I step out of St John's Wood tube station and, at once, my expectations of Lord's Cricket Ground start to gel.
The air of tradition, exclusivity and status hit me as I march down the road towards the acknowledged 'Mecca' of the game.
This is one of London's wealthiest 'villages' - the roads locally lined with large bespoke properties, boutique shops and luxury German cars.
Like many an 'inner-city' sporting hub, Lord's suddenly looms seemingly out of nowhere as I round the corner. Smaller than I'd expected, almost intimate - none of the floodlights or banner signage proclaiming this as indisputably the world's premier cricketing stage. Rather, it is nestled within local community confines (more on that later) that include a period church, attendant gravestones and peaceful park, overlooked on at least one side by an imposing line of apartments - 'Mansions' - that many would give their all to live in.
As the green-eyed monster starts to awaken, I can only hope that every resident is a die-hard cricketing fan, who habitually follows every ball of every game. I'd be heartbroken to learn that they had no interest in the sport at all.
Everything is just as it should be here. I'm greeted at the North Gate with a cheery smile by the security man, who has been notified of my arrival and who directs me to reception.
The feel good factor is already welling up strongly - that crucial first contact with any sporting venue is so important. Immediately, it is clear that the cricket season is nearly upon us. Everywhere, staff are busy preparing the Ground for a hectic season of play that will see no fewer than three Test matches staged here and an almost non-stop fixture list of county games, ECB competitions, one-day internationals and smaller matches such as the MCC Universities Final - the trademark of the modern era.
On the Nursery Ground, men are erecting white picket fencing, a stone's throw from the workshops. Further on, two groundstaff mow rich green pitches with walk-behinds. Someone else attends the practice nets.
Along the inner perimeter, the bald concrete underbelly of the stands is relieved by huge signage showing dramatic photographs of some of the cricketing greats who have shone here, together with a record of their achievements.
Lord's embraces rather than overwhelms you, despite the Media Centre peering out over the 29,000 capacity Ground like some invading Martian war machine eyeing its next victims.
Lord's has been the spiritual home of the game since 1787 when Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), who own the ground, was first founded when Thomas Lord, an aspiring entrepreneur and bowler, set up a private ground.
A code of laws for the game was laid down a year later - to be adopted the world over - and, to this day, MCC remains the custodian of the Laws and Spirit of Cricket.
Evidence of the rich history of the club adorns the walls inside reception. Turn left at the front desk, walk along a short corridor and you're watching a game of real tennis, as you might a game of squash - from behind a glass back wall.
Across from reception into the Pavilion there is more history on show, including a record of members who fell in the First and Second World Wars - names littered with letters of distinction: VC, Croix de Guerre, the Military Cross to name just a few.
More welcoming smiles as I'm quietly informed that eight tours of the Ground are scheduled for that morning alone. The machinery that is Lord's the revenue generator is operating effortlessly - however, the club's lasting commitment to promote English cricket to the hilt remains its key objective.
While many of MCC's long-cherished traditions remain, the club's continuing prosperity lies in its willingness to embrace modernity, both off and on the pitch.
The MCC has invested more than £50m over the last twenty years in various Ground modernisation projects to help maintain the high standards synonymous with the club since its birth.
The site is set to achieve even more kudos in 2012 as the Ground is seconded by the Olympic Delivery Authority as a venue for archery. Unfortunately for the groundstaff, the Ground is handed back to them the day before a key fixture.
Improving Lord's can be far from straightforward as MCC has to take into account the sentiments of St John's Wood local residents, who have a strong voice in the community. The balance struck is, therefore, one of making essential improvements and respect for residents.
Due to the onset of day/night games, Lord's had to invest in floodlighting, but local opposition to traditional towers forced a design rethink. The MCC had to go with radically new retractable floodlights that could be lowered after every game so as not to present a permanent distraction for residents. The times when the lights could be used were also closely stipulated.
MCC is a forward-thinking club and the decision to specify sand when the outfield was remodelled to improve drainage was taken, in part, because the material is more load-bearing than pure turf, giving the club scope for the option of staging concerts or other non-cricket activities.
Plans are in the pipeline to develop the Nursery Ground, building underground practice and leisure facilities, as well as further upgrading ageing stands such as the Tavern and Allen stands.
The first seeds of groundsmanship were sown here in the mid-19th century when the wicket was prepared before every match by allowing sheep to graze the turf - a practice that changed only when the club acquired its first mowing machine, and its first groundsman, in 1864.
Where sheep once safely grazed, a retinue of sports contractors and resident groundstaff now tend the hallowed surface under the management of a man many would say has probably the safest pair of hands in the profession - Michael Hunt - appropriate, given that wicket-keeping was his cricketing pursuit also.
I'm ushered into the meeting room, furnished with leather sofas and chairs and with walls adorned with watercolours of cricketing scenes from around the world adorn. Young artists are commissioned to travel to far-flung venues to record the game in all its colour, I'm told. Their efforts have certainly captured the essence of cricket and its followers.
Here, reclining in bomber-style jacket, blue jeans and deck shoes, is Mick Hunt, who greets me with a broad smile that reveals marvellously white teeth. His youthful attire and demeanour belie his years. Born and bred nearby, Mick, still only 58, is celebrating his 40th year at a club he says he had always yearned to work for.
"I was never good enough to play the game professionally so this, for me, was the next best thing," he confesses. "Being able to be a part of a club like this with such a rich heritage is a real privilege."
Always drawn to cricket, as a young boy he remembers being taken to watch his father - a keen amateur cricketer - and began playing as a schoolboy, with wicket-keeping his forte - a position he said drew appeal as "it was the only one where you could wear gloves". He flashes that smile again.
After a brief stint working for a shipping company, and later as an apprentice electrician, Mick realised that groundsmanship was to be his career, with a position at Lord's the premier prize.
He joined the groundstaff in 1969, becoming head groundsman in 1985, when he took over from Jim Fairbrother.
In his four decades at Lord's, Mick has witnessed seismic shifts in his profession, as well as in the game of cricket. Evolving expectations, practices, chemicals and technology in turfcare have all added to an explosion in the profile and the prominence of the job, he believes.
Most significant though is the volume of cricket now played in a typical season, Mick says. "As well as the county cricket matches we've seen a boom in new professional leagues, the introduction of Twenty20 cricket and a rise in Test matches played. Everyone expects nothing less than the highest standards from the pitch, so we can never take our finger off the pulse."
With the season starting much earlier, and now running to the end of September, managing a grounds team committed to bringing everything together is essential. Assistant to Mick is Adrian 'Morg' Morgan, who himself has served Lord's for 25 years. Longevity is a feature here, Mick says, with many staff choosing to stay on and progress through the ranks. "Because Lord's is such a unique Ground, with the extremely busy schedule and the slope, we tend to promote staff from within.
By recruiting at the more junior level and providing training into more senior positions as they become available, staff stay with us a long time, he explains. "Due to the nature of the club, all its status and history, it can take a while for some to get used to how we operate."
It's no surprise to learn that Lord's attracts staff from overseas who work here during the cricket season before returning home. Australia is a popular source, budding groundsmen travelling over from Down Under to experience groundscare methods here.
"They're often surprised at some of what we do over here," Mick reveals. "The difference in climate, soils, grass species and issues such as irrigation, we often do things very differently.
"They sometimes suggest we water the pitch three or four days before a game, for example. We could never do that through fear of it not drying out in time." Differences aside, visiting staff always take something back with them, Mick says. "Most frequently it's our mowing techniques and the use of biostimulants.
I'd always encourage groundsmen in the UK to do a winter season in Australia or one of the other big cricketing nations. It will always give them invaluable experience into how the job is done in different climates with different soil and growing conditions - helping to make them multi-skilled."
Net practice starts as early as March, yet, as Mick explains, "You can't always guarantee that the weather is going to be good then, so preparation can get tight if we have a particularly wet spring."
"I always like to start with lots of time in hand, just in case anything untoward happens that sets us back. In the last few years, spring has been extremely dry, so we've been able to get things ready in enough time, yet this can all change with our unpredictable climate."
With the season starting earlier, and finishing later than ever, Mick voices his concerns for the time available for pre and post season work. "In the south the climate is generally warmer and drier. But, the issue for more northerly clubs with the very busy fixture list is that the poor weather can have an adverse affect on the end of season work, such as topdressing, if work cannot start until as late as October."
"On occasions we have five pitches in various stages of preparation, so I can only imagine how difficult it can get for other clubs that also have to deal with poor weather and a packed schedule," he notes. "It can sometimes be a real nightmare to prepare pitches in time, with seventeen to keep going over the course of a season," Mick continues.
Now that the pitch reconstruction programme, begun in 1990, is complete, Mick has the luxury of a full retinue of strips all built to the same standard. All sown with ryegrass, they were each stripped of their top six inches and re-laid with Binders loam and seeded with a rye mixture.
"In an ideal world, we'd just shut down for two years and re-lay them all in one go, but that's not an option, of course, so we've had to complete the work over twelve years!"
The sight that greeted me on arrival was of the main Ground sprinkled with cores of earth, tell-tale evidence that Mick's contractors had recently hollow-tined the outfield. "We lightly cored a little after this winter, just to a depth of 35mm, to help reduce the build-up of thatch which has accumulated over the past few years".
Since the installation of the acclaimed drainage system in 2002, the Lord's Ground has become the envy of clubs everywhere - the rapid filtration rates allow play to commence soon after even the heaviest downpours.
The transformation has lifted a great weight off the shoulders of Mick and his team of six full-time staff, as the threat of waterlogging has retreated. Before 2002, the clay profile had hindered drainage severely. Added to which, the renowned slope of eight and a half feet from the Tavern stand corner to the Compton stand side of the Ground encouraged water to pool after heavy rainfall.
"It used to get so bad that sometimes you could literally swim," Mick recalls.
The sand construction is the key - allowing water to drain away through the surface rapidly. So efficient is the system that "play is rarely, if ever, cancelled unless it's actually raining. Play can restart almost as soon as the rain stops. In fact, it takes longer for the players to warm up than it does for us to have the Ground ready for them to commence the cricket," explains Mick.
That huge improvement in playability comes with a downside though. Rapid drainage results in a lack of retention in nutrients and water, which the groundstaff have to replenish to prevent dry patches. Mick uses wetting agents and bio-stimulants to alleviate these problems and ensure the grass stays healthy and keeps its vibrant green hue.
"I'm always one to try something new," he insists. "You never know until you give it a go. Groundsmen can stay stuck in their ways and fear trying new things, until they've seen them in action at other clubs," he adds with a grin. "Since the move to bio-stimulants, we've managed to reduce the amount of fertilisers we use quite substantially and have seen a reduction in disease affecting the Ground and a much healthier year-round appearance. It even stayed looking good through this harsh winter, staving off the damage we were expecting to see," he adds.
Its inner-city location makes Lord's prone to problems such as fusarium. The Ground is mostly enclosed, reducing air movement and raising the risk of outbreaks around October time, Mick explains. "We suffer all the associated problems you'd expect because of our central London location. The warmer atmosphere and closed in playing arena mean we are susceptible to disease such as fusarium, in our outfield."
Like many sports venues, Lord's has seen annual meadowgrass gain a hold, and Mick admits to tearing his hair out over how to get rid of the stubborn weed grass.
Depriving it of fertiliser and water consumption has helped to starve it out. "We've introduced more fescues to those areas at the start of the season in an attempt to stress out the species," he adds.
The old adage 'A failure to prepare is preparing to fail' is a philosophy well worn by Mick, who is adamant that early preparation is the secret if the pitches are to last the season. "Prior to work starting, we draw up a pitch plan. The central wickets area is used for the major and televised matches as these need to be central for the TV cameras," he explains. "We all get a bit protective in the run-up to, and during games, especially with the increase in players sliding and generally being more active and animated out in the field."
Whilst an advocate of many aspects of the modern game, some aspects of player conduct make an already stressful job even more so, he confesses. "Bowlers mark their run-up with aerosol spray which can damage the grass - even though we provide bowlers' markers. Occasionally players, even at the top level, have scuffed their spikes into the outfield to mark their fielding positions, which, if you are playing at the pinnacle of international cricket, should not be necessary," he explains.
Preparation for the nPower Test would normally start twelve days prior to the match. The allocated pitch is lightly hand scarified and then cut to a height where the soil surface is just visible through the grass. "In an ideal world, we'd hope for rain overnight in the lead up to the game as it percolates through the profile better, but, if not, then we water in the morning and then, ten days before the match, we apply a light roll," says Mick.
He grins widely again as he continues: "We have not one, not two, but three rollers here - two 50cwt ballasted rollers and one 30cwt unballasted. "We'll usually begin with the unballasted one, but rolling is a very changeable practice so it depends on the weather and how much give there is in the soil," he insists. "I like to roll when there's a plasticine consistency to the soil. Once the pitch becomes dry and hard, rolling ceases to be of any use and you just end up with a biscuity consistency - soil is highly variable though and very location specific."
On the eve of the Test, Mick and his team ensure everything is prepared and the finishing touches are made. Then they face the onslaught of television crews, photographers and journalists who set up cameras, tripods and invade the Ground for inspections ahead of their pitch reports. The pitches are then covered in case of any overnight rain. "Players want to get out on to the outfield as soon as they arrive, and often have fielding drills on the outfield pre-match. This gives Mick and his team precious little time for any final preparations.
The small touches are what Mick believes are the secret of making the Lord's presentation the high standard that it is. Hand brushing is one of his favourites. "A lot of clubs overlook the virtues of doing it by hand. We are fortunate as we have the manpower to do this. I would really recommend it, as I believe it delivers a much better job than the mechanical method."
"The nylon brushes we use are tough enough to stand the grass up but not so abrasive that they damage the playing surface," he continues. "The pitch always looks fantastic after we brush it by hand."
Mick is a passionate believer in the philosophy that having top of the range kit doesn't automatically deliver the finest pitches. "It's really not all about the gear. A lot of our machinery is old but it's well maintained. Clubs have to make the choice between frequent purchase or good maintenance practice - we've always gone for the latter."
Lord's runs a mix of machines across a spread of manufacturers, including two 36" Dennis mowers, two 36" Alletts, a 20"Lloyds Paladin and three Ransomes Marquis 51s, set up at different heights, for different jobs that are employed only for the main pitch, using the Allett and the Paladin primarily for the Nursery Ground - both in action as I arrived.
The Dennis Verticutter is Mick's favourite - a machine he says "always gives a healthy finish".
Even at this lofty level, groundsmanship can prove a thankless task sometimes. As standards rise, so do expectations over the quality of the pitch, with nothing less than the best pitches demanded, regardless of weather or time constraints. "Because of our status, we can often receive a lot of flack," Mick notes. "From a Test match down to the village final, there's always someone who'll comment about the quality of the pitch, regardless. It comes with the territory."
"I'll often receive several different opinions of the pitch throughout the game. It might be great for bowlers but not so good for batsmen, or you hear: 'What's up, mower not working?'."
"Unfortunately, you rarely gain special praise when the pitch is prepared well - players just expect it always to be up to a very high standard, regardless."
Relationships between groundsmen and players is fraught at times and some international players, whom Mick diplomatically declines to name, are renowned for their particularly harsh attitude towards groundsmen in general.
"In my time, I've had a few run-ins with players who were highly critical of what we do but, most of the time, it's just down to a lack of knowledge, on their part, of exactly what our job involves," he explains.
That's starting to change though. In recent years, more retired players have become umpires or taken up administrative posts within the game - a trend that Mick welcomes. "Some of the former professionals now see things from our point of view, having a better understanding of the constraints of our role and the work that goes into preparing a pitch to a high standard - something you never really understand until you get involved."
Whilst the profile of groundsmen is rising, Mick believes there's still some way to go before professionals and commentators in the media fully understand the complexities of the role.
"One commentator, a couple of years back, made a flippant remark about the amount of drawn Test matches at Lord's - comments that were based on a lack of research on his part. Once a well known member of the media says something like that, the public assumes that it is accurate and this doesn't do us any favours at all."
"By and large, we groundsmen are an honest bunch and would never set out to make a substandard pitch or set it up for home advantage, so it annoys us all when disparaging comments are made."
More importantly for Mick, negative comments can hinder the popularity of groundsmanship as an attractive career for younger people - one of his major fears for the future of the profession.
"This is not a popular career for young people," he insists. "It has all the potential to be, but something needs to be done. We've found it increasingly difficult to find people willing to work the antisocial hours expected with the job. We have to work weekends, have little leisure time in the summer and it can, at times, prove highly stressful. Yet, it is also extremely rewarding, working with top professional sports people, outdoors and getting to watch the finest sport for free. We need to push these benefits if we are to attract younger people."
Recent moves to celebrate the achievements of groundsmen are welcome, Mick believes, but much more is still to be done. "Many groundsmen at smaller clubs can find it tough working on tight budgets and with only small teams, yet still be expected to produce high standards.
"We recognise that we have the luxury of bigger budgets and larger teams, which means we can do more of the jobs we want. Yet our job is also a difficult one. We have to prepare for a lot more cricket than most other clubs and, because of our status, we are always under pressure to ensure we set the high standards befitting the 'Home of Cricket'."
All images © Clare Skinner, Media Manager, Marylebone Cricket Club