Old Trafford, known for sponsorship reasons as Emirates Old Trafford, opened in 1857 as the home of Manchester Cricket Club and, since 1864, has been the home of Lancashire County Cricket Club. This is where Lee Williams met with Matt Merchant, the 45-year-old Head Groundsman who has been at the club for twenty-nine years.
It's early June in Manchester when I pull up outside the Emirates Old Trafford cricket ground, and the heavens have opened! Next to the media centre, where the groundstaff's brew room is situated, I'm met by Matt who gives me a warm welcome and drags me immediately in out of the rain.
In the next few months, Matt and his team will have the enormous responsibility of getting the wickets and outfield in pristine condition ready for some big fixtures in the ICC Cricket World Cup and the fourth Ashes Test match in the first week of September.
I asked Matt is there are any special considerations when maintaining the surfaces for such big games? "The set-up is no different to what we would do for any County Championship game, one dayer or Twenty20. For the World Cup, Ashes and any high profile games, we're under an extreme amount of pressure to produce the right track - the main issue we have to deal with is the volume of practice. From the 14th June right through till the 12th July there will be training every day. We are used to players training, but not on consecutive days, so we will have to manage that accordingly. They are training on the outfield and in the nets before their games. We have England, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, West Indies and New Zealand. We will have some night-time training as well given we have two day/night games."
I interject to ask if this will mean more hours for him and the team? "A lot more hours. We will probably start at 6.00am and finish around 6:30pm for training days, and on day/night training session we will be working from 7:30am until 9:30pm. Day/night games hours are 10:00am till 11:00pm; starting at 10 allows us to get the outfield and square cut and nets ready, plus other jobs before the media circus arrives. Whilst normal match days we will be starting at 5:30am and finish at 9:00pm. It's going to be a long four weeks, but we are all looking forward to the experience as last time we had the World Cup here was in 1999. At that time, I was twenty-four years old and wasn't really interested in what was going on. We had three games at Old Trafford that year - two qualifiers and a semi-final. This year, we have six. I think, of all the venues, we are hosting the most games, with the biggest being our first game - Pakistan v India - which, I have been told, we could have sold out eighty times over they had that many applications for tickets." (The ICC later confirmed they had received 700,000 ticket applications).
Matt explained how TV camera positions affect how many wickets can be used. "We have five TV pitches out on the square available to the pavilion camera gantry. So we must keep one for the Ashes Test match in September, whilst the other four pitches we will use for the World Cup. Pakistan v India and England v Afghanistan will go on the same wicket; then we will use another for West Indies v New Zealand and West Indies v India, then a fresh pitch each for South Africa v Australia and the semi-final."
The temporary stand went up in April and will not come down until after the Ashes Test match in September; it adds an additional 8,500 seats and takes the ground to its maximum capacity of 23,500. To fit such a sizeable temporary stand into the ground, they must reduce the size of the practice area to accommodate it. Matt tells me that you wouldn't catch him sitting at the back of it, such is the height of the structure!
Matt explains how he started his career at Lancashire County Cricket Club. "My mum and dad were publicans who owned the pub just over the bridge. Pete Marron was the Head Groundsman at the time and was a regular in there. I came here for work experience for two weeks prior to an Ashes Test Match, and I really enjoyed it. The following year I got a phone call from Pete asking me if I fancied joining the grounds team as an apprentice, so that was it. I said yes and started in April 1990. I have worked my way up through the ranks, so to speak, and have been Head Groundsman since 2009 when Pete retired. This is my tenth season in charge."
Left to right: Les Stephens - seasonal, Will Gorst - Assistant Groundsman, Jacob Graham - seasonal, David Shortt - Assistant Head Groundsman, Andrew Carney - Gardener, Colin Bury (sat down) - net area Assistant Groundsman, Matt Merchant - Head Groundsman, Paul Bryson - World Cup staff, Andrew McHale - seasonal, Ben Stephens - World Cup staff, Harry Morton - seasonal
Pete was the man who inspired Matt throughout his time with the club. "From employing me when I was a young lad to the day he retired after twenty-five years, I always looked up to him. I'm grateful he gave me a chance as I was a bit of a tearaway and, without him, might not be where I am today. Sadly, he passed away in May 2015 and he's sorely missed."
Matt liaises with the operations director to discuss and set budgets for the year. "I will go to him and say I need this, that and the other, and he will then look at what the financial situation is at the time and set available funds from there. We like to get at least one new piece of machinery a year to keep things up to date. Fertiliser, chemicals and grass seed budgets are similar year on year, and it's a matter of working within it."
Matt's team comprises; Andy Carney, age 36, who has been at Old Trafford for four years; Will Gorst, 56, twenty years' service; Harry Morton, 18, two years' service; Colin Bury, 59, twenty-one years' service; Andrew McHale, 24, three years; Les Stephens, 56, two years; and David Shortt, 28, ten years' service.
The outfield was reconstructed by Whitehorse Contractors at the back end of the 2008 season using an 80/20 sand/soil rootzone mix on a 100mm gravel raft with drains every five metres. For the new square, which was turned through ninety degrees in 2011, the chosen contractor, Bancroft, used GOSTD 500 Special Mix from Surrey Loams Ltd. Construction comprised 100mm of limestone to dust chippings with 200mm of the GOSTD loam on top; the clay content was approximately 30%.
Equipment available to Matt consists of a fully automated irrigation system on the main pitch and on the net area with Rainbird sprinkler heads. "That is fed by a borehole," explains Matt. "Then, under the car park, there is a 90,000-litre tank, so we have plenty of water available to us … but, being in Manchester, we don't always need it. Just look at today!"
"We have one SGL MU50 lighting rig which we got four or five years ago, after we'd had three concerts in a row - they trashed the pitch. Two weeks after the last one, we had a Test match against Pakistan, and the light helped us recover the worst areas before the fixture. Now we use it to help with recovery from the shade cast by the new media stand. Sheet wise, we have six Climate Covers from totalplay, rain covers from Stuart Canvas, which are mainly used in the practice nets, and we also have the Stuart Canvas hover cover."
The club has invested in hybrid SISGrass pitches in recent years. "We have two pitches on the main square; one that we are going to use for either a men's or women's Twenty20 game later this season, and one at the far edge of the square which is going to be used for practice. These were completed in April of this year. The take-off areas have also had SISGrass stitched into them and, last year, we had two pitches done on the net area. England and Australia used them for the international games, and they seemed to perform really well and lasted twice as long as a regular grass net would do; we got about eight weeks out of them."
I asked Matt if he sees a green tinge from the fibres once he has prepared the wicket? "Yes, normally we take all the grass off the wicket, so you do see a tinge of green, the fibres are about 6mm out of the ground. Quite a few county grounds around the country also have them. We will never be able to use them for a four-day championship match as the surface has to deteriorate as the game goes on. But the ECB has allowed us to use these hybrid pitches this year for one-dayers, whether it be a Twenty20 or a fifty over game."
General maintenance and renovation of the outfield and wickets is detailed by Matt. "We will take the height of cut down to 12mm on the outfield during the season with the Allett Regal 42 inch mowers and the Toro 6700-D seven unit outfield mower. Last year, the outfield was koroed off by Mallinsons in August after the Liam Gallagher concert. They also did a bit of levelling work using 500 tonnes of rootzone. This was then overseeded with Johnsons Pro Nitro Premier Wicket, which we also use on the square and net area, keeping the ryegrass species the same throughout the ground. End of season renovation work on the square we carry out ourselves. We will scarify using the SISIS Rotorake, going in numerous directions and then finishing off in the line of play, then collect all the clippings with the Lloyds Paladin wicket mowers. We then seed with the Blec Uni-seeder in two directions, to get as many holes as we can and topdress with GOSTD Surrey Loam using fifteen, twenty-kilo bags per wicket using a SISIS Truspred."
"Once a pitch has been used, we will flood it down, hand fork the foot holes and level them, lightly scarify the surface, seed it and apply a light topdressing. We tend to find that we can look at reusing it five or six weeks later, so we can't put too thick a topdressing on. Normally, because they get so hard, we end up overseeding them two or three weeks in so, by the time they come back into play, we have reasonable grass cover."
Matt likes to aerate the outfield when he gets the chance during the season. "With so many games - and men, women and the academy players training here now - it's very rare we get the chance to verti-drain during the season, so we tend to go out with the Toro ProCore when we can. We tend to do most of our deep aeration over the winter period."
It's the same when it comes to his fertiliser regime. Matt finds himself working around the players. "It's very few, and far between. Lately, we have been putting down ICL's Sierrablen, which gives us six to eight weeks and, two days ago, we had it sprayed with a 14:0:7 and Primo Maxx. We tend to go granular, liquid, granular; this gives us the best results when time allows."
Matt's machinery is a mix of owned and hire purchase over five years and he tends to be loyal to his local dealer, Cheshire Turf Machinery. "We use them for the maintenance contract on the machines we have purchased from them, so the mechanics, Robin and Warren, are in here quite a bit. They are reliable, and we have established a good relationship with them over the years. We have recently purchased a new Blotter water removal machine, so we now have three of them, which is ideal - being in Manchester!"
Matt's main item on his wish list is a new SGL lighting rig. "I would like to invest in a lighting rig for the square, a few of the other county groundsmen have enquired as well, but you are looking at about £60,000 to £70,000. It would be a bespoke rig to span the square, and the wheels will run in the take-off area, so they don't touch the playing surface. I have put it into my capital budget for next year and we'll wait and see what happens."
I asked Matt what he thought the advantages of the lighting rig would be when prepping the square. "We are finding that the season is starting earlier and finishing later, and you know yourself what the weather is like around here at the start of October; once it starts raining you just can't get on them. So, the idea is that, once we have renovated and overseeded the square, we'll use the lighting rig to encourage quicker grass growth, giving us more time."
Matt has significant concerns about our industry going forward. "For me, we have really struggled with getting young people involved in the job. There doesn't seem to be any interest in it at all. The long hours, weekend work and the pay are not particularly great incentives. For instance, for the World Cup we have advertised locally through the college because we have Myerscough who come into the indoor school, and there has been no interest whatsoever from younger people. I don't know how we encourage more younger people into the industry, but it may be down to the colleges and our industry bodies to try and raise the profile of the job."
A brief history
Lancashire Cricket Club represents the historic county of Lancashire in cricket's County Championship. Founded in 1864 as a successor to Manchester Cricket Club, Lancashire have played at Old Trafford since then and, in 1865, played their inaugural first-class match, beating Middlesex at Old Trafford.
Old Trafford is England's second oldest Test venue and hosted the first Ashes Test in England, in July 1884, and two Cricket World Cup semi-finals. In 1956, the first 10-wicket haul in a single innings was achieved by England bowler Jim Laker who achieved bowling figures of 19 wickets for 90 runs - a bowling record which is still unmatched in Test and first-class cricket. In the 1993 Ashes Test at Old Trafford, leg-spinner Shane Warne bowled Mike Gatting with the "Ball of the Century".
Extensive redevelopment of the ground to increase capacity and modernise facilities began in 2009 in an effort to safeguard international cricket at the venue. The pitch at Old Trafford has historically been the quickest in England, but will take spin later in the game. It is located about 0.5 miles (800m) from Old Trafford football stadium.
What's in the shed
Allett Regal 42 in mowers x 2
Autoguide Auto-rollers x 3
Lloyds Paladin wicket mowers x 6 - 2 with verti-cutting reels and one groomer unit
Toro 6700-D 7 unit outfield mower
Blec Uni-seeders x 2
SISIS Auto Rotorakes x 2
Lawnflite rotary mowers x 2
CMS Blotters x 3
Kubota L4630 tractor
Soil Reliever deep tine aerator
SGL MU50 lighting rig
Toro Workman buggies x 2
Stuart Canvas hover cover