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When Rafe Kelly takes the field at Westgate-on-Sea Cricket Club on 2 May, he'll preside over the first fixture of the season.
Rafe Kelly, groundsman and umpire
One of the wettest and windiest winters on record will be behind him, enough to challenge the hardiest of salaried grounds professionals, let alone a volunteer one such as Rafe.
Westgate's 'dynamic duo' grounds team of Rafe and Gary Sandwell have their work cut out at the best of times, without the trauma of turbulent weather.
As a qualified umpire, however, Rafe can peer down at all the good work the two of them have put into creating a cricket square that'll stand up to a packed fixtures calendar.
"I'm excited about the 2020 season," declares Rafe. "The club is welcoming a fresh influx of players, all under thirty years old, and that bodes well for our future."
Westgate-on-Sea is run wholly by volunteers - a fact of life for much of the grassroots game. "To run a cricket club is not cheap," says Rafe, "and to take up the sport sets you back a fair bit - £150 for a decent bat, £50 for pads and gloves and the same for a helmet."
Competing in the Kent Regional Cricket League, Westgate-on-Sea enjoyed a successful 2019 season - its first XI finishing third. Now as the renamed Premier (East) division (after winter restructuring by the KRCL) starts the 2020 programme, Westgate is confident knowing it commands the playing strength and numbers to thrive in the sometimes sorry state of grassroots cricket.
"Most people think doing the ground is easy, but I can tell you hand on heart that it's far from it," states Rafe, who points the finger at the game itself for making his task tricky.
Gary Sandwell with 'extremely handy' ECB covers
"The biggest problem with cricket is the sheer amount of it nowadays. On Saturdays we start at 1.30pm usually, rarely finishing before 7.00pm. Then there are the T20 fixtures as they really carve up the wicket - too much in my view."
Sundays will see Rafe and Gary repairing the strip played on the previous day - one of nine on the square - then leaving it to recover for at least a month.
"If you add together the nine first XI and nine second XI home games, we have to prepare each strip at least twice for a fixture, and that's not easy," Rafe continues.
"We'll spend up to an hour and three-quarters repairing a single strip, mainly the holes and run-up through wear and tear created by the batsmen and bowlers."
"After raking up the loose turf, we sweep it up and vacuum off, before sowing new seed, with fresh loam. Next day, we use our 1.5 tonne Poweroll, leave the strip for one to two days then water, water and water, hosing it from the pipe at the edge of the square."
Rafe breaks off for a moment to recall the old days. "Westgate used to tour the region for a week, taking in Bexhill, Bournemouth, Brighton and Eastbourne. The team consisted mainly of the older players, with fewer family commitments, but we stopped it two years ago as numbers had fallen away."
Formerly in the Kent League, with its 50-over fixtures, Westgate is "keeping its head above water" says Rafe. "We're ranked among the top three clubs in the area, behind Sandwich and Broadstairs."
"I was never much of a player," he adds. "I bowled, but made up the numbers really and gave up the game at thirty-two as I wanted to be an umpire." He gained his ECB ACO qualification thirty years ago and now, at sixty-eight, is still enjoying his passion.
Cricket being played at Westgate
In that time he must have had one or two memorable moments. "Yes, one in particular," he laughs. "I was positioned at square leg. The batsman hit the ball in my direction and I caught it one handed without thinking. Every fielder and both batsmen looked at me in astonishment. I dropped the ball like a hot brick and shouted 'dead ball'. Did I feel an idiot? I wished the ground could have swallowed me up."
Back to the present, he applauds all the good work his colleagues put in to raise much-needed funds. "The fathers versus coaches and kiddies game is a highpoint for me," he states. "Last year, Lee [Martin, more about him later] who runs the junior coaching, wrote to clubs and shops and organised a raffle and auction, raising £2,500. The event attracts parents, juniors and other local people."
Back to the square. Whether players are young or old, Rafe leaves them in no doubt about his views on them trespassing on his hallowed turf, after spending so much of his time preparing it.
"Cricket is supposed to be a gentleman's game, but these days the wickets take a right pounding. It's not wilful damage I'm sure, but as an umpire - and a groundsman - I feel obliged to tell them to keep off the pitch. I'm just being practical I suppose, but I have to say it."
Rafe took over as head groundsman from Gary Sandwell (61), who had undertaken the task for many years. "You don't receive many offers of help preparing the square and I decided to ask Gary if I could assist him. He nearly bit my hand off. Without Gary, I'd be lost. He's shown me everything from day one and has a 'Bible' going back to the year dot, which points the way on maintaining the square."
Perhaps the two were destined to work together as, in past lives, they had pursued careers in similar sectors. "I worked as a print finisher for twenty-five years at Sericol in Broadstairs, the largest ink making company in the world," says Rafe. "Gary worked at a printers in Margate."
Former player Andy Seal mucks in too, marking out the strips by hand on a Friday evening. "It just makes my task a little bit easier," Rafe remarks.
Another of the helpers, Andy Winch (left), with Gary Sandwell
The operational arrangement at Westgate is complicated but works well. Kent County Council owns the land on which St Saviour's School stands. Westgate hire the square from the school and maintain it for both club and school to use. Maintaining the outfield is St Saviour's responsibility, and they bring in their own contractor to mow it.
"The outfield could do with a 5 tonne roll," Rafe says. "It was fertilised several years ago, but the school has to prioritise funds and the field takes a bit of a back seat. That said, we have a really good working relationship with the head and deputy who organise a cutting if we request it. Football, rounders and athletics are all played on it, plus the sports day events."
Rafe and Gary start work on the square as early as December, cutting it with one of the pedestrian mowers and checking for any disease patches, which they treat with fungicide whilst continuing to brush regularly.
"Gary cut the square again in February and it's beginning to look good. Fortunately, we stand on chalky ground so the square and outfield drain quickly, so we may not have suffered as much as many other clubs have with the excessively wet winter."
March is the month when Rafe hopes the weather has been fine enough for them to begin pre-season preparation. "We cut the square again, scarifying both ways, then cut again, picking up all the debris that scarifying has brought out."
"Avoiding too heavy a scarification is important as we are still in the early stages of preparation so need to take care not to overdo the operation."
In April, after ensuring the square has been set out correctly, rolling is a key task and needs to be done both ways, Rafe explains.
"A spring fertiliser is sprayed on the square this month and we are cutting, scarifying and rolling full on now until our first fixture in early May."
"Andy marks out the strip we are going to use for the first fixture, then we cut, scarify cut again and roll." Westgate bought their roll-on covers from the ECB when the Board was running a special offer. "We paid around £1,500 for them and they come in extremely handy," says Rafe.
"Gary and I begin preparing for the Saturday fixture on Thursday. If rain is forecast, on go the covers. They make the strip sweat though, so we take them off if there has been no rain. After cutting the square on the Friday, we roll them on ready for the game, removing them at least forty minutes before the start, then run the mower over the strip."
"This is what I love about the job. You never can really tell how a strip's going to perform. It's a brilliant feeling. Our wickets are a batsman's paradise. If a team fail to score over 200, they won't win."
The day after the game, Westgate volunteers "club together" to repair the strip that was in play on the Saturday. "If we need to use it again during the season, we know it's in good shape to bring into play again," Rafe reports.
"Not all clubs do this, but we find it saves time and hopefully money at the end of the season."
Sunday's duties include running the mower over the square to pick up loose grass, then hand-raking to make grooves ready for applying seed and loam before watering. "On the Monday, when the repairs have hopefully compacted, I'll roll lightly and carry on watering. Germination usually occurs after two or three days." Fertiliser goes down when school's out, adds Rafe - at Easter and in the autumn at the end of half-term.
"After the last fixture, we mow the whole square with the strip mower, seed the areas that need it and lay Binder Ongar loam."
Although the practice nets are well used, the synthetic strip was dug out of the square ten years ago, "because it was dangerous" recalls Rafe. "I was club chairman at the time and made sure we replaced it with a new natural grass pitch."
Have times changed at Westgate since then? "As a small club, money is always tight. We use eighty bags of loam a year so the cost mounts up, what with fertiliser, plant protection products and grass seed as the main outlays."
Rafe's umpiring duties will have to end when he turns seventy. "Those are the rules, but I'll carry on with the groundcare as long I can. It's a big commitment, at least fourteen hours a week in summer for me alone, and at least three hours on a Friday afternoon in season - rolling's the biggest job."
Juniors rising through the ranks
Lee Martin runs the thriving juniors section: "Bringing forward young talent is vital to a club like ours," he says, "as, over the years, the participation in cricket has dropped dramatically. In our locality alone, which covers Thanet, including Margate and Broadstairs, only four clubs now run juniors sections, compared with nine, years ago. The trick is to find volunteers willing to give up their time to commit to coaching. It's difficult."
To address the issue of declining membership, the committee decided that it was time to reverse the terminal trend and invest in youth.
"I came on board as Youth Development Officer/Coach in May 2016," Lee continues, "was trained up and started in the post in May 2016, in charge of ten children."
"We gained the appropriate safeguarding certificates to allow the club to coach juniors and I took an eight-week coaching course to gain my Level 2 certificate with the ECB at Kent County Cricket."
"The project has grown since then and, last season, we ran the programme with more than fifty junior members attending some Sunday morning sessions, which we run from 9.30 to 11.00am, late April to early September. The U9s are the biggest group. The parents are great too and love to get involved. They field a team against the coaches on August Bank Holiday afternoon, following a juniors match in the morning."
"There are added benefits," says Lee. "Often, the club signs up a parent, who suddenly wants to resume playing, and that's all good for our future."
"The biggest hit for me is seeing the kids faces when they are learning something new and are getting off their computers and playing outdoors."
The success of the coaching programme demands more than a single coach and Westgate is welcoming Natalie O'Connell, another Level 2 coach, this season. "That makes three Level 2 coaches in total," Lee reports. "Our first XI captain, Scott Tift, has been a Level 2 qualified coach for a number of years."
Westgate runs most if its coaching programme on the outfield and in the practice nets, occasionally using the square.
"The school fits in really well with our coaching and fixtures and bring the contractor in if we request the outfield to be cut."
This close working relationship has been fostered despite major upheavals for both parties. "Kent Council built the present school in the late 1990s, and we had to move off the square for three seasons on to council pitches. Rafe and Gary do a great job for us and, for the last three years, we've run ECB All-Star Cricket for 5 to 8 year-olds."
Although Lee cannot play at the moment - he awaits a knee reconstruction operation after snapping his anterior cruciate and medial ligaments - he vows to keep up his coaching commitment.
"You can't let the kids, or the parents, down and, as long as they keep coming to the club to learn the game, we have to deliver for them - having juniors coming though the ranks is vital to the game we all love."
The pull-through from junior cricket to the main game is healthy. "Six of our youth squad have moved up to the adult level."
Westgate-on-Sea CC's future is looking brighter than some of its neighbouring clubs, which have either merged or disappeared. "We can field a first and second XI on Saturdays," says Lee, "plus a Sunday team, with juniors fixtures planned to be introduced this season."
Clearly, the club runs to a highly community-based model, with players devoting time to running the club as well as turning out for the team. Club Secretary James Hogg began his cricketing career here fifteen years ago, at the age of eleven. Lee himself started at just nine, developing into Westgate's opening bowler. He celebrated his 40th birthday playing alongside his 10-year-old son Lewis, who's also on the coaching programme.
The club began life as a church side in 1927, when there were two clubs in the village - one Westgate, the other the St Saviour's Club.
Westgate disbanded in 1937, with St Saviour's renaming themselves Westgate-on-Sea Cricket Club at their AGM that March.
"Our annual subscription was just 5 shillings and 6 pence (27.5p in new money)" states former club chairman and current treasurer Martin Arnold.
In 1951, the club obtained exclusive use of Hawtrey's Field in Westgate, renting the ground from Kent County Council.
In 1954, Westgate set an example to other clubs by making their own efforts to secure better playing pitches and improved facilities. "It reached a milestone by opening its pavilion, costing the club £200," Martin notes.
"This and pitch improvements made Hawtrey's Field a far more attractive playing proposition than it had been a few seasons' earlier."
"We've played at the site ever since, gradually improving the facilities until, in 2003, we built a new pavilion, including changing room, showers, community area and bar."
Catastrophe descended on Westgate on 1st September 2012 when fire gutted the pavilion. "We had to rebuild it from the ground up," recalls Martin, "but we recovered from the setback and continue to thrive."