It’s hard to imagine someone not only working for free but also helping paying for the kit and equipment needed.But at grass roots level, the country’s biggest sporting sector, that is often how clubs survive
Alan Smith, Head Groundsman at the historic Bletchley Town Cricket Club, is one example of a volunteer groundsman producing top notch pitches week in, week out. And why does he do it? Because, he says, “every player is a groundsman at heart”.
Alan has been playing cricket since his youth and he continues today in the Buck’s Over 50s team, which includes European tours.The club has recently been promoted to Division 1 and in the past has played host to the West Indies, Pakistan and Northampton.
The 1st and 2nd teams today use 14 strips, which Alan is rightly proud of: “Two years ago there were only ten strips.It takes ages to build them up, but we now have 14 plus an artificial strip donated by a local school.The committee thinks we’ll be in the road soon if I keep on at this rate!”There are a further 10 strips in the lower field which are used by the 3rd team, the juniors, another local cricket club, a Sunday team, and two midweek teams.
For five years he coached the junior team, and 18 months ago his interest turned to the pitch.“One day I asked if I could have a go with the roller, and the next thing I knew I was the Head Groundsman, ” he recalls.“What am I going to do when my playing career is over? I could sit indoors on my rocking chair and eventually have my ashes spread over the pitch, or I can take a more active role. I started helping out and I thoroughly enjoy it.”In fact, his only regret since being appointed Head Groundsman is that he didn’t take up the career professionally years ago.
“Today is a good day to be a groundsman,” he says. “The sun is shining and nobody will disturb the peace. A few weeks ago it was a very different story though.“The snow was four inches thick and the bottom pitch had ice so thick you could have skated on it,” he recalls.“Then came the flooding as the snow and ice melted and the rain set in. The water came 30 yards in and, as all the earthworms drowned and floated to the surface, around 2,000 seagulls flocked to the ground and fed happily for days.It was quite a sight.”
Funds are limited with budgets mainly coming from fundraising.“We have a sponsored walk each year and a very popular Sri Lankan evening.As the cricket improves we’ll be able to invest more but, for now, everything I need is either donated or I pick up second-hand machinery and equipment from sites like e-bay. Most of what I do comes out of my own pocket. It’s difficult, because until we have some of the essentials, the ability to play is subject to the vagaricies of the weather.
“My covers are still frozen from the recent bout of bad weather so I couldn’t move them even if I wanted to.What’s more, being a lone groundsman, to get the covers on in time to protect the square from rain is just not feasible so if the cricket is called off, it is definitely off.It takes 8-10 men to move one cover.Ideally we need roll on, roll off covers but with a price tag of around £5,500 that’s just not realistic at the moment.
The equipment, much of which is 10-15 years old, is stored in a container along with everything else, except for Alan’s pride and joy - his ride-on roller. “She’s 25 years old and has served the club well. Unfortunately she’s got an oil leak so we might have to go back to the hand roller until her next service.”
He thinks the industry should be doing more to create awareness about the issues affecting clubs like Bletchley Town CC.“Ideally, a cheque for £15,500 would be helpful but I know that’s not going to happen. So, we need to enlighten people that many clubs don’t have £7,000 to spend on a new mower or £5,000 for covers – there are clubs that have to operate on a shoe string.The best help we could have, apart from the money, is spectators using the facilities and spending money in the bar.I would also like to see a machinery and equipment exchange facility.I know there are plenty of clubs which simply get rid of their old kit and equipment, so why not donate it to clubs which are in desperate need?After kit and equipment, the main thing we need is information, training and education.”
Despite limited funds, the club committee has encouraged Alan to train. “I am fortunate because as well as being tutoredby a great mentor - local contractor Tony Clarke - I have also had the opportunity to complete the IOG Cricket Part A and Part B short courses.I am keen to do the Intermediate and then, depending on funds,progress to the five-day course.I’d also like to get trained in pesticides, chainsaws and tractors.”
Alan enjoys a good relationship with the club committee, which he says is down to everyone there – committee and players - being concerned about the club, with success and sustainability being their primary concerns.“I’m on the committee and submit a groundsman’s report each month.It keeps everyone in the loop and shows what we need.Informed decisions can then be made.If funds are available then the committee is usually fair.For a club to be successful, with a good pitch, you need to work well with the committee.”
Some of the facilities, such as practice nets, are for use by the wider community. In fact, the nets get year-round use made possible by the recent donation of a Flicx pitch: “The kids used it right through the winter, even in the snow,” says Alan. “I recently scruffed it off and it is now ready to be worked on – I’ll seed it, roll it and generally tidy it up a bit.”
And what about the future?Relying on volunteers is risky with many being too busy to be interested, but Alan is optimistic: “If a youngster comes in and shows an interest in the grounds, whether they are a good player or not, we’ll ‘encourage’ that interest,” he explains whilemaking an arm twisting gesture!
Not a million miles away fromBletchleyis IOG member John Ayling who, aftera long career in groundsmanship working for Harrow Town Council, Hoovers, Schweppes, Stamford Bridge, Birbeck College and St Benedicts,retired to south west France in 2000.Well, he didn’t retire, exactly! Upon arrival at the small town of Damazan he took up the position of volunteer groundsman for the local cricket club.
Today (March 10) the temperatures are in the 60s and John reports no rain during the whole of February- when, he says, they could have started playing cricket.However, they will wait until the first game on April 19 and will play through until the second week in October.
So how did a small town (population circa 1500) become known throughout France for having the best cricket pitch in the country?
The club was established in 1989 when the President, who had spent a lot of time teaching English at a school in Somerset, fell in love with the game before returning to his homelandand convincing the local mayor to allocate a piece of ground and 100,000 Francs.“A rough cricket square was put in but this was ruined when the contractors placed 3 m drains through the middle of it,” reports John. “They started playing on it but the ball was going all over the place.Over the years there were lots of problems with mowing – mowing in wet weather with a 200 HP tractor leaving ridges everywhere,or not mowing at all to the point where you could lose a ball in the outfield.The maintenance was leaving the outfield unplayable.”
So, seven years ago the club bought its own mower and John started. “The mowing was going well but I had no means of rolling so I had to improvise.I filled a can with concrete, put a spindle through it - and I had a roller.But I didn’t want to roll all the time, so I built a harrow out of heavy duty steel mesh.Next on the list was a pavilion, and we got two.”
The club funds all of the buildings and equipment itself through money generated from touring.Last year they hosted 25 touring sides including Australia (including former test player Greg Matthews), New Zealand, Holland and the UK including teams from Sandhurst and Royal Household Windsor.The club charges 120 Euros per team and runs other fundraising activities including a raffle.The home team pays 40 Euros a year plus 7 Euros a match on home games.
“Money is tight and sometimes we need to improvise. I wanted some site screens, which hadn’t been seen in France before, so when I went back to England to see my stepson at St Benedicts I asked if he had any of the big white sheets that are used to cover the cricket table.I brought one of those back and made screens that you can pull up and down. I’ve also just made a score box and we’re the only club in France to have one.”
But not everything can be handcrafted so, on occasions, John funds equipment out of his own pocket:“Two years ago the mower packed up so we bought a new rotary mower with a 4 ft cut in the middle. I donated 1000 Euros towards it.”
The players are supportive of the ground and often help out with the bigger operations.They have recently taken up the old wicket and replaced it with a nets area at the bottom of the ground.Then they laid a new artificial wicket.
This year’s fixtures list is starting to fill up, with some prestigious games planned.In May the club will host the South East v South West junior games over two days, and in July the South West team will play the U19s French national side which will mark the club’s 20th year, the South West teams’ 20th year and it is also 20 years since the national side played its first international.In August, there is the Siddalls Cup semi-finals for two days and in September the club could host the National semi-final.
Having the best ground in France, or indeed just a suitable ground for cricket, is the exception rather than the norm for most French towns and cities, as John explains:“When the South West team first formed we played on coconut matting in the velodrome, which was really dangerous.Four sides in the South West now play on rugby pitches so they roll out a flexi wicket but that was hazardous too, so I have been advising them on how to make it safer.”
Every bit an IOG member, John is keen to help out and impart knowledge where he can:“Because cricket isn’t as popular in France as it is in the UK they are still learning about cricket pitches It is mainly played by ex-pats or, around Paris it is mainly played by Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans. A few weeks ago I was down in the Gere showing a new side how to lay an artificial wicket, and I’ve also been to Paris to advise them how to lay a grass wicket. They need advice, information and education which I give when I can but I can only travel so much. I will always welcome any of the teams, or mayors from other departments, to our ground so I can explain to them how to do it properly.”
Even when the pitches are safe, cricket can still be a dangerous sport, as John explains:“You can’t play cricket at a club in France without a medical certificate. Every player has to have a licence, which costs 23 Euros per person, and a doctor’s medical certificate stating you are fit to play, which costs 22 Euros. What’s more, if an under 16 wants to play against adults, he’ll have to go to Paris to get signed off. Anything that goes wrong at a club – player injuries, impropriety of office bearers and such like is the responsibility of the club President. The penalty for not following the rules can be as serious as a prison term, so it’s not a duty that is taken lightly.
“The real danger out here is the temperature.We take water every 5 overs and have gone through 35 litres of water in a game.We’re very careful and we make sure everyone wears hats and takes water regularly.”
So what does the future hold for John?“I retired from my job in England on 6 July 2000 and I was on the first boat out of Portsmouth the following morning! I’m currently working on a set of Allettts’ gang mowers, given to me by my eldest son Richard who is at Merchant Taylors School, so I have plenty to keep me busy. I’m 73 and just had a new hip but I continue to be the groundsman, play cricket and umpire and I’ll do that for as long as I can.”
Interested in your team playing on the best pitch in France? If so contact John Ayling (email@example.com) and you’ll be guaranteed a warm welcome and some of the finest wine in the region!