage on both areas. I'm fortunate that, with two squares, we can accommodate two Junior games at one time. Being close to the River Colne, we are basically on a sandy soil, but the northern area of the outfield is clay. Historically, we had some major drainage issues as we are located on the floodplain, but that's been completely resolved. I'm a great advocate of Ongar Loam Plus on the square, its constituent parts are 30% clay, 30% sand and 40% silt and that suits me fine."
With regards to environmental issues, I take a common-sense approach. Yes, I use chemicals and fertilisers, but I am especially careful as we have the river on one of our boundaries; I have an irrigation tank, which is mains-fed and four sets of pop-up sprinklers around the Main square; on the Junior square, I have a watering point where I can attach a sprinkler or hand water with a hose."
"End of year renovations are as you would expect; I scarify, re-seed, topdress, then cover with a germination sheet. I've learned a lot in the past five years, some from hands-on experience and even more thanks to some regional training courses."
Before I leave, I have brief conversations with Lester Willis, contract supervisor for idverde, who happened to drop by to borrow a piece of equipment. I asked him how Jez was getting on; the reply was very complimentary.
"He's a great guy and a very good colleague. His dedication and enthusiasm for the job is brilliant; if there's a Sunday game, you'll often find him down here, especially if there's a threat of bad weather. He certainly was thrown in at the deep end, but has revelled in the job. Good on him!"
Colchester and East Essex have a flourishing junior section and the junior players are hugely grateful for the work that Jez does to ensure that the junior pitches are of a high standard. Club Chairman, Andrew Kennedy, is also very praiseworthy, "Jez does an excellent job here at Castle Park; the tracks are as good as they can be and that's due to his dedication and enthusiasm. We are fortunate to have him."
As I say my goodbyes, it's refreshing to meet someone who made a decision to change career and grab the opportunities that have come his way. His ambition is to manage a county ground one day. All I can say is keep looking over your shoulder Stuart Kerrison.
Lose outgrounds and we start to lose touch ...
This abridged piece by Derek Pringle originally featured in The Cricket Paper, December 2016
Essex's decision not to play cricket at Colchester next season looks like the further erosion of a tradition that goes back to the 19th century. For a game that sells itself as much on nostalgia as cutting edge modernity, cricket has an uncanny habit of yorking itself, middle stump.
Castle Park in Colchester is the last outground used by Essex, following the decommissioning of Valentines Park in Ilford and Garon's Park in Southend over the past 15 years. There used to be others, especially when the county ground was based at Leyton rather than Chelmsford. Then, Clacton, Romford and Brentwood all staged first-class cricket, their heyday but a distant memory as Health and Safety, relocation costs, as well as those of general upkeep, made cricket there impractical.
Yet Castle Park at Colchester remains a gem, especially when set up for Essex matches. With a river one end and overlooked by a 900-year old Norman castle, the largest surviving example in Europe, it possesses a bucolic charm entirely absent from modern cricket stadia. It is, literally, the grass roots, with many Essex players like Graham Napier and Neil Foster having learnt the game playing for the Colchester and East Essex Club based there.
Essex say that removing Castle Park is entirely due to a quirk in next season's fixture list and that they have every intention of returning to play cricket there again in future. But, like anything that requires that bit more effort and expense, once the bean counters see that you can cope without it, why go back?
I always enjoyed playing at Colchester, not least because it always seemed to provide exciting cricket. During my career, matches there have provided the best innings I have ever seen; an unbeaten double hundred by Javed Miandad; a record Sunday League score of 299, which was immediately beaten when Warwickshire chased it down; and a memorable Championship match against Glamorgan when I was run out by a brilliant piece of fielding by Matthew Maynard, attempting the winning run off the last ball of the match.
From purely selfish reasons, I enjoyed outgrounds, Essex's as well as those of other counties. For one thing, they were never as manicured as many county grounds, while the pitches were rarely as well prepared as those at HQ, which usually meant there was a bit more in it for the bowlers. You never knew quite what to expect at outgrounds either, which made it a bit of a magical mystery tour for both players and spectators.
Outgrounds didn't always play in our favour. A sub-standard pitch at Southchurch Park, for which Essex were docked 25 points, cost us the 1989 Championship, Worcestershire pipping us by six points.
The punishment was scarcely deserved as there had been other pitches, home and away that season, which had been tougher to bat on. Yet word had got round that Essex were performing something akin to sorcery on their outgrounds, so easily were their opponents being dispatched. So, out came Donald Carr, the inquisitor general, to see for himself.
A few balls went through the top and misbehaved, certainly, but both Essex's opponents in that festival week, Kent and Yorkshire, had won the toss and batted first. Yet, both had lost despite having the pick of the conditions, a point Carr did not seem to consider when handing down his penalty.
It was the only time an outground, rather than the players, had really let Essex down, something the club needs to remember when they remove cricket, for whatever reason, from places like Colchester.