It's one of those delightful mid-May afternoons, by no means summery, but the winter chill has long gone. I find Nigel Gray trimming the pitch he's been preparing for Hampshire's first Twenty20 Blast game of the season against Essex Eagles. He's been in charge of pitch matters for the county since 1991 and, like a seasoned player, he knows it's out in the middle where it counts. This is his last season in charge and, as ever, he wants to produce good surfaces that bring out the best in top players - with bat and ball.
What will you miss most about the job?
"Simple; being part of a team that produces a pitch for a game that a lot of people enjoy coming to watch and that deadline feeling as a match approaches and you've got to get it done," he says with a smile.
Nigel enjoys the Twenty20 form of the game and rises, like all eighteen county head groundsmen have to these days, to the added pressure it brings.
"Big atmosphere, and a guaranteed result; they are high impact events," he says. "Everyone involved is in the entertainment business."
"You may not get too much of a detrimental effect of any single pitch, but there is a big strain on pitch production. They just keep on coming."
"It's quite rare that any of us can get two or even three games out of a pitch as we used to when the tournament overall was shorter lasting.
With the seven home games Hampshire have this season, I'm going to have to produce seven separate strips for them, and that puts extra pressure on the management of the square."
"Not so long ago, I'd get away with the whole of the home Twenty20 fixtures on three pitches, but not any more. Two or three days between games used to be fine, but now that matches are a week or even more apart, it's too long a time to hang on to a pitch's life. Preparing a fresh one is a better option."
"The current state of the fixture timetable is not the most popular with us groundsmen, you might say, but we have to go with what works for counties commercially," Nigel adds wryly.
Sitting in the stand chatting to Nigel, opposite the brand new Hilton Hotel complex that dominates the northern side of the ground, you realise just how impressive an arena the now-named Ageas Bowl is. Nigel has been head groundsman here since it opened for business as the Rose Bowl in 2001, when he'd already had a decade in charge at the County's main ground at Southampton's Northlands Road.
How did it all start?
"I was working on the cricket pitches at the Richard Taunton College in Southampton and the then chief executive of Hampshire County Cricket Club asked me if I'd like to be an assistant groundsman at the club. I resisted the idea for a couple of years, but the offer remained and, in 1989, I joined the club as assistant to Tom Flintoft. I was actually the first full-time assistant groundsman employed by Hampshire."
"Tom left a couple of years later and returned north, principally to get involved in the construction of Durham's Chester-le-Street ground, and I took over at Northlands Road. I've been here ever since and this is my twenty-fifth and last season as head groundsman."
Nigel describes himself as an enthusiast for the game of cricket rather than a fan. He remembers being on the boundary and being excited when Hampshire won the County Championship for only the second time back in 1973.
"I'm in the sport and always interested in how the club is doing but, when I retire, my interest won't mean coming back to watch every day that the club plays. What I might do is go to the occasional away match. I haven't had the time to see many of the other county grounds and I'd certainly like to do that. I have been to some, but by no means all. When you're busy running what's a pretty much full-time operation on your own ground, you just don't get a chance to see how others do it."
Nigel tells me how, at Northlands Road, he used to cut the outfield with just one 36-inch mower with a seat. This, a couple of mowers for the square, a basic roller, and a titchy rotary for the utility surrounds was all the two of them had. At the Bowl, he and his six full-time staff always have two or three pitches on the go and there's a decent array of machines, notably John Deere and Dennis, to keep the twenty-pitch square and outfield in the main ground, plus all the amenity surrounds and fourteen-pitch square and outfield play in the nearby nursery ground, in top order.
And the big matches?
The first Test at the ground, against Sri Lanka in 2011, was a landmark in Nigel's career and a tough five days. He says he was very relaxed about the pitch he'd produced for it, but the weather did rather dampen the experience. The first two or three days were very badly rain affected.
"Apparently, on one of the days, we covered and uncovered the whole square ten times," he recalls. "It was p
retty exhausting, but we didn't actually count how many times."
As yet, the ground has staged just two Test matches, the rainy one against Sri Lanka and, last summer, a more notable one against India, which Nigel most definitely enjoyed.
"Producing a good pitch that delivers an interesting game of cricket is very satisfying, whether it's five days, four or one. The India Test Match here lasted all five days and England won. If you remember, Moen Ali mopped them up on the last day."
Everyone at the ground was a little disappointed not to get an Ashes Test this summer, but it's certainly in the running for future Test series call-up as part of the ECB bidding process. Businessman and cricket devotee Rod Bransgrove, Hampshire's Chairman, has sunk millions into the ground's development to try and make it one of the best in the country.
"An Ashes game would have been an ideal way of signing off in my last season, but I'm very much up for the ODI against the Aussies in September," says Nigel. "We've been hosting ODIs since 2003 and there's only been one year whe
n we didn't stage one, so we must be doing something right."
The Ageas Bowl has firmly established itself as a venue for limited over big games, internationals and domestic Twenty20 finals day. For Nigel, one that stands out was the T20 against Australia in 2013, when Finch scored an extraordinary century to beat England.
"It does give you a good feeling if your pitch helps players achieve a high level of performance - even if it's for the wrong team," he said tongue-in-cheek.
The pressure of television cameras?
"I don't mind the extra pressure of television; it's inevitable. You accept it and just get on with things. I like to think that, in the last couple of years, we've managed to produce pitches that give bowlers and batsmen a chance to excel."
"When you get that balance right, it's professionally very satisfying. We have a duty, every bit as much as the players do, to give spectators, sponsors and the TV audience value for money. A good contest, one that brings the best out of the best players, is what we all like to see."
The television cameras were due to make their first appearance this season at the Ageas later in May for the second of Hampshire's Twenty20 games, under lights against Kent. They would be back in June for England's ODI
against New Zealand.
"At county, and of course international level, it's mainly about producing the best possible playing surface, but it's also about knowing how the match runs, knowing the laws of the game that affect what you do, and knowing people in the game who are here working during a match, the players and umpires especially. You need to be part of match chemistry, especially how to contribute to conversations about how to keep the game on."
"In a four-day championship game, if you can produce a pitch that yields an average of 350 runs and ten wickets a day, then you have the perfect scenario for good entertainment."
"It took us thirteen or fourteen seasons to achieve it but, last year, we took the ECB's four-day Pitch of the Year Award. It was very satisfying for all of us."
Best advancements in cricket pitch care?
"The quality of grass, definitely," he says thoughtfully. "The improvement in seed to help make surfaces for the professional game of the highest quality on a regular basis is notable. The new cultivars that have come through have helped immeasurably in making pitches more resilient."
"I suppose you could argue that this might give rise to a degree of uniformity in pitches, but with the different types of game one after another on the menu, it's good to have a raw material you can rely on to help you deliver and work well for you."
Nigel has been relying of the ryegrasses of Johnson's J Premier Wicket Mix for the square at the Ageas Bowl and very prosperous it looked too early season, as did the outfield, which he describes as a 'a decent blend of ryes and fescues and no shortage of meadow grass'.
"Also, outfields like ours here and at many other county grounds that allow water to drain through quickly have been a massive step forward," he goes on.
"Very rarely nowadays is a waterlogged outfield the reason for a delay in play. When there's a weather-related hold-up in play, it's either actually raining or you're mopping up puddles on the sheets on the square."
"It takes us as long these days to get the square ready as it does the outfield. When we first came here in 2001, we'd sometimes spend hours mopping up wet patches on the original outfield just to get a few overs of play at the end of the day. We did have problems initially with unpredictable pitches too, although these are now ironed out."
"Thanks to an ECB grant, a drainage system for the outfield and the re-laying of nine pitches over the last seven years, things have greatly improved."
Cricket groundsmanship as a career these days?
"I reckon the choice of qualifications to be had now helps fast-track young groundsmen to where they want to be. Not so when I was starting out, though I did do a City and Guilds course when I worked for the local authority on schools pitches. With all the science and research that's going on now, getting the mass of knowledge now available very much goes along with on-the-job experience."
"There is definitely a more scientific approach to groundsmanship and getting up to date with all the seed cultivar developments and the value of soil analysis, for instance, is an integral part of managing sports turf. I can remember when football pitches in December and January were like muddy fields."
"I don't quite remember uncovered pitches. They were a bit before my time."
Cricket pitches were often aptly called 'stickies' when the rain had got on them. Not any more, of course.
"The regulations regarding first class cricket pitches have both changed and tightened up considerably since I set out, and being duty bound to use covers to keep pitches dry and ready for play whenever conditions allow is the biggest single change. The downside to this is that pitches don't get natural rain on them, so we have to do much more watering."
The status of the county groundsman?
"It is slowly improving, but we still don't get much prominence, do we? I think it would certainly help encourage more into the niche of cricket groundsmanship as a career if the profile was higher. The negatives of the job are the obvious ones to those of us in turf care - hard work and long hours."
"The big plusses are days like these when the sun's shining and on match days when you're very much part of the sports entertainment business."
"There are only eighteen of us county head groundsmen. It's a very small club, but we are integral to what goes on in cricket, so yes, a bit more recognition would be good. Here, with all the rest that's going on - the new hotel, the concerts - it's still cricket that is central to everything from my perspective."
Cricketers and cricket crowds?
"Oh yes, I get on with them very well. They've changed a lot in my time. Players used to turn up on the 1st April and play their first game a couple of weeks later. They're all year round professionals now with fitness and diet programmes, and a scientific approach to their performances. The game itself has changed so much."
"I think grounds like ours also show how the game has developed. You've only got to look around the boundary and see how much commercial support there is with all the advertisements. I suppose it indicates the advances cricket has made commercially."
"I like nothing better than to see the ground bursting at the seams with cricket fans making plenty of noise. It's certainly very pleasing when it's rocking and marvellous to be part of what's brought them in."
"I appreciate, too, the perhaps more knowledgeable cricket lovers who sit through a day's play in a four-day championship game. They go back further and have a deeper understanding of the game than those who like the limited over razzmatazz. There's room for it all and I like to think we provide pitches to suit every need."
The Ageas Bowl is iconic of how county cricket is having to change, by concentrating resources at a single venue. Nigel summed it up neatly.
"We've got Boyzone here in August and fireworks in November, and events like this are as much a responsibility for the grounds team as the two big cricket internationals."
Your own future?
"I hope to be involved in one or two future projects here in terms of cricket facilities and want to be on hand for a while yet to lend support to my successor, Karl McDermott, and the team.
"I'm a bit of a gardener and will have a bit more time to spend on it, and not just after I get home late each evening."
"My lawn isn't bad and I cut it with a little pedestrian rotary. I have no pretentions. Green and tidy are the simple rules. Fortunately, it's a back lawn and it's not overlooked, so I don't have to worry about a rogue dandelion embarrassing me. I don't have to worry about it breaking up and turning square after a few days either!"