"I feel like 73 sometimes, but I have an exit strategy and am grooming Ben to succeed - he's still only 18, but coming on really well"
Driving out of Horsham uphill towards the A24, it's easy to slip past the narrow turning into Cricketfield Road.
But, if you have done so, you'll have missed one of the most joyous sites for any fan of the sound of leather on willow.
For, tucked away at the end of the road, lined as it is by smart bungalows, is Horsham Cricket & Sports Club, whose home, nestling in the characterful rolling West Sussex countryside, is acknowledged to be one of the most beautifully located grounds in Britain.
Lined by low hills to the west and the London to Portsmouth mainline railway to the north, the ground is a hark back to olden times, when any cricketing fan could drive straight on to the surrounding grass verge beyond the boundary, take out a picnic and gaze across to the sporting action.
On selected days, steam locomotives still haul train enthusiasts past the historic setting, overlooked by the 14th century spire of St Mary's church, positioned at the end of the Causeway, Horsham's signature street of timber framed houses, once owned by the local merchants.
Amid this setting and strong spring sunshine strolls Roger Ward, sporting Rayban sunglasses, every bit the groundsman in form as he finishes tending the square during a second eleven match between Sussex and Surrey.
Nearby, the shed's open to display his range of machinery, equipment, seed and fertiliser. More akin to a three-bay garage converted from a rustic barn, it blends perfectly with the tranquil location and rural feel of the ground.
With him is his assistant, Ben Gibson. Three years at Horsham, before that at Brinsbury College, Adversane, West Sussex, and undertaking an NVQ Level 2 in Sports Turf management, he is warming to his role.
"It's a lovely place to work," says Ben, whose main responsibility at the ground is managing the four grass tennis courts, which sit alongside the five all-weather ones, as well as the cricket outfield - Roger focusing on the square with its sixteen wickets.
Horsham Cricket Club has played at this magnificent site since the mid 1800s, and now ranks in the Sussex Premier League. Although the game was played in Horsham before 1768, the first record of a town side was on 8 August 1771, when the club was created. It shifted locations over the years before settling at the present ground in 1851.
The club runs two grounds, four Saturday teams in the highest leagues and a thriving junior section, with ages from under 9s to under 16s. Clearly this is no sleepy hollow of cricket.
With the likes of renowned cricketing writer and TMS broadcaster, Christopher Martin Jenkins, as members, the club's performance at all levels no doubt comes under constant scrutiny.
That's not the whole story though, and Horsham Cricket & Sports Club can boast more than 1,000 members across cricket, hockey, squash and tennis sections, with players in those groups competing at county, national and international level.
Horsham Lawn Tennis Club, meanwhile, is a long-established and thriving arm that appeals to all standards, from social and family play to competitive leagues.
Founded in the late 19th century, it grew considerably after the Second World War under the presidency of Col WJ Legg OBE and his successor as Wimbledon Referee, Capt Mike Gibson.
In the early 1970s the constituent sports and social sections came together to create a parent club to oversee the running of the whole club.
Horsham Festival week heralds peak attendances at the picturesque ground - more than 4,000 a day typically roll up to line the boundary and throng the clubhouse.
This year sees Sussex play Derbyshire on 18-21 August and Somerset on the 22nd. And there's Ladies Day on the 25th, when Horsham hosts Glamorgan for a 40-over Division 1 floodlit match.
The Festival typifies the function of the club as somewhere that has something to offer everyone, as a community and family-orientated hub bringing positive elements to Horsham by encouraging development in sports from a young age.
The ground hit the headlines a few years ago for all the wrong reasons, however, when it lost its slot as an outground for county first-team games. "The club was between groundsmen then," Roger explains. "It was at the beginning of May, a key time in the cricketing year, and the contractor brought in to look after things took it into his head to scarify the surface in two different directions, with disastrous consequences. Sussex went back to Hove and the club sued the contractor."
By 2006 though, everything was back to normal and Horsham was restored to its rightful place, alongside Arundel, as a Sussex outground.
Roger runs groundsmanship at the club under contract and is now in his fifth year in charge. As boss of Southern Sportsground Services - the business he has headed for twenty years, assisted by his two sons Ben and Ollie - he is on site four and half days a week and Saturday mornings. When not at Horsham, he's busy looking after Purley, Sutton and Cheam cricket clubs, as well as East Grinstead and the Old Whitgiftians ground near Croydon.
Not content with those tasks however, Roger also works as an ECB pitch adviser for Surrey, so time management for the 63-year old is obviously one of his key skill sets.
Sussex grounds are within his portfolio, however Roger's early experience came at Surrey venues, working part time at Kenley and Oxted cricket clubs, while employed for pharmaceuticals giant Upjohn.
"I was batting for Surrey second team in the early 1970s. I played a lot of cricket and am still as passionate about it as I am about groundsmanship. Nothing looks lovelier than a nicely striped up ground. I experimented with circles and dabbled with diagonals but landed back with the traditional look."
When his job at Upjohn came to an end, Roger decided to take a chance and move into the industry full-time. "I look after about ten grounds and that keeps me and my staff busy. I need a day a week away from Horsham to check that everything's okay."
Perhaps, like so many cricket venues, money can get tight. "We manage to provide a county standard ground on a club budget," Roger states proudly. "It's a constant battle to maintain standards. Once you let them slip, you have to work that much harder to bring them back up. Not many grounds in the south-east are as good as Horsham."
You suspect that Roger would never entertain that idea for a moment, although he concedes that the weather earlier this year thwarted his plan of action for 2010.
"We found it difficult to find a window for weeding. The windy weather, with its sudden gusts, made spraying impossible, and the worst times to be doing it are when players want to practice."
He accepts that keeping the weeds at bay is growing harder as the battery of chemicals deemed safe to apply dwindles. "Glyphosate we apply to the surrounds of the ground and chlordane worked wonderfully on the worms, but that's not permitted now, and carbendazim is being phased out too. Chafer grubs can be a problem, but Merit tackles that and helps prevent the damage that crows can do in digging around for grubs, particularly on the practice ground. The last attack of the grubs we had here cost the club £700 to put right. Snow mould didn't get hold here during the snowy spell and, thankfully, we don't suffer from fusarium."
First play comes around in April when the club takes to the field, then county matches follow. The season's arriving earlier each year it seems, as the demand for practice time impinges on what is traditionally the preparatory period for the groundstaff.
"By January, I'm finishing off aerating the square and spraying on iron to add strength to the turf. February's the time for the pre-season roll with the two and half tonne roller then, in spring, I'm applying the first fertiliser and iron to strengthen and encourage colour. It's then time to verticut the outfield."
He rents an Earthquake aerator, which, hauled behind one of the club's 35hp tractors, generates 10-12in deep slits. "This is the second year we've brought it in and it works well," says Roger. "We tend to alternate it with vertidraining."
To complicate matters though, Roger has to be careful to use the right equipment and machinery in the right parts of the ground. "On the south side, we have chalk six to eight inches down," he explains, "then that gives way to sandy soil - it's a bit of all sorts here."
"We suffer from thatch build-up and moss," Roger adds. "They cause us problems. I'd like to hire a Graden at some stage to help clear the organic material."
By the end of March, Roger's rolling out the wickets and reducing cut height from 6mm to 3mm, using his trusty Dennis mower; "but I do like to leave a bit of grass on there. After all, every groundsman is fighting to achieve bounce and pace."
"The speed of growth sometimes takes me by surprise," he confesses. "We can get three boxes off it and I think 'where did all that come from'?"
The six grass nets at Horsham, now in their third year, have recently come in for a thorough makeover, Roger applying five inches of Surrey Loams Ltd's Gostd, then overseeding with triple ryegrass mix.
Having a second, ten wicket ground next to the main one has allowed Horsham to develop its cricket across a spread of age groups. "We have a large junior section, plus third and fourth teams, all of whom play on the nursery ground."
Horsham has a good record of developing talent through its cricket academy, one of the innovations brought in by former club chairman, Dr John Dew, whose vision it was to foster junior talent.
Although he died last year, the fruits of his labours are clear for all to see in such bright hopes as 21-year old Sussex leg spinner, Will Beer, who impressed in the England U19s test series against New Zealand in 2008.
"John was a great man. He'd always ask how everything was going and appreciated the difficulties of the groundsman's task," Roger recalls fondly.
Since he arrived, Roger has been busy repairing wickets but knows that it can take at least two or three years before a reconstructed one is ready for county cricket. "I've tried pretty much everything on the square over the years and it's achieved a very good root structure now but, when I came here, there were major difficulties and it took a couple of years to sort them out. But, I think our efforts here to turn things around have been appreciated."
Most important of all is the end of season renovation, stresses Roger, pointing to the bags of loam and Sheriff's TT23 triple ryegrass mix. That's when the Graden may well come in handy, he adds. Coming full circle, aerating begins again in November. "I do five passes over about two to three months using the Toro Greens-Air, which provides a four-inch depth," he adds.
As a contractor, Roger owns all his own equipment, which can supplement the items that Horsham run. Hove, the county's cricket home, loaned the ground a motorised Blotter to relieve Roger of the chore of drawing sheets across the square when it rained. "The weight of water that could accumulate on the sheets was huge," he remembers. "The motorised unit, plus our two pedestrian Blotters do the job well." The John Deere 2563, used on the outfield and purchased after the five-year lease expired, is the workhorse at Horsham. "As a mower, it is not too complicated and does the job."
At 63, Roger might be forgiven for seeking retirement. "I feel like 73 sometimes," he jokes, "but I have an exit strategy and am grooming Ben to succeed. He's still only 18, but is coming on really well."
Images © Clare Turnbull and speedmediaone