It's September, and the end of another long hard cricket season is drawing near. The last pitch has been prepared and rolling can become a distant memory until next spring. It's been such a long demanding year and now we are all dreading the 'R' word ...
What has been bugging the country all through 2010, what single thing is foremost in all cricket groundsmen's minds as they near the end of another season of hard slog? The 'R' word, that's what ...
What are we talking about? Recession? No, we mean Renovation!
Looking after a cricket square is a many splendoured occupation for the 'recreational' groundsman. Yes, it's okay for the 'big boys' to open their sheds to reveal a vast range of gleaming machinery, all ready to do the many tasks required to keep their squares in tip top shape, but what about the after work and spare time brigade working on a wing and a prayer with equipment kept together by a rubber band and various cable ties?
There is a tried and tested menu of essentials for end of season club cricket renovations - scarification, overseeding, topdressing and fertilising.
However, do these narrow parameters address all of the issues satisfactorily? They are many and can be classified in the following categories:
• Poor levels
• Bare areas
• Saddles/ raised ends
• Poor fertility
Quite a daunting variety, I'm sure you'll agree. With financial pressure and restraints coming from all quarters, what are the consequences of 'ignoring' end of season renovations?
As with all good campaigns, we need to set out with an accurate 'roadmap' in order to plot our path to addressing all of the issues. So, how can we define our starting point?
Each and every cricket square is different, so an audit needs to be made by every individual club and groundsman around the country. If it is not possible for the club in question to make a sufficiently detailed assessment, then help is always at hand in the form of the various County Boards. The County Pitch Inspector can be commissioned to complete a PQS (Performance Quality Standards) test at the club and produce a detailed report on what is necessary to address the issues from which that particular club suffers.
The ECB and the IOG have combined to implement this form of testing across the Premier Leagues in the country, and their findings and benefits are already being enjoyed in several counties.
However, not every club is in the position to be able to invest in the cost of PQS testing, so how can the grounds manager carry out his or her own assessment?
Let's look at the areas we need to assess:
This is broken down into length of herbage, bare areas (total area and diameter of any individual bare area), total ground cover, grass species, both desirable and non-desirable, weeds (whether large or small leaved), moss algae and lichen.
Quite a list then, but all quantifiable by the keen amateur, given enough time.
Pests and Diseases
Fairly self explanatory, covering diseases, earthworms and pests. Again, achievable for the keen amateur with a keen eye and access to internet search engines.
If you have a core sampler, then use it to take cores and assess how your profile is made up. If you don't have one, then get one immediately - it is the most essential part of the cricket ground manager's arsenal outside of his regular preparation equipment.
We need to assess root depth, depth of thatch (if there is any present), depth of appropriate medium in the rootzone (i.e. how much genuine clay loam you have), rootzone particles/ clay content and soil strength.
Again, the majority of these are visual. Clearly, an assessment of clay content and soil strength is only achievable accurately via a laboratory test, but the method of Motty testing can be done in house and give you a very strong idea of the quality, or otherwise, of your medium.
So, now we have all of the relevant information to hand, what is the next step?
From your PQS findings, or your own investigations, you will now have a very good idea of the make up of your cricket square. Even if you don't choose to go down this particular root, and trust the evidence of your own eyes, you know the issues you need to address:
• Poor grass coverage - Clearly a 'Chicken and Egg' situation here. If we find that our grass cover is unsatisfactory, then this is a sympton created by a cause. So, what has caused it? Identify the issue(s) and then address them
• Incomplete repairs to ends
• Poor germination
• Incorrect grass seed used
• Insufficient feeding of the sward
• Disease/unsatisfactory disease control
Hopefully, you won't have all of these, in fact you may not have any but, if you are aware of the issues, then you can address them by improving your sward management.
Just because one particular mix of rye grass cultivars worked for you ten years ago, doesn't mean that other superior blends haven't been developed in the meantime - look into them, try them if you get the opportunity and keep an open mind.
Let's look in more detail -
Pests and Diseases
Yes, it's self explanatory, but experience is a great teacher and, sometimes, by suffering the slings and arrows of various pests and diseases, whilst not particularly palatable, can give you the knowledge to cope with them and try to avoid them in the future. Use a negative as a positive, and learn from the experience and vow to avoid it happening again in the future.
Possibly the most important aspect for the cricket grounds manager. Whatever is going on below the surface almost always dictates what goes on at surface level - that's a truism you come to appreciate in the world of cricket.
Root depth is clearly an indication of the health of your grass plants, and a guide to their strength as well. Shallow rooted Poa annua (annual meadow grass) will not withstand the rigours of cricket's harsh preparation regime, but it's an ever present in all but the very best profiles and, of course, can be blown in from anywhere.
So, while it's not unavoidable, it can be managed during the season and removed at the season's end through vigorous scarification, or even more extreme actions such as treatment with a total herbicide and reseeding of the area. Even then, Poa annua will somehow find its way in, possibly carried in by unwelcome breezes or sitting as a seed bank deep in your profile - it's the real Millwall of grass species, no one likes it, but it doesn't care!
Our next bug bear is possibly the most influential aspect in any cricket profile, and that is the issue of thatch.
We are all likely to get it to a greater or lesser extent as invasive species, such as our friend AMG Millwall, will inevitably get in there somewhere and create some thatch. Clippings will go astray and cause some more. Whatever is causing it, we need to address it!
Scarification can be carried out in many guises. There are pedestrian scarifiers of varying effectiveness, and tractor mounted scarifiers that will decimate your surface and take a very great deal out in their wake.
Whichever form is available to you, it is important that you make prudent use of it and remove this fibrous mass from your profile, and create a clean surface with excellent grooves, which might have been ready made for creating new growth for the following season.
By scarifying in a variety of different directions we can ensure that all bases are covered by removing as much thatch as possible, and then creating an excellent seed bed for new growth.
Don't be alarmed by the severity of such scarification, as the old maxim 'you have to be cruel to be kind' is entirely appropriate in this instance. By ripping out all of the weak growth and thatch present in your square you will be giving yourself the opportunity to increase the percentage of strong new growth and improve the quality of your surface.
Okay, so we know what we have, how do we go about improving it?
We are armed with all the information we need and we know which particular issues are the ones we need to address. All we need now are the resources to do it.
If you plan to go down the DIY route then, obviously, most clubs don't have all of the equipment necessary to do a successful renovation. For a small joining fee, however, your friendly local County Groundsman's Association does have the equipment. So, if you need to hire, get in touch with them first, and early, to avoid disappointment.
If the equipment is already booked out to all of those forward thinking clubs who booked it up at the start of the season, then look to hire companies to get the relevant equipment, and/or get some competitive quotes in from contractors.
Hire companies can be both excellent and awful. You will need to take a good look at any equipment you are going to hire, or take a trained colleague along to see that the blades on the scarifier, for example, are going to do the job you require - the same with any other equipment you need to use.
Contractors are also an excellent option. They don't all drive around in untaxed vans and disappear with your cheque before the job's done! Talk to other clubs in your area and see who they have used, and compare experiences, there really are some good ones out there. You can always ask to see their previous work, even inspect their machinery and credentials, then you will feel far happier spending your club's funds.
When it comes to loam, seed and fertiliser, make the same investigations as you would do for a contractor. There are many sources for all of these products out there (including, of course, the Pitchcare shop!), so get quality and value for your money, just the same as if you were comparing Curry's and Tesco's for the latest plasma 52" TV you bought for watching the Test Match.
We are a bit short of funds this year, so what if I don't renovate?
There is only one answer to this question. No, no, no, no and no!
If one of your committee, chairman or president sidles up to you in the bar and buys you a beer, then beware, he may be about to ask you the same question.
And how can you insist upon doing 'proper' end of season renovations? You explain the consequences of not renovating, that is what you do.
By having a PQS assessment done, or completing one yourself, you are armed with the issues that bedevil your square. If you find that you have thatch lurking in the upper reaches of your profile, remind your friendly committee how they are always demanding more pace and bounce.
With 10-20mm of fibrous dead matter lurking just under the surface, you can carry out as much pre-season rolling as you like (clearly you will only do as much as the Cranfield Report suggests!), and the profile will simply 'spring back' to its former state with the mattress effect that thatch has on a square.
The long desired pace and bounce will quickly become pitch and roll or, alternatively, it might create a spongy unsatisfactory surface that will allow the ball to bite into it and bounce vertically - a pretty scarey possibility, especially in this age of 'where there's blame, there's a claim'.
Seeing any player escorted from the field clutching their mouth, with blood dripping through their fingers, is an experience none of us wants to experience.
Also, leaving bare areas is as good as sending out an invitation to different weed species to invade and colonise your square. Plantains on a length is a similarly scarey notion, whilst dandelions and daisies love to have space to breathe and deny grass species the opportunity to grow.
So, there we have it.
Insist on good renovation practice and you will reap the benefits. Buy the best seed you can afford. It is, after all, the essence of what we are trying to create, and, by saving a tenner on grass seed, how much extra expense will you be creating by having to do extra hours of work on the square?
Make sure you have compatible loam, and then work it into the surface during renovations. Don't just let it sit on top, like a thin film, waiting to explode once a cricket ball lands on it next April.
Look carefully at the kinds of feed you use. Don't go for the so called miracle cures, unless you can see the results of their use on other, similar surfaces. Spend your club's money as if it were your own, it's taken an awful long time to raise those funds and will be equally as difficult next year.
So, good luck with all of your end of season work. By assessing the issues carefully, and addressing them efficiently in the autumn, it is possible to save many, many hours of toil the following year. Not only does it save time, but it helps create a noticably improved square that your fellow club members will appreciate for months and years to come.
Phil Frost gives us his views on end of season renovations
All clubs have their own methods and techniques for renovating their square, most often dictated by budgets and resources and, when asked to write this article, I have to be careful, especially in the current financial climate. But, end of season maintenance is the most important task carried out and needs to be done to a good standard. If not, the results can end up more expensive to repair than the cost cutting.
End of season renovations need to start as quickly as possible. Soil, seed, fertiliser and equipment all need to be organised well in advance to catch that late summer heat in the soil, which will affect germination rate greatly.
The first task undertaken is to cut and trim the square with a cylinder mower, boxing off the clippings. I am not a groundsman who likes dealing in heights of cut, this is usually governed by how much grass is on the square and how thick it is, but don't be afraid to shave it!
After the cut, heavy scarification begins, starting horizontally, then two diagonal directions and, finally, in the direction of play. All debris is thoroughly cleared on every pass - this is very important. Don't be afraid to be brutal with the square. Different pitch preparation techniques cause thatch and debris build up over the season, and this has to be removed properly. If not, the consequences are expensive, either by koroing or fraise mowing and, in extreme cases, dug up and relaid. Not a clever option in the current economic climate.
Don't be afraid. I have seen many groundsmen over the years who are afraid to be heavy handed with the scarifier. Don't worry, it will recover.
Identifying the best grass seed is very important. I have always believed you can mask inferior soil with a good covering of grass. It can take years to find the right seed for your square. For many years at Taunton, I used 100% Elica, a dwarf perennial rye grass, and it worked a treat. But, in the late 90s, it became unavailable and it took many years to find something half as good to replace it, and I believe I never did!
So, finding the right seed for you is paramount. Most grounds use a mixture of rye grasses. There are many good ones on the market. I used an Evita/Margueretta mix, which gave me satisfactory results.
The seed should, ideally, be drilled by machine - the SISIS Autoseeder is one machine I particularly like. It has performed brilliantly on most of the squares I have done, but most clubs don't have access to a machine like this. So, a sarrell spiker will work but, as a last resort, overseeding by hand is okay, especially if the scarification has been brutal enough!
Topdressing soils should be chosen by results during the season. It is wonderful to use native soils, but this is rarely possibly. So, soils need careful consideration regarding performance of the surface - grass cover, recovery rates and lack of bounce.
If there is to be a change in soils, effort has to be made to marry the soils together to avoid layering. Before starting the topdressing, I have applied a light dressing of pre-seed fertiliser low in nitrogen, just to give the seed a little lift, but this can be expensive for many clubs.
Each pitch will require between 8-12 bags of soil throughout the whole pitch (based on a 10ft strip). Don't just topdress the ends, this is false economy and just ruins the levels of your square.
The best way to apply topsoil, in my opinion, is by hand, with a wheelbarrow, shovel and, most importantly, a Tru-Lute. You can feel the high and low spots and adjust accordingly. There is a knack to this process, but you will soon get the hang of it. Ideally, do it in two lines, four feet apart, with someone carefully spreading the dry topdressing - it sounds time consuming, but is well worth the extra effort.
The topsoil will redress what the summer playing season has taken out of your square. With more and more games played every year, it makes the process more and more important.
The middle stumps should be lightly marked and pivot points kept for next season.
When the process is finished, the best thing is to stay off the area - rope it off and be very watchful for disease.
If it is an exceptionally dry autumn, you might need to water, but this should be a last resort. If it is done, a fine rose spray should be used.
Sometimes, as time goes by, you can identify low spots and sparse ends. These can be lightly dressed and overseeded.
I have never liked germination sheets at this time of the year, but they can be useful, especially if topdressing has been done very late.
When the square is ready to cut I would recommend a Flymo hover mower that collects, or a light box mower which would push the grass down and encourage tillering and the thickening of the sward. The height of cut should be no lower than 12mm.
Always try to remove heavy dew, and be very watchful for diseases as these can then be easily dealt with by quick identification and treatment.
I know many groundsmen don't like to aerate, and I was one of them! I used to try and vertidrain every four or five years, but this is not suitable for many squares. I now suggest that clubs try and aerate with needle tines in November, December or January (no later). Hollow tining is another option, especially if soils are being changed, but it is not something I would readily do as it needs careful panning.
Although cricket groundsmanship is not an exact science, there are many drawbacks if mistakes are made with end of season renovations. It is the most important task carried out to the square and sets the tone for pitch performance during the next season. It requires good homework and planning, and the rewards are enormous and very satisfying.
Too many people, in decision making situations, make knee-jerk reactions to their squares. Without any planning and a lot of homework, that will be a recipe for disaster.
The Pitfalls - a practical view
ECB Pitch Advisor for Hampshire, Chris Westwood, outlines the pitfalls of incorrect end of season maintenance
1) Not planning ahead
2) Not examining the square to determine the conditions that currently exist
3) Not having sufficient expertise available - or failing to seek advice
4) Not ordering materials in time
5) Not arranging a suitable contractor in sufficient time to coincide with your programme, or, if 'in house', not arranging for sufficient members to be available
6) Not ensuring all the equipment required is in good working order
7) Not commencing as soon as the playing season is over
8) Not continuing to monitor the square and maintain it during the winter months
The autumn repair and renovation of the square, combined with ongoing regular examination and routine winter maintenance, will be a major factor in how the square and pitches perform in the following cricket season.
It is important to plan ahead, have specific dates for the work (with contingency plans in case of inclement weather conditions) and programme the operations to suit the resources available.
Examination of the current condition of the square will indicate any initial problems, such as weed infestation, pest damage and disease. All of which can be treated, controlled and monitored as part of the end of season maintenance regime.
Core samples, taken from the square in advance, will establish the on-site conditions, show the level of thatch/fibre that has built up throughout the season, and the current root development.
Identifying the levels of thatch/fibre at the surface at an early stage will determine the depth of scarification required, and the type of equipment necessary to clean the surface.
Root development is important for the health of the grass plant and, again, inspection of the core will provide a guide to the requirement/frequency/type of aeration and equipment required throughout the autumn and early winter months.
If in doubt, ask! Expertise and advice is available through the ECB appointed County Pitch Advisors and Pitchcare and IOG courses, specific to the maintenance of cricket facilities.
Advice can save time and money, and ultimately improve the facility.
Once the requirements are known, materials should be ordered to ensure that the supplier has sufficient time to resource these and deliver to suit your programme. Early orders may attract discounts from some suppliers, and combining with other clubs for bulk purchase may also have financial benefits.
Autumn is a busy time for specialist contractors and it is, therefore, vital to book them well in advance to avoid delays and minimise the affect of our climate.
Ensure that the contractor is aware of your requirements by providing a specification of the work to be completed. Particular attention should be paid to the depth of scarification, and ensure that the contractor can (and will) meet your requirements.
Some contractors apply the topdressing, and use a drag mat for spreading it. Whilst this provides a good finish, the drag mat follows the existing conditions and, therefore, the use of a lute is highly recommended.
Many clubs rely on their own members and volunteer groundsmen to complete the end-of-season maintenance, and it is important that the machinery is ready for use and the work is completed correctly - this is where advice and attendance at appropriate courses prove advantageous.
Incorrect end-of-season maintenance is not only a waste of time, resource and finance but, ultimately, may lead to major problems in the future.
Weather conditions at the end of the cricket season are variable. Therefore, work should commence as soon as the playing season has finished. This is vitally important to ensure that the new seed has sufficient time to germinate and the topdressing to key into the surface.
Aftercare is also important throughout the autumn and winter months, prior to the commencement of the spring/summer preparation programme.
The square should be brushed or swished on a regular basis, the grass cut when conditions allow, and maintained at a height of 20/25mm until the spring.
As a guide, the end of season, autumn maintenance will include the following elements:
• Repairs to the ends and other worn areas
• Thorough scarification to remove the build up of thatch at the surface
• Overseeding with a good quality seed mix to improve the sward
• The application of an appropriate fertiliser to replace lost nutrients
• The application of an appropriate fungicide to control disease
• Topdressing with a good quality cricket wicket dressing, compatible with the existing soil, worked into the surface using a lute
• Aeration to relieve compaction, improve root development and transfer the moisture and nutrients down into the soil base. In addition. the regular use of a sarrel spiker over the entire square will prove beneficial in allowing surface water to penetrate more quickly into the surface
• Regularly brush or swish the square to remove the dew
• Cut the grass, with a suitable sharp mower, when required to maintain an even height to the sward of 20/25mm
The above list should be regarded as a guide only. The full extent of operations will depend on the individual requirements of the particular facility being maintained.
ECB Pitch Advisor for Warwickshire, Geoff Calcott, on the perils of not scarifying
On my travels around cricket grounds in my home county of Warwickshire, whether it be as part of the ECB funded PQS scheme,in conjunction with the local Cotswold Hills League, or as part of the Warkwickshire Groundsman Association PQS scheme, it soon became obvious that there were clubs whose cricket squares had received little or no attention in the crucial autumnal period.
The major problem, as is nearly always the case, was one of thatch and buried fibre, often many millimetres thick, which, of course, is usually the sign of little or no deep scarification having taken place at the end of the playing season.
When one considers that, on average, only 70% of grass clippings actually go into the box, there will always be thatch - it's a fact of life. Regular verticutting and power brushing throughout the playing season will help reduce the thatch content, but the autumn period is absolutely crucial in controlling what was missed.
I would recommend that a soil profile is taken to a depth of say 125/150mm to find the depth of thatch/fibre and, depending on the findings, deep scarify vigorously in three or four directions, using heavy duty scarifiers such as the Graden or Sisis to the depth of the offending layer.
More often than not, cricket clubs tend either to ignore the thatch problem or simply are not vigorous enough in their approach. Don't forget, this will have to be done every season.
In cases where clubs have not dealt with this problem (and there are many), the costs of recovering the square to an acceptable level are going to be high, particularly if the last resort is to employ the use of a Koro Field Topmaker.