First class outground cricket may be dwindling, but Middlesex is one county where there will always be a need. Neville Johnson went pre-season to the outer reaches of North West London to talk to Dave Summersell, the man in charge of the ground that takes some of the strain off the game's headquarters
Uxbridge Cricket Club's ground changed its name to Uxbridge Sports Club a few years ago to draw attention to the multi-sports facilities there are there. The biggest reminder that it is a significant cricket venue is its approach road, Gatting Way. The clue is in that name if you're wondering what it has to do with county cricket.
This impressive 13-acre site has been home to the club since 1970 when redevelopment by the Council of Uxbridge town centre compelled a move. Since then, facilities for all-year sports have developed. As well as cricket, locals can join thriving tennis, rugby and bowls clubs. Head Groundsman Dave Summersell looks after all of the club's grassed sports surfaces, but its role as an outground for Middlesex is why we are here.
The international calendar at Lord's compels Middlesex to migrate now and again. The county's need for an outground is, to a certain extent, forced upon them and first class outground cricket is pretty much guaranteed for players and supporters. It is quite different to counties with non-test ground HQs where centralisation and development of a core ground is the growing trend.
In the words of Uxbridge Sports Club's General Manager, Anne O'Dea: "Middlesex needs somewhere away from Lord's that it can rely on. Uxbridge fits the bill perfectly. Financially, Middlessex cricket is very important to Uxbridge Sports Club. It puts us on the map too."
"We pretty much know when the first class fixtures are announced in November what our involvement will be. The club gets in touch and we discuss arrangements, with the emphasis on mutual convenience. Organising gets under way months in advance."
"We sit around the table and discuss every aspect of match management together, simply working out what is best for both clubs. There's give and take on both sides. It just works and, after ten years or so now, we all know what we're doing."
"Uxbridge Cricket Club has its own fixture list to fulfill, of course, but we're always willing to shift matches to make way for a county game. Every weekend across the summer months, the Uxbridge club has four sides in action, participating at different levels of the Middlesex County League, so a lot of cricket is regularly played on the pitches here. It's a busy cricket ground; and Dave is a busy groundsman."
"We never quite know, from year to year, the actual extent of our involvement. In 2016, only a single T20 match for Middlesex was staged here. This year, we're going to be much busier hosting Middlesex, and so is Dave."
"Health and safety has to be spot on, of course, and Lorraine Poole, Event Operations Manager at Middlesex CCC, provides a detailed plan for each fixture the club plays here at Uxbridge. Together, we meet the Local Safety Advisory Group to discuss all the arrangements we have in place."
Weather permitting the T20 games are likely to attract an attendance of 3,000 plus, and championship match days could pull in up to 1,000, depending on the state of the game."
Uxbridge has, in recent years, reverted to individual ground seating rather than temporary stands, which gives it a more traditional outground appearance and feel. The Middlesex club provides all the manpower and resources for this.
From a business point of view Anne is a big fan of T20, as much as anything because, as she puts it: "It's all done in a day. It's neat and profitable. There's much more uncertainty with the 4-day game. You don't know about conditions from day to day, whether the game will last, and how many will come through the gates. We still love it though."
The cricket club's association with the current champion county goes back to 1980, Dave tells me. Lord's was preparing to stage the Centenary Test and unable to host a county fixture for its tenants Middlesex. This was the first time since 1959 Lord's hadn't been able to put on a scheduled county fixture, when the ground at Hornsey in London's Haringey stepped into the breach. This time, twenty-one seasons later, Uxbridge was invited to stage the game, he recalls
This first Middlesex 1st team game at the ground was against Derbyshire. The county had already used Uxbridge for 2nd X1 matches, so county officials were aware of the quality of the playing conditions. It fared well for the county, and a 9-wicket victory played a big part in the winning of the then Schweppes County Championship that year.
"Playing away from Lord's was then, and still is I suppose, a kind of novelty for both players and spectators, and an enjoyable one," said Dave.
"The close proximity of the crowd may be a welcome change from the remoteness of spectators and distance from the action on a sometimes sparsely attended day at Lord's, magnificent as it is."
Middlesex are the current Specsavers County Champions, a title they clinched on the last day of the 2016 season. This season, what could be a vital 4-day game in September against Hampshire is being staged at the Uxbridge ground, and there are two Nat West T20 Blast matches in July and August, against Somerset and Gloucestershire respectively. Six first class days of cricket says a lot about Uxbridge Sports Club and its cricket ground, and will be a valuable income source.
Over the years, Middlesex matches at Uxbridge have developed a kind of festival atmosphere. "The pitches had a reputation for being quick and bouncy in the early days, producing exciting cricket," said Dave.
The novelty did wear off a bit though, the pacey pitches got a bit tamer, and Middlesex outground matches were played at Southgate for a while. In 2007, however, Uxbridge was firmly back on the Middlesex calendar, and has remained so ever since.
Dave came to the club in 2013. He loves it when a Middlesex game is on. He admits he frets about how his pitch is going to play, but loves the buzz of the full ground, the advertising hoardings, the media attention, and all the build-up ballyhoo.
"It's a different ground altogether when Middlesex are in town. We all love it here," he said.
Thirty years ago, Dave abandoned a career in retail banking at Barclays - other high street banks are available - for groundsmanship. He'd been voluntarily doing the pitches at Harrow Cricket Club, where he played. Another club at Gerrards Cross offered him a paid position doing theirs, and Harrow, not wishing to lose his services, offered similar payment. In total, these contractor earnings matched his banking pay, so a new career, doing something he loved, beckoned. In the following years, spells working contractually at Wembley - both old and new - and Lord's came his way.
He came to Uxbridge on the departure of Vic Demain for the deputy head groundsman position at Trent Bridge and subsequently the top post at Durham.
Dave has, for years, been a good friend of Angus 'Gus' Fraser, who is Director of Cricket at Middlesex as well as an England selector. As an opening bat for the Harrow club, he used to face up to Gus as a young new ball bowler for Stanmore, before his county and international career took off. The 46-cap ex-England player is now the decision maker on all things cricket at Middlesex, including where they play home games away from Lord's.
Although one or two other venues do get a look-in, Uxbridge looks like the preferred choice for Angus and Middlesex these days.
The likes of Chris Gale and Brendan McCullum definitely 'put bums on seats' and money in the till. Advance publicity effort is intense and sells tickets but, as Dave tells me, fliers can mislead. They certainly did last year when the latter and Middlesex captain Eoin Morgan were billed to play, but both were, in fact, still tied up in India with IPL commitments!
The square at Uxbridge has thirteen strips and it's definitely Dave who decides which of them he will work on for a Middlesex game. The county leaves it to him.
"Angus does come here to chat about things, maybe suggest I leave a bit of grass on, or whatever, but there's no real interference in what I do," said Dave.
"He's anything but overbearing, and there's good banter between us. He might just give me a bit of a hint about what they'd like, but nothing more than that. The new regulations, giving the visitors the option of bowling without a toss, have rather wiped out any suggestion of home side pitch fixing anyway, haven't they?"
Uxbridge is a very free-draining ground and, in summer, it does brown up quite quickly. Irrigation is what you might call 'traditional', certainly no pop-ups. Middlesex will always provide any additional kit Dave might need and, as part of ECB requirements now, always ships its Blotter there for 1st class matches.
It's virtually a solo job for Dave, but he does get a summer assistant and was expecting to appoint one for the coming season before the end of March. He also calls on a core of trusted paid helpers for big match day support, to deal with the covers and other onerous tasks.
Dave realised, when he took over, that there was a problem with the grass density and root depth on parts of the square. In the autumn of 2013, his first at the club, he addressed this by calling in Ecosolve with its deep drill machine. The whole square was drilled, but two of the pitches where the issue was most noticeable were drilled and filled. It must have done some good because, two seasons on, a Middlesex T20 match against Somerset on one of the said strips drew praise from presiding umpire Jeremy Lloyds. He described it as 'an exceptional surface'.
Dave's aim 'from the word go' has been to restore Uxbridge's earlier reputation for pace and bounce. He carries out virtually all end-of-season renovation himself but, in the two most recent autumns, he has called upon the help of former Glamorgan CCC head groundsman, now advisor and contractor, Keith Exton, and his expert use of a Wiedenmann Terra Spike, providing effective, yet almost unnoticed aeration.
At the end of the 2016 season, Dave also had the square fraise mowed by a Koro Field Top Maker, courtesy of contractors AT Bone, to remove all unwanted surface matter, especially the Poa. It was a morning's work, drastic to the onlooker, but well worth it. He followed this by scarifying, brushing, seeding and topdressing. He generally uses Barenbrug's Bar Extreme ryegrass mixture for overseeding pitches and, where necessary, on the outfield; bowlers' run-ups in particular.
Over winter, Dave keeps the newly germinated square grass trimmed to 15mm, mainly by rotary, then subsequently by 36-inch mower with roller to add a bit more weight. The whole square has, for some time, been top-dressed with 'Supernatural' produced by Surrey Loams, which also provides Dave with topdressing material for Uxbridge Sports Club's grass tennis courts and bowling greens.
A month before play begins, it looks in pretty good shape and Dave was keen to get out in the middle to carry on with pre-season rolling. Initially, his Auto Roller is unballasted, but he would gradually be adding water weight as spring growth speeds up.
Since Middlesex CCC's announcement of its return to Uxbridge Sports Club for championship cricket for the first time since they drew with Worcestershire here in June 2015, there has been a buzz on and off the pitch. The clash with Hampshire in September will actually be the 45th County Championship game here since June 1980 when it first acted as a Lord's backup.
Uxbridge's record as an outground is distinguished. Its future is, it would seem, pretty assured too.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 2635A Triplex mower
Allett 36" Regal mower
Allett C20 cassette mower (cylinder and verticut reels)
Ransomes Super Certes
Honda Rotary mower
TH White Auto-roller
Kubota L245 tractor
Groundsman 345HD spiker
Sisis Auto Rotorake
Various Stihl hedgetrimmers, blowers and strimmers
Dave also uses a selection of his own equipment at the ground
John Deere tractor
Risboro Turf Little John verticutter
Hardi pedestrian and tractor sprayers
Turfco pedestrian topdresser