1 Turning training into normality...

In 2015, Rugby Cricket Club will be celebrating its 171st year. The club was experiencing a period of success both on and off the field, after several difficult years. Successive promotions at all levels, achieving Clubmark status in 2011, becoming an ECB Focus Club in 2012 and being awarded Warwickshire Club of the Year in the same year, all appeared positive.

However, in January 2013, the club were unexpectedly informed that its grounds contractor would no longer be trading and, from that point on, they had to fend for themselves.

In this article, the club's Chairman and Head Groundsman, Colin Watson, explains how, with considerable time, equipment and financial constraints, they not only managed to prepare for the forthcoming season, but also took the opportunity to assess and then develop how they would independently manage their ground going forward

Rugby Cricket Club was founded in 1844, and will be competing in its 171st year in 2015. The club has had biennial fixtures with the MCC since its inception and has played host to such legends as Pelham Warner and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We have been fortunate to have had West Indies legend Alvin Kallicharan play for us and, more recently, former Warwickshire CCC captain Michael Powell, who commenced playing for the club whilst at school. We have, over the past five years, concentrated efforts towards not only developing our senior playing base but, as importantly, developing our youth team structure.

I have been a member of the club for thirty-six years, starting off as an enthusiastic scorer. From there, I played and captained the junior team, before captaining the 2nd Xl and then the 1st Xl for several years. I briefly looked after the square whilst being captain of the firsts at this time. I had little idea of the detailed requirements regarding track preparation; equally, there were no other volunteers. Little did I know I would be back doing it again thirty years later!

Rugby Cricket Club has had some very difficult times in the past, its existence challenged on a number of occasions, but a small dedicated group managed to pull it through those difficult times. I am very fortunate at the present time to be Chairman of a thriving club, with a great team of volunteers, all of whom share common goals.

In 2000, a good friend and volunteer, Phil Hall, began looking after our ground. He took great pride in how it was presented, giving up many hours working with limited resources. Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly in 2009 and our ground was then managed by a local contractor until winter 2013, when the company ceased trading. I understood Phil's passion for getting things right and his desire to constantly make the appearance of our playing facility better. He had an attention to detail and I respected that. Hopefully, with the current team, I can carry that attention to detail forward.

With the announcement in January 2013, and with very little time before season preparations, I took the decision as Chairman to take responsibility for getting us up and running as soon as feasible and manage ground requirements for the fast approaching season ahead. This was to prove to be a very challenging initial three months, but became, over time, a very informative and rewarding period of time.

Our square is made up with Kaloam. We were having increasing issues with performance, especially bounce and consistency of performance. I had previously had an assessment of the square, together with soil analysis, carried out by our regional ECB pitch advisor. This report provided me with a good basis to draft a five year plan towards implementing the recommendations presented, of which there were several. Our pitch performance was not as we would have liked and the professional assessment backed this up. Whilst the findings regarding soil analysis were relatively good, it was clear we needed to review our fertiliser programme, introduce a winter maintenance schedule and dedicate more time to individual track preparation and scheduling.

Armed with good, basic knowledge and what I had learnt from attending the Lantra cricket course, I set about planning a programme of immediate requirements. As important, I then started lobbying for volunteer help. Time was not on our side.

We agree expenditure through committee and, in this situation, we had little choice but to empty our bank account to be able to finance the up and coming season. We were fortunate enough to be able to negotiate the purchase of some key equipment from the previous contractor on generous payment terms.

Apart from general running costs, we identify any special project needs annually and, if available, allocate funds as appropriate - I guess we deemed existence a special project. I am perhaps fortunate, as Chairman, to be able to present the importance of investing in the ground facility from a hands-on perspective. As a committee though, we do agree that our financial investment should be in the surface we play on, rather than the person who plays on it. As a groundsman, I will always lobby for ground and equipment investment; as a Chairman, I will always promote its approval.

There are three of us currently who look after the ground, and I am lucky to have Stewart Pearman and Bill Coxon devote so much of their spare time. Stewart works within the turf care industry as a greenkeeper, so brings good experience from a golf course background. Having someone with turfcare knowledge, even though not cricket based, and very good equipment knowledge was extremely advantageous, considering not only our limited timescales but also longer term plans. Stewart did, however, go rather pale when we shaved the first wicket to match day height - a golf green it is not.

Equally, we are fortunate to have Bill volunteer towards ground maintenance. It's priceless that he can dedicate time during the working day, especially regards irrigation and pitch rolling. Without this, our square schedule would prove problematic with so much junior and senior cricket played in the evenings. However, we need to be flexible with our time and I can now, with confidence, change working responsibilities at short notice. Our time is limited, so how that is managed is critical. It is very important that, when individuals give up their time, it is utilised effectively.

My learning has been through discussion with those in the industry and mostly through reading. I also attended Pitchcare's Lantra accredited cricket preparation course, which was presented by Bob Stretton. I would strongly recommend any volunteer groundsman to attend these courses. I have the utmost respect for those working in and managing different sporting facilities. The course provided me with the opportunity to not only learn a great deal, but also enabled me to then take that learning away and compare it against how things had been done at our club over many years.

The Pitchcare forum is also a fantastic site to listen to what industry professionals have to say about a wide range of turfcare requirements. The fact that you can get immediate access to professional opinion via the forum is invaluable for the volunteer.

Although it was going to be a long term challenge, the thought that I could now manage the ground preparations from what I had learnt was exciting, if not a little daunting. How we now prepare, allocate and use tracks is quite different to what was being applied for many years.

Where our preparation regimes were concerned, and post the Lantra course, I adopted the ten day cycle for pitch preparation. In the past, this was probably only five days max, if that. In addition, each prepared pitch was only used once and then a new pitch prepared afterwards. We now always have two pitches being prepared at any one time and the same pitch is used for 200 overs (two games) rather than the 100 overs previously. This gives us the opportunity for the ends to recover before re-use. We purchased a sarel roller to help with this, together with germination sheeting. With so much cricket played though, it is difficult finding opportunity to get on.

During the season, we maintain the square at 12-14mm using an Allett Buffalo 27". Our pitch preparation gets the first weeks scarification and cut at 7mm with the Hayter 20" Greensmaster 56, followed by a final scarification and cut at 4mm using an Allett Buffalo 20". The outfield is maintained at 12mm and is cut using the Hayter 325 Triple. We have a Jacobsen 1672D that needs an assessment regarding investing in its use. I think it would give us a better quality outfield, but I need to balance repair cost against benefits first.

After performance of the wickets, presentation ranks very highly with me. You have to make your facility somewhere people want to come and play and talk about for the right reasons. If not, find out why not. I'm all for feedback on how tracks play and how the ground is presented, as long as it's constructive - it's amazing how a wicket can become a scapegoat for someone's lack of ability.

If you take presentation seriously, I'm sure we will all look back on the work carried out when leaving the ground. We should all take pride in how we present a facility to our visitors, regardless of what resource or experience we have available.

With additional learning, I have been able to change the way in which we not only approach summer preparations, but also introduce a yearly maintenance programme. In the past, once autumn renovations were complete, the ground was basically left until the following spring.

Hopefully, our new approach will work well for our facility medium to long term. I have been very fortunate to be able to call Bob on the phone when I need specific advice on anything new.

The introduction of the winter programme of activities presents more work, but I believe is a step in the right direction. We now have outside contractors solid tine our square from November through to the end of January (65mm, 85mm and 100mm). Additionally we sarrel and cut ourselves. The early signs are positive and I believe that, if we continue to listen, learn and push a few boundaries, the facility we provide to members, guests and the community will continue to improve.

I have great respect for professionals in the trade and, for that matter, anyone who can't simply erase an error. Have a surface perform consistently well and you will hear little about it; have it perform below par, or not as expected on an occasion, and it will create much debate. Perhaps at professional level it is then, at that specific time, the industry needs a better opportunity to be heard?

We carry out our entire end of season renovations ourselves. We basically renovate by cutting to 8mm and cleaning, followed by a cut to 4mm and another clean. We currently hire in scarification equipment.

The article by Andy Mackay at Sussex CCC was invaluable in that, last year, I was very cautious about how aggressively we scarified. This September, we slightly decreased the height and increased the number of passes and directions. We began by cutting again to remove debris, then scarified as per Andy's recommendations, before overseeding with Johnsons Premier iSeed. The square was then fertilised using Maxwell Autumn and Winter 3:3:12, before being topdressed with seven 20kg bags per track of Binders K Pitch dressing. We spend around £1,000 on average each year on square renovations. Next year, I may research using a pre-seed fertiliser during autumn renovations.

Hopefully, together with the new winter works, the wicket performance will continue to improve next year. I will be cautious whilst learning but, at the same time, I am very keen to see what works best for us longer term.

During the winter, we will continue to cut the square, when necessary, to 20mm with our SARP PRO rotary. The outfield will be maintained at 25mm.

In the spring, we will apply Lebanon Proscape 25:0:12 MESA 100% Expo and, during the season, an application of Maxwell Advanced Generate 12:3:9+2MgO+2 Fe.

The fact that there is rugby played on part of the outfield is, sadly, a significant downside to our ground's performance and appearance. We have issues with greater plantain, which had been fairly invasive on predominantly the rugby pitch after renovations. Through time, this weed has been encroaching on the remaining cricket outfield so, over the past two years, we have engaged a contractor to spray our outfield with Headland Relay P, when the plantain is actively growing. It's a cost we could certainly do without.

The general restoration of the rugby pitch is funded by the local borough council each spring. The cricket club maintains the remainder of the ground annually at its own expense, but would happily undertake maintenance of the whole ground should rugby not be played on it. I'm really pleased with the results over most of the outfield, but we continue to have issues during the summer on the rugby pitch.

We are only open six months a year as a standalone cricket club and, with a 113 year old pavilion to upkeep, we have to work hard to ensure ground funds are available each year. In 2011, we were awarded £50,000 from Sport England towards a complete rebuild to the rear of the pavilion and the installation of new, twin bay artificial nets. The total project cost £58K, with the balance coming through our own fund raising efforts. We are extremely fortunate to have the support of Sport England and funding allocation.

In 2014, we had our artificial wicket on the edge of the square replaced as our existing surface had seen better days. However, it is quite clear that we now need to embark on a regular maintenance schedule for all of our three artificial surfaces, and I will be looking into what this involves over the close season. Again, we will need to build this in to our schedule of works and present annual costs to committee for review.

In 2013, Sport England awarded us £37,000 towards the extension of our square. Consultancy, Total Turf Solutions, is managing the project and selection process. They appointed contractors Woodward Turf Care to carry out the works. The grant was provided to create six new tracks using K-Pitch dressing, together with a twelve month maintenance agreement. Woodward is responsible for constructing the new area and maintaining it through to, and including, autumn 2015 renovations. During the summer of 2015, we will irrigate and cut the new area under instruction.

Previously, we had been using some tracks prepared on indigenous soil that were really not up to scratch. The grant will upgrade our facility to a twelve track square, which will not only, in time, provide increased senior wickets, but enable us to dedicate grass wickets for junior matches, rather than they play on artificial. The youngsters really love playing on grass and, although there is an additional cost to that, we should do all we can to increase availability. The construction of the new area was completed in September 2014 and germination rates have been good. The six new tracks will be available for play in the summer of 2016.

We are currently obtaining quotes for the west side of our outfield to be Koro'd in autumn 2015, and looking at also having the saddles removed from our existing square. Saddle removal I see as key, and it was a shame we did not have the funds to have this done whilst having the new square installed. An additional long term plan is to start constructing new grass training wickets, but we need to concentrate fundraising efforts towards this and assess the maintenance costs.

Hopefully, the support and learning can continue, be passed on to new enthusiasts and we provide a playing facility the club and town can be proud of. Whether it is a cricket captain, treasurer, fund raiser or secretary, no club should underestimate the value of the volunteer, not least the availability, skill and importance the groundsman may place on existence alone.

What's in the shed?

Allett Buffalo 27"
Allett Buffalo 20"
Hayter 56 Greensmaster 20"
Autoguide Autoroller Junior roller
Hayter LT324 triple mower
Jacobsen 1672T triple mower
Sarp SLM5360HXA-PRO rotary mower
Pedestrian linemarker
Everris SR2000 rotary fertiliser spreader
Sarel Spiking Roller
SISIS Hand Dragbrush
SISIS Trulute
SISIS Combirake
Bowdry water remover
Ryobi Strimmers

We purchase second hand from local dealers mainly, unless we obtain grants.

We use a local mower company to service our square mowers and have recently had our Hayter triple serviced and cylinders sharpened by Redtech Machinery.

The Autoroller has made a significant difference to track preparation. Before, we had a very old, split rear wheel roller which was a nightmare to use, if even moderately damp, as it left ridges all down the track. We were awarded a £10K grant towards the new roller through Sport England's Investment Award Programme.

My wish list would include a verticutter and a Sisis Autorake; I'll have to have a word with the chairman!

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