We're looking out over the Emirates Riverside stadium - home to Durham Cricket. At 1.8 hectares, the playing area is one of the largest in the country, Head Groundsman Vic Demain informs me.
That said, a cracked pain of glass in the scoreboard control office gives evidence that spectators have witnessed some mighty hitting of late that's breached the long boundaries big-time.
You might say Vic is one of groundsman's biggest hitters, notching up a few key innings since his days as head groundsman at Uxbridge CC, one of Middlesex's outgrounds, where Pitchcare last interviewed him.
It was at a county fixture there during a particularly wet spell that visiting Nottinghamshire CCC spotted the good work Vic had achieved in such adverse conditions.
A move to Trent Brent as deputy head groundsman followed. Two years later, he was taking up the head groundsman's post at the Riverside, Chester-le-Street, in charge of a team of three full-time staff and one part-timer.
If ever there was a man in the right place at the right time, Vic can lay claim to it this summer as he prepared for and witnessed a trio of ICC Cricket World Cup fixtures at the Riverside that each hit the headlines, for very different reasons.
Hosting those games was a triumph in itself for Durham as the cricketing spectacle played out before record-breaking audiences from 30th May, when England played South Africa at The Oval, to the unbelievable final at Lord's on 14th July; forty-eight fixtures later, when the host nation clinched the trophy amid a riotously close super over.
Whether World Cup fixture or an Ashes clash, groundsmen were in the firing line as pundits laid into the quality of the pitches. Reacting in the aftermath of the media frenzy, Vic says: "The scrutiny of pitches these days is massive and the language of pundits can be downright abusive."
The scrutiny of pitches these days is massive and the language of pundits can be downright abusive. As groundsmen, we are aware that pundits have to paint a picture, and the state of the pitch is really important to many more people now, but the problem is in the terminology they adopt
"As groundsmen, we are aware that pundits have to paint a picture, and the state of the pitch is really important to many more people now, but the problem is in the terminology they adopt."
"When staff mental health issues are causing problems in groundsmanship, some of their comments come too close to the bone."
Reportedly, planning is underway to assemble the national media in a bid to put across the message that strident words can cause mental turmoil, affecting wellbeing for some.
Perhaps partly as a result, recruitment and retention present mounting problems across the sector. "Two of our staff have left this season, citing work/life balance for their departure," says Vic.
"Hours can be gruelling, especially in summer. They think: 'why am I still on site at 9.00pm when I should be with my kids at home or enjoying a drink in the pub'," he states.
Then there's the sheer intensity of the modern game. "The new 100-ball competition comes in next season to further complicate our job. The season is stretching out too, starting in March and finishing at the end of September. I've never known anything like it."
"The traditional four-day championship games are pushed to the start and end of the season, with all the faster formats so popular now filling the warmest months."
Amid further controversy over test wickets after Australia retained the Ashes, England's record wicket-taking pace bowler James Anderson was said to have uttered that England had been "let down" by test venue groundsmen this summer.
"I think they've probably suited Australia more than us," he is quoted as stating. "I would have liked to have seen a bit more grass, but that's the nature of the game here. We don't use home advantage enough. I feel like we could just be a little bit more biased towards our own team."
Adding insult to injury, former-player pundits have spoken of "the slagheap pitches of Durham" - words that must surely wound the hardiest of grounds professionals and cricketers alike.
"Your John Arlotts and Brian Johnstons would never utter such words," Vic says in agitated tones, "and, in five minutes, such sensationalist talk can spread all over social media. Keaton Jennings, who was selected for England a couple of years ago, was picked due to the amount of runs he scored at Durham, which are said to reflect what they believe are bowler-friendly surfaces. During big matches, I take myself out of the arena. Some younger colleagues have a different disposition and may stomach the flak."
Even before all the furore this season, last winter, an England batting coach interviewed on TV identified pitches as one of the issues in the game, claiming they were unsuitable for county championship fixtures.
Cricket groundsmen can be viewed as soft targets and end up as casualties, as Keith Exton, former head at SWALEC stadium, found to his cost.
Those in other sports are at the sharp end too. "Guys like Carl Stanley at Wembley and Neil Stubley at Wimbledon are under immense pressure and come in for plenty of stick," says Vic. "Something has to be done soon."
A heck of a lot of scrutiny surrounds pitches, but until we can educate people, the media first of all - those who pass the message out to the public, about how little real control we have over what is a living surface, punditry will only worsen, I fear
"A heck of a lot of scrutiny surrounds pitches, but until we can educate people, the media first of all - those who pass the message out to the public, about how little real control we have over what is a living surface, punditry will only worsen, I fear."
Breaking our conversation, a bird flies into view and lands by the covers, soon joined by another. "They're a pair of oystercatchers," Vic enlightens me. "Ollie and Ozzie live around here and are regular visitors. A flock of them descended on us earlier in the season. They made quite a sight and sound with their red beaks and squealing. We also attract gulls, which roost here."
Beyond the square opposite us is the Don Robson stand. "He was a local man, cricket mad and started Durham on its professional career thirty years ago, taking the club from minor county to first class status," Vic explains.
Next to it, the Graveney Club, reflecting links to Durham of England's former chairman of selectors, David Graveney OBE, who played for the club between 1992 and 1994, captaining it for the first two of those years.
"England opening bat Colin Milburn grew up in County Durham and excelled in minor league cricket until he signed for Northamptonshire. The grassroots game remains strong in the North-east - Durham, Newcastle, Sunderland - and, over the winter, I try and meet the region's groundsmen to give them some of the benefits of my experience."
"Education is key in the sector. When I started out, my habit was to go to the boys down the road to seek help and advice, so I like to give back something in turn."
Transformation from grassroots to international level, with all its adverse media commentary, might have phased a less sanguine personality. Now turning 61, Vic sees the groundsmen's predicaments in the round.
I felt under no pressure at Uxbridge, where cricket was more recreational," he recalls. "The ground occasionally hosted Middlesex games and, in 2012, Nottinghamshire were guests. Despite appallingly wet weather, we managed to stage plenty of play
"I felt under no pressure at Uxbridge, where cricket was more recreational," he recalls. "The ground occasionally hosted Middlesex games and, in 2012, Nottinghamshire were guests. Despite appallingly wet weather, we managed to stage plenty of play."
The visiting team took note and, when Vic spotted an advertisement at year-end for the Trent Bridge deputy head groundsman's position, he thought, "What's the harm in sending in an application".
It paid off. "I spent two years at one of the most iconic grounds in cricket. My time there was really enjoyable - and I helped prepare a test match wicket, which proved to be the highlight of those years."
"When you compare the job at professional and recreational levels, the key difference I believe is that there is far more attention to detail at the higher end."
Although "very happy" at Trent Bridge, when opportunity called, Vic didn't hesitate. "The previous head groundsman had left Durham and they were seeking a replacement. I threw my hat in the ring and, after two interviews, landed the job."
"I'm no bluffer and believe that honesty has stood me in good stead. All you can do is the best possible job you can."
Relegated from Division One three seasons ago after a financial points penalty had been applied, Durham has moved on to the front foot this year. The dawn of 2019 saw the club ring the changes with director of cricket, ex Australian Test batsman Marcus North, head performance coach and former New Zealand international James Franklin and captain Cameron Bancroft (current Australian player) all taking up their new posts.
"I spent a year with James when he played for Nottingham, so we know how each other operates," says Vic.
Despite the international flavour of the appointments, "we are still very much a north-east club", he declares. "As a southerner, I've had to learn of the region's cricketing prowess. Durham bowler Mark Wood, who came up through the academy to play for England in the World Cup and Ben Stokes spent time with local supporters at our first T20 after England had won the trophy."
Coaches and captains always push the grounds team for home advantage. Groundsmen can be seen as grumpy old so and so's, stuck in our ways, who hate people walking on the grass, but we are team players
"Coaches and captains always push the grounds team for home advantage," he says. "Groundsmen can be seen as grumpy old so and so's, stuck in our ways, who hate people walking on the grass, but we are team players."
"If someone asks us to do something and we refuse, there's only one loser, the groundsmen. Whilst we are not 'yes' men, we all want to be the best we can. I'm certainly working with the new guys. James and I have a good relationship. We discuss the pitches and the coaches are open to our point of view. They appreciate that, in inclement weather, we have no way of achieving what they want."
The World Cup comes to the Riverside
So the day dawned when the Riverside hosted its first World Cup fixture as Sri Lanka played South Africa. The game was marked out for distinction when a swarm of bees invaded the ground. "Everyone hit the deck," recalls Vic. "The same thing had happened in South Africa a few years ago, so the team knew the best action to take."
When Sri Lanka played West Indies in the second Riverside fixture, pop star and celebrity Rihanna turned up to give her team her support. "Twitter went ballistic. She didn't sing, but was a vision in white," says Vic.
And, to round off the trio of Cup games, up popped a streaker to disrupt the England/New Zealand clash. "I heard the roar go up. He ran out on to the field wearing just a green frog helmet, kissed the pitch - The Kiwis were batting - with security in hot pursuit. They tried to throw a jacket over him but he dipped his shoulders and was away to roars from the crowd."
When 'Twickenham Streaker' Erica Roe made her topless appearance at the rugby venue in 1982, she caused a flurry of media interest, but a wholly different dynamic holds true today, says Vic.
"A huge sexual issue surrounds things like this. You have to think that cricket is a family experience and youngsters shouldn't be exposed to such actions."
"This was a serious crime." Even then, the Durham groundsmen "got it in the ear", Vic adds wryly. "Why didn't we run on to assist removal of him from the ground."
World Cup preparations
When the cricket World Cup came to town, the organisers requisitioned ten of Durham's twenty-four pitches on the Riverside square, seven for practice and three for competition, explains Vic. "Our fixtures dropped here, but we played some at South Northumberland CC at Gosforth, near Newcastle, where Marcus North hails from."
Each of the three Cup games was played on a different wicket, as the ICC instructed. "Everyone likes a fresh pitch to play on but, as I said at the time, 'you don't know how it's going to play', and that's part of the joy of it."
Everyone likes a fresh pitch to play on but, as I said at the time, 'you don't know how it's going to play', and that's part of the joy of it
The weather leading into the competition left the first pitch a little bit damper, softer and slower, he remembers. "The second pitch was a belter, delivering good scoring. The batsmen could swing and provided great entertainment."
Pitch 3 served up "the ideal characteristics for an international and the weather couldn't have been better but, as the pitch slowed, it became trickier for the batsmen. England won the toss and started like a train, then limped along".
"When I saw the fixtures, we worried. Ours was England's last group game. If they lost, we were out of the competition. As they say, a cricket pitch is only good if the home side wins."
"The pitches were prepared exactly the same as for any other game," Vic continues. "When the ICC pitch inspector visited us, his only instruction was 'prepare the best pitches you can'."
The Durham turfcare team started work on the three strips three weeks before the Sri Lanka/South Africa game. "We cut to 10mm height, soaking if necessary, scarified to thin the grass, with lots of verticutting and grooming using a 10-blade, 22in pedestrian mower with groomer reel to take out lateral growth," Vic explains.
Rolling followed to consolidate the top 100mm into a solid block to prepare for the pace bowlers. "Cracking is fine for the four-day game but not one-day matches," he says.
Focus shifted to light rolling, moving up to 3.5te to really compact the surface. "Once we'd consolidated the top four inches, we returned to the light roller. Anything below four-inch depth has no impact on ball bounce."
"During the last week before the game, we reduced the cut height to 8mm, although that's too high for many, I appreciate. The day before the game, off came the covers, we brushed the pitch, cut again to 8mm final height, marked up and gave the strip a last roll."
Getting down and dirty with Vic preparing the World Cup pitches was Simon Harvey, an old friend of his. "Simon, who works at Royal Melbourne Golf Club, came over from New Zealand to spend a season of work experience with me at Uxbridge in 2008," Vic recalls.
"When he heard that we were hosting the England/New Zealand game, he was on to me in a flash asking if he could help out and I bit his hand off."
"I loved working with him again for such a prestigious event. He's one of the best groundsmen I've ever worked with."
The World Cup games Riverside staged are "the highlight of my career," says Vic, "and it was a huge anti-climax afterwards. My peak had been preparing for the Test against Sri Lanka in 2016, but this surpassed that. I knew the Test match was booked for the Riverside and that's partly why I applied for the post."
Friday 28th June: South Africa beat Sri Lanka by nine wickets (match 35)
Monday 1st July: Sri Lanka beat West Indies by 23 runs (match 39)
Wednesday 3rd July: England beat New Zealand - England's final group game - by 119 runs (match 41)
Well-publicised problems over recruitment in groundcare have haunted Vic in his mission to build his dream team at the Riverside. "We've had no end of trouble finding people," he admits "I started the season down to three and, in March, I was looking to increase that to five, starting with filling a position with a slightly more experienced groundsman. We sourced someone, offered him the job but he declined.
The search continued. "In April, we returned to Ben Hall, a lad who'd worked here and wanted to come back. Then two more staff left. One had been with us a year and realised that it wasn't for him."
The girl who had been on the team for three years lost interest in the work. I had high hopes for her. She could certainly handle herself in the job, but had no interest in cricket. Women can do the job really well and are just as capable as men and I prefer to run a 'mixed' team when I can
"The girl who had been on the team for three years lost interest in the work. I had high hopes for her. She could certainly handle herself in the job, but had no interest in cricket. Women can do the job really well and are just as capable as men and I prefer to run a 'mixed' team when I can."
Some members are staying put. Ben Hall, 30, has worked at Riverside for ten years in two spells and tends the off-ground practice facility,
Mark Patterson, Vic's deputy, is in his early 40s and has clocked up twenty years for Durham. He focuses on the stadium's eight practice pitches (Vic caring for the sixteen other strips, including two hybrids installed for T20, junior and corporates).
May new-starter Tom Wilson, 25, has held various posts, including York City FC and a local golf course. "He's in charge of the outfield and is as keen as mustard to be a great groundsman. I can't speak too highly of him," says Vic.
Loving his part as a team player is volunteer Johnny Connolly. "He's a great lad, who doesn't let learning difficulties impede his work here twice a week."
The old issue of work/life balance is seldom far from Vic's thoughts. "A working week of eighty to ninety hours was common, but groundsmen can have another life now."
"We do enjoy more time off these days - 22 days, mostly in the off-season, and Bank Holidays - but still have to juggle the social needs of staff and the schedules. And Vic? "I rarely, if ever, take time off and lost holiday hours last year."
With a full-time team of four and two apprentices, "we're stronger now than we've ever been", Vic enthuses. He runs a tight ship but is relaxed about individual roles. "I don't believe in pigeon-holing people," he states. "If Tom's away for example, somebody else can jump on the machine to cut the outfield."
I give the team their heads and trust them to make their own decisions, but I put my name to everything. I'm a hands-on head who wants to keep on making cricket pitches
"I give the team their heads and trust them to make their own decisions, but I put my name to everything. I'm a hands-on head who wants to keep on making cricket pitches."
Vic strives to encourage lasting values and a sound work ethic, which can mean long hours when necessary. "Tensions can arise, of course, and we've had dissenters and disruptors. When team members come here straight from school or college it can take six months for them to see what's going on and how we do things here."
He's clear on the qualities he seeks in grounds professionals. "Passion for the industry, pride in your own work and the drive to get you out of bed, do the job and achieve."
His startling confession though is that "I only realised recently that these are qualities I have in my locker. Every day, I return home having done everything I can. We work with a living surface and I always have a reason for what we do and can justify those actions to whoever might question them."
The Riverside was left off the test venue list in 2017, with no five-day internationals scheduled for five years, due to the club's financial difficulties at the time.
Test matches and other internationals present opportunities to pull people in and boost ticket sales, as well as benefitting the local community
"Test matches and other internationals present opportunities to pull people in and boost ticket sales, as well as benefitting the local community," Vic notes.
"England's World Cup game against the Blackcaps here attracted a full house - the other two almost doing so," he adds.
The other formats are bolstering Durham's fortunes though. The advent of T20 sparked a need for ground improvements, with floodlights coming on stream in 2016, new to the Riverside surprisingly.
"Up here, it's light until midnight on the longest day, but illuminating the pitch for T20s is an exact science and we needed the floods to conform to ECB regulations."
Stadium expansion became necessary. "We're racking up T20 attendances," Vic reports, "from around 5,000 before, we attract a crowd of 7,000 - 8,000 now."
"Acquiring some of the temporary spectator seating used at Dornay Lakes for the London 2012 Olympics rowing event has boosted capacity by 5,000 to 15,500."
Cricket has extended its boundaries dramatically during Vic's time as a groundsman. "We had far fewer formats of the game to contend with back then. It's great to say you have hosted test matches, World Cup fixtures and T20s, but can the team prepare appropriate pitches day in day out for every demand? That's the challenge."
"The World Cup fixtures allowed us to prove that we can deliver and comments from managers of competing teams confirm that belief. We punched well above our weight when you consider the Riverside has no grow lights, no hover covers, no huge grounds team or pots of money."
The team delivered surfaces that were the equal of many venues and I'm exceptionally proud of that achievement. I was pleased and privileged to play a minor part in England's triumph at the third biggest global event. A great honour
"The team delivered surfaces that were the equal of many venues and I'm exceptionally proud of that achievement." A story of what can be achieved.
"I was pleased and privileged to play a minor part in England's triumph at the third biggest global event. A great honour."
"At Uxbridge, I sprayed pesticides as a prevention, not a treatment, for leatherjackets or worms every autumn. Now, I'm learning to live with them. Casts are not a great help as they can act as a seedbed for weeds but, on the positive side, worms aerate the ground and we brush in the casts."
The clay soil can cause drainage issues. The Riverside's outfield was relayed a decade ago to ease percolation. "The top four inches are mainly sand and drain easily," Vic reveals. "When needed, we apply the Blotter round the edges. As a floodplain for the river Wear, the ground has suffered, but that was before my time."
Base feed of slow release granular fertiliser is applied across the outfield in March and October, topped up monthly with a tank-mixed spray of liquid iron, soluble nitrogen - occasionally seaweed - and growth regulator.
"The slow-release feed lasts up to six months, kicking in when temperatures rise but staying locked if colder. In winter, iron-based liquid feeds top up nutrient levels."
Keeping the outfield irrigated are eighty computer-programmed pop-up sprinklers, which give the ground complete cover
From our vantage point overlooking the ground, signs of fairy rings dot the outfield. "There are plenty about, but you can spend so much trying to rid the sward of them and still fail," Vic admits.
He's one to keep the work in-house whenever possible. "Keith Exton [who set up on his own after leaving the SWALEC] is the only contractor I use for stadium work, mainly for Terra Spiking and Verti-Draining, whilst another local contractor, Andy Pierson, cuts the nursery ground."
"End of season renovations we prefer to do ourselves as we complete the work when the weather is right. In October, we're busy preparing for winter as seed germination stops below 8OC."
"We cut all the grass off the square, scarifying in five directions and creating a seed bed by placing seed into the scarifier grooves, brushing then rolling and topdressing with Ongar loam. Germination sheets are laid over; then we go out every day looking for green shoots!"
I called in a supplier to take soil samples and, from the results, we prepared a fertilisation programme. I'm old school and believe reps are honest in what they tell me - until they cross a line, then I never use them again
Vic remembers his first job on his first day at the club. "I called in a supplier to take soil samples and, from the results, we prepared a fertilisation programme. I'm old school and believe reps are honest in what they tell me - until they cross a line, then I never use them again."
After trialling various seed mixes, Vic found Johnsons J Premier Wicket a good fit. "It establishes quickly and germinates well in, what is, our colder climate. The east coast is fairly dry and can be windy - mainly south-westerlies in summer. Winds from the north-east can bring mist and drizzle all day, whereas the Pennines protect us from the rain coming from the north-west."
"We're 5 to 6% colder than the Midlands and a good 10% chillier than the south-east, though thankfully far drier than Manchester and Cardiff."
Vic's wealth of weather data leads on to a critical finding. "The Riverside has lost less Test Match play due to rain than any other UK venue," he states proudly.
Behind the Riverside lies the Nursery Ground, the base for women's academy cricket. Sports contractor CLS Sports installed a 160ft grass training net facility in May 2018, which comes online next year to add to the six-strip square and the three synthetic pitches Total Turf laid.
"CLS had laid the ground and seeded, then we had no rain for four months but the grass still germinated," Vic recalls.
"Women's cricket is growing a lot stronger," says Vic, "and the club is keen to develop it further here to foster the next generation of international players. Junior sides up to U15s play at the nursery ground, which hosts the Ladies Super 4, six-a-side round robin event.
"Women cause far less damage to the pitches than men," he continues. "They are not so heavy footed. Boundaries are a little shorter."
The club also enjoys strong ties with Durham University to the south. "The club works closely with them. Players can access their gym and we use their Racecourse ground when needed, whilst aspiring student cricketers have access to the Riverside where the club assist them with training. The collaboration is a north-east tradition stretching back in time."
One of the top six varsity grounds in the country, the university's Racecourse venue stages the season curtain-raiser with Durham Cricket. "The three-day opener is usually a close game and a chance to talent spot youngsters," Vic notes.
Self-effacing to the end, Vic cannot avoid the truth that he is an industry winner - lifting The Alex R Millar/Ransomes/DLF Johnsons Groundsman of the Year 2017; the first such award to a cricket grounds professional.
"I believe I won the accolade for my work in training local groundsmen, not because I was the best in the business or cut the straightest grass. Being open and helpful for
colleagues matters to me. I'd hoped we'd win the cricket grounds team of the year award as we had come runners-up the previous year. After all, it's a team game, in more ways than one."
Vic's diary, which he's written religiously over the last fifteen years, should make riveting reading if it ever materialises as his memoirs.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 3320 tractor
John Deere 670 tractor
John Deere 2653B triple mower
Allett Regal 36" cylinder mower
Ransomes Matador 24" cylinder mower
Dennis FT510 20" cylinder mower
Dennis G760 30" cylinder mowers x 2
Lloyds Paladin 20" cylinder mower
Ransomes Auto Certes 20" cylinder mower
Viking 18" rotary mower
Etesia 18" rotary mower
Sisis Rotorake 600
Sisis Auto Rotorake
Wiedenmann Terra Spike XP
Sisis Dimple Seeder
Bomag road roller
CMS Super Blotter
Stihl FS 91 R brushcutter
Tractor mounted sprayer (make unknown!)