0 The Merchant of Old Trafford

Walking across the car park of Emirates Old Trafford cricket ground, my thoughts turn to a bitterly cold December morning in 2011, standing in front of Roedean School overlooking the English Channel and reporting for Pitchcare; the last time I remember feeling winds as bitingly chilly as these.

Today, no doubt, it's business as usual as far as the weather is concerned in the North-west, but much has changed since I was last at the home of Lancashire cricket.

The welcome though, was no less inviting, as I lean forward fighting against the Manchester climate and construction dust blowing across the site to greet an ever-smiling Matt Merchant, the Grounds Manager, in what will prove a key season that will see Test cricket return to this iconic venue.

Sadly for me, the aroma of bacon and egg sandwiches was all I was lucky enough to enjoy this time round, as former Wisden Cricketer of the Year, Jack Bond, cooked up one of his famous fry-ups.

At eighty years old, the former Lancashire cricketer's talents stretch beyond cricketing prowess and bacon and egg sarnies though and, no sooner was my jotter pad out and Dictaphone whirring, than a fine cup of tea was warming my hands.

The well-used and increasingly dishevelled portable cabin 'brew hut' (as it's dubbed in these parts) is one of the last bastions of the 'old' Old Trafford, with the turfcare team's move to a new state-of-the-art concrete home, underneath the dramatic lines of the media centre delayed until the start of the new season in April.

Still, Matt and his merry men have sheltered here for four years, so I suppose suffering its cramped confines a little longer won't be that hard to stomach.

A fearful notion suddenly struck me. Would Jack's fry-ups be off the menu at the new brew hut - all shiny new and hi-tech? There would be trouble in the ranks if they were, I mused, deciding not to raise the subject with Matt.

Staring at the construction site behind the cabin, the location chosen for the new temporary stand that will bolster stadium capacity, I asked myself - what multitudes must have questioned in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games - how will this ever be ready in time?

The imposing and heatedly debated The Point conference centre now has an imposing counterpart, also decked in a fiercely red facade, erected on the opposite side of the ground, with two sections of seating breaking up the bright facias of the two media viewing areas.

Beneath the new building is the spacious turf machinery and maintenance area, which will allow Matt and the team instant access to the outfield and square. One of the new electrically controlled sightscreens is positioned at one end of the compound. The turfcare team will certainly be in the firing line when batsmen haul a six straight over bowlers pitching up to the famous Stretford end.

This year has also ushered in a new era for Lancashire CCC, following the decision to sell the naming rights of the ground, which will officially be known as something other than Old Trafford for the first time since 1936. The ten year, multi-million pound sponsorship deal that the county has struck with flourishing carrier, Emirates, adding to funds already accrued from land sold to Tesco.

The latest move means the airline has further expanded its cricket portfolio, which already includes Durham CCC's ground - the Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground - and adds to the burgeoning Middle Eastern presence in Manchester's elite sporting landscape.

Readers of my last two interviews with Matt will already be familiar with the details of the mammoth task he undertook in rotating the square. A year on, the new wickets are bedding in nicely but haven't been without their share of snags along the way.

The introduction of eleven new wickets, five of which were laid across old ones, prompted certain strips to dry out faster than others, due, says Matt, to the difference in organic make-up.

The problems have been addressed through a programme of Drill 'n' Fill. Five of the worst affected old pitches were treated with 25mm injections at 4" centres. Each hole was then filled with a uniform Surrey loam, the same that was used on the new constructions - some 380 tonnes applied in total.

"Before works began, the difference in the wickets was clearly seen," Matt tells me, "but the drill 'n' fill has now remedied the problem. Each pitch was laid at a different time, so we were experiencing irregular drying rates. We could see the 10ft spacing of each pitch - it looked stripy and a little odd," he explains.

The new pitches saw little action last season (only a couple of one-day fixtures) and Matt hadn't planned for much with the new constructions still so young.

On the whole, last season proved to be a rather sorry one for Lancashire, after winning the championship in 2011, only to suffer the pain of relegation in 2012.

Matters weren't much better for Matt and the team, with a record number of hours of play lost due to the perpetual downpours, meaning that, for large stretches of the season, the new square was under covers.

A staggering 1,200 hours of play were lost to the weather in 2012, he reports, equating to some 234 overs washed away with the rain - "the highest figure in a decade".

The year also witnessed a change in location, with one of the club's outgrounds dropped for not meeting required standards. The quality of the changing facilities was considered not good enough for top-flight cricket, so Blackpool was dropped from the schedule.

Fond memories of the brew hut will remain for Matt and the team once the temporary seating replaces their current siting next to the practice nets (which are also going under Tarmac), but the logistics of the team's daily duties will be much improved with the relocation to below the new players changing rooms and media centre, where the team will enjoy a new kitchen, lunchroom, shower and changing facilities, large store area for machinery, seed, soil, fertiliser and fuel.

On my next visit here, I may well be able to relax in the cosy surroundings of a brand new office facility, kitted out with Sky TV, high speed broadband and all the trappings of a slick media operation. For Matt, it will seem a million miles away from the makeshift facilities he's operated in up to now.

As I reluctantly leave the warmth of the brew hut to brave the elements and tread the hallowed turf, I discover that, despite the multi-million pound cash injection, a tight rein has been kept on some elements of expenditure.

The growing lights standing over the new wickets are certainly nothing like the costly ones you'd find down the road at the other Old Trafford or Manchester City's Etihad Stadium, yet these makeshift constructions seem no less effective, trained on areas dug out and resown with a 50:50 soil/sand mix at the bowlers' take-off and a 70:30 mix, with Barenbrug seed, in the immediate outfield beyond them.

"The lights - 600W, dual-spectrum sodium bulbs - are on from 4.00am to 8.00am and were made in our own workshop." To my eye, no more 'Heath Robinson' in looks than lights that stretch across Premiership football pitches, they offer an insight into Matt's approach to cost-conscious turfcare.

On this dismal day, the new media centre is an impressive structure. I ask Matt if it poses problems with shadow on the turf. "It does. When the sun is round the back, the building casts a big shadow, stretching well out on to the outfield. When's its frosty, pretty much the whole outfield at this side of the ground is affected."

A series of small light brown circular areas on the turf drew my attention. "We've levelled up the pop-up sprinklers with sand and seed," Matt explains.

The footholes have been done, too. "We still have to feed and water the areas under the grow lights as, above 9OC, the grass starts to grow, although the rest of the grass isn't."

Construction of the temporary seating area, to allow for the 20,000+ capacity required to hold a Test match, will incur the loss of three of the club's practice nets, leaving just three available for play until the completion of works on newly purchased land, where three new artificial nets will be installed.

The white dust that blew into my face on arrival, and the snowy coating it leaves everywhere, was evidence enough of the challenges that ongoing construction poses to maintaining a top-flight cricketing venue - a balance between the demands of club expansion and the need to deliver high standards amid the upheaval.

The fierce westerly winds can leave a blanket of building debris and insulation on the ground; time-consuming hassle for the team to remove - and one they can ill afford with the drenched conditions keeping their hands full as the new season rushes up.

"We certainly haven't been helped with the rain," states Matt in surprisingly upbeat tone, "but the introduction of the new pitches has gone well nonetheless, as has preparation for the forthcoming Ashes Test match. "

"We'll be starting plenty of cross-rolling soon, rolling at 90 degrees along the wicket and then across it, always finishing in the line of play. We use the Allett first, then roll without much weight, building up to the full 2.5 tonnes load."

As for the new pitches, all that could be done, has been done, he insists. "Cross-rolling and levelling have been our focus, as has reducing the effect of water on the square. We spiked as much as we could, but the square has spent so much time under covers, and has suffered a little as a result," he adds.

"We've witnessed a yellowing-off and grass has died in some areas. Once the weather improves [hmmm], we hope the grass condition will; we'll need to overseed several times, too. What we don't want is another summer like last year, which would spell disaster for the square."

One-day events and Twenty20 fixtures are all the new constructions will likely be used for over the next five years, Matt says, until they're established enough to host a league fixture or test match.

Lancashire's first home fixture is fast approaching - a four day match against Worcester - and Emirates Old Trafford's debut test match since the square was turned - one of the Ashes series - is also looming large, so Matt is keeping his fingers crossed that rain does not halt play.

An eight to ten week preparation period has been scheduled to ready the wickets for the cameras; the regime is pretty constant though, with a light topdressing and overseeding the order of the day.

The DLF Trifolium iSeed trials, which Matt implemented in 2010 on the practice wickets, have now been rolled out on all new and existing wickets, thanks to some impressive results.

The coated seed technology may have suffered a little last year with so much time spent under covers, says Matt, but he is confident that a little sunshine will bring it back to its best.

In fact, such was the impact of the iSeed trials at Emirates Old Trafford that, 250 miles south at Sussex CCC's county ground at Hove, Head Groundsman, Andy Mackay, has now implemented a programme of his own. The results will be interesting to learn in, what can be, a dustier setting.

There may be precious little Matt can do about Manchester's famously damp climate but, as technology continues to move at an unprecedented pace, weather predictive systems form an increasingly important tool in the groundsman's arsenal.

Matt certainly believes weather monitoring software has its place: "Rain Today is useful for checking on downpours in the short term," he says.

"It allows us to see when rain is coming and how heavy it is for up to two hours in advance. Technology gives us a useful guide and enables the team to make decisions that we wouldn't have been able to do just a few years ago."

"If we're expecting only light rainfall, we can decide whether or not to put on covers - the software offers greater flexibility in decision-making." Whilst Matt sings the praises of short-term strategies and tools like RainToday, he isn't convinced of the value of long-term alternatives, insisting that they are still largely unreliable.

I needn't labour the point of heavy rainfall anymore; we've exhausted all possible superlatives. The downpours have brought a few unexpected knock-on effects though. For the last three seasons, migrating Canada Geese, which usually locate to the nearby Sale Waterpark, have stopped off en-route, tempted by the opportunity to feed and to paddle about on the ground. Their deposits of natural fertiliser are certainly not welcome, neither is the damage they inflict on the turf.

"For a month between mid-March and April they use us as a stop-off, ripping up chunks out of the wickets and gobbling up seed," explains Matt. "There is little we can do about it other than try to shoo them off. They're not bothered though. We do all we can, but they won't budge, so we just have to deal with it until they move on."

Visiting geese may be a bugbear, but the club has forged strong links with others close-by, largely as a result of the Tesco investment, which brings with it a strengthening of community partnerships.

Stretford High School, opposite the ground, was the lucky recipient of Section 106 money, following the construction of the massive Tesco supermarket adjacent to the stadium - money that was, in part, spent on a 3G artificial pitch and new natural turf construction.

With that build now complete, Matt and his team will be tasked with the maintenance of both artificial and natural pitches as part of Lancashire CCC's agreement with the council, which requires weekly brushing of the community-use 3G and basic preparation of the natural turf.

A hectic season ahead then at Emirates Old Trafford, and the members pavilion receiving a revamp to boot. Matt's a man to stay icy cool in any crisis, I suspect, and he'll be hoping all the hard work on the turf and the stadium provides the perfect platform for success in 2013.

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Contact Kerry Haywood

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