Level playing fields
After a multi-million pound “outfield refit”, our Test venues are ready for battle after a momentous closed season of ground improvements and media bloodletting. Tom James reports
For some, the infamous Bodyline series marked a watershed for the Ashes confrontation between rivals England and Australia. For others, the `Beefy` victory of 1981 set a new high for our home side’s fortunes. For the media, 2009 might yet prove to be England’s true date with destiny. Smarting after our defeat Down Under last time the two age-old sporting adversaries clashed, England wants the trophy back with a passion.
The glare of publicity in the run-up to the Ashes could not have been fiercer though, as the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) last year, pushed the button on a £6 million transformation of test and other grounds in readiness for the challenge, as part of an even heftier financial commitment to both the international and county games.
Cricketing fortunes notwithstanding, the media focus has landed squarely on the playing surfaces, as outfields were ripped up for a fast-track improvements programme to boost drainage, install irrigation systems and lay new turf as part of £600,000 average project values.
To say the process has suffered a media blasting might be putting it lightly, as Britain’s increasingly unpredictable weather wrought havoc on the sterling work underway by sports ground and turf contractors and staff alike to ready playing surfaces for the new season.
Perhaps too many eyes had been trained on Lord’s, where drainage work a few years earlier has been hailed as a major success in combating lost days due to rain. Soil types and conditions across the venues vary considerably but the mission was to rationalise drainage systems to give `a level playing field` in a bid to minimise the risk of stoppages.
But the fact remains that as an increasingly high profile sport, now played in a variety of formats, cricket needs to be in a position to capitalise commercially on its new-found glamour and younger fan-base. And that means raising the expectation that games will be played, whatever the weather hurls at a ground.
Cancellation of a one-day international at Headingley in April through rain proved the spark that lit the tinderbox as officials and staff braved a fiery backlash from sports reporters, correspondents and commentators baying for blood at what they believed was another cricketing cock-up.
“The main purpose of the work here was to improve the drainage in the outfield,” says James Westwood, design and drainage consultant for the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), who advised on and oversaw the Headingley work after being nominated by the ECB for the task.
“We just have to accept that if you get 12 mm of rain half an hour before a match – as we did – that you will get standing water. The test of the system is how quickly that water drains away to minimise downtime.” With 60 per cent of the average rainfall for that month falling in one day, the wonder surely is that total catastrophe didn’t befall the ground.
The STRI was engaged to draw up designs and specifications for redevelopment of the outfield but the heavy clay soil characteristic of Headingley was never going to prove an easy material to work, consultants and contractors agree. Added to that, huge quantitities, some 2,000 tonnes of clay subsoil, had to be excavated as part of the process. Sportsground contractor Pugh-Lewis, which landed the £375,000 contract for Headingley, began work last September, removing clay subsoil to a 600 mm depth at the boundary, tapering that depth approaching the square to still leave a slight slope to the outfield and with maximum cut at the boundary on the north side.
As part of the preparation to install floodlighting at the ground, Pugh-Lewis laid electrical cable ducting while excavation was underway, before installing the drainage and “a full irrigation system featuring fully-activated pop-up sprinklers covering the whole outfield”, says co-director Tim Pugh-Lewis.
“We laid 4,000 m of uPVC, 80 mm diameter perforated flexible pipe throughout, which is connected to the existing surface water drainage system but is fitted with a hydrabrake to control flow rate.”
Clearly alert to the media criticism levelled at the Headingley work, Tim adds: “There has been an overall acceptance that the work was done at the most appropriate time and that we were handling one of the worst soil types where drainage is concerned.”
There were no illusions about what to expect at Headingley. “We knew that ground conditions were going to be difficult,” says Stephen Fell, managing director of turf growers Lindum Turf, which laid surfaces at all the test sites designated for improvements, “But what happened at Headingley was a storm in a teacup. The fact is everyone worked really hard over the winter during a period of despicable weather in what were unsustainable conditions.”
The 40 mm Lockturf surface, with fibre-reinforced rootzone, took 10 days to lay at Headingley. A machine designed for the purpose, fitted with low ground pressure tyres, rolled it out in 1.1 m wide strips.
“The challenge was for the turf to become established in the three weeks before the first county game was played on it on 26 April but we hit the ground running at all the sites, completing Old Trafford on 10 November, Swalec Stadium Cardiff, and Gloucester on 25 February, The Brit Oval on 27 February and Headingley on 8 April.”
Establishment of turf after it is laid is “ideally” six to eight weeks, says James. Three one-day warm-up games played at Headingley before the one-day international went well, he recalls. “One reason the surface was ready for play was the speed at which the fibre-reinforced rootzone becomes established. It was because of the quantity of excavation and drainage work that was due to be undertaken that this turf was specified, as we were confident of it being ready for the new season.”
Headingley was undergoing redevelopment of its seating during the period, with an additional 500 seats due to be installed in front of the new pavilion. “We had to drop the level of the topsoil by 600 mm and cut into the subsoil base to reduce it accordingly,” James explains. Headingley’s outfield was “notoriously uneven” he adds, so here was a golden opportunity to regrade the rest of the ground.
The benefits the work has brought are tangible. “Improved levels in the outfield to a more uniform, consistent grade is a major advance. The previously random network of clay drains and clinker ash on top has gone, replaced by a comprehensive, continuous system covering the whole ground. The old outfield had a 40 ml layer of thatch, which retained rainfall and collected in low spots. A small amount of thatch is preferable for the outfield however, as it cushions run-ups for bowlers and falls for fielders.”
He is “as confident as we can be ” that the ground is ready for Ashes action, he says. “A programme of hollow tining, scarifying and vertidraining is underway and is working well.”
The only niggle is if a downpour descends on the morning of a match. “On a five-day game, there’s still another four full days of play possible. In a sense, rain is integral to the progress of a cricket match and it usually offers only a temporary disruption.”
At The Brit Oval, the improvements over the winter are a blessing, says Head Groundsman Bill Gordon, and in his opinion have come not a moment too soon.
“I don’t think the turf had been replaced since the ground first opened in 1845,” he states. “A thick, 3/4 inch thatch had built up and had compacted to the point that scarifying wasn’t touching it.”
Bill has seen monumental changes in the game, not least the dramatically rising expectations of a paying public demanding to see a full day’s play. “You might have got away with losing play in the old days but not anymore, especially in these commercial times.”
He admits that despite his best endeavours and those of his six-strong team, The Brit Oval has suffered downtime due to bad weather. “Two years ago we lost a four-day game with Sussex and through a summer we might typically have no play on three to five days.” But even that is unacceptable at a time when the traditional County game is on a knifedge of survival, he notes.
The £500,000 programme of improvements began last October with contractors John Mallinson of Ormskirk - who had been contracted to undertake the ground improvements at Lord’s - stripping away 13,300 m2 of turf to leave only the central square intact.
(In a novel initiative, selected turf was later embedded into paperweights and is being sold as souvenirs to raise money for Surrey Young Cricketers on the club’s website, www.surreycricket.com).
When the winter season is the only time available to complete such works, there’s a fair chance the weather will intervene – and it did. “We lost five weeks due to rain and snow,” Bill recalls. Undeterred, the contractor soldiered on to finish the project at the end of February.
Perimeter lateral drains were laid first, fed by 700 m of 100 ml polypropylene pipe. A total of 4,500 m2 of 80 ml diameter lateral pipe were then laid at 3 m intervals at a depth of some 3 ft – “deep enough to avoid being spiked” – before 1,000 tonnes of 3-6 mm gravel were deposited on the pipe network. Over that was poured 4,100 tonnes of sand, ameliorated with the top surface.
Laser levelling followed but meanwhile, in went the Rainbird irrigation system, supplied by Lakes and Greens, who had supplied similar ones to Lord’s and Trent Bridge.
Computer-controlled, the 68-head installation was laid as individually actuated sprinkler heads around the perimeter of the ground and group-controlled batches of four at the Pavilion and Vauxhall ends and around the edges of the square.
Contracted to supply all the test grounds under the ECB improvement programme, growers Lindum Turf first sent Gordon a sample of its preferred option to gauge reaction. He was quick to give the thumbs up.
The Brit Oval turf is a mix of four cultivars, explains Bill. “We have Bargold perennial ryegrass - Julius smooth stalk; Bargreen chewings medium fescue and Barcrown slender creeping redgrass. Given such a politically and commercially sensitive sports surface, it makes sense to hedge one’s bets and this is what Bill has done. “If one grass fails, the others perform,” he states.
In the war against invasive species, Bill seems quietly resigned to ingress of Poa Annua. “Everyone’s got it – it’s taking hold here but with scarifying it shouldn’t interfere with play.”
What does cause him sleepless nights are the fairy rings plaguing the central square. “They’re a nightmare.” The dark green rings that the fungal disease causes “look unsightly”, he says. “I dose heavily with a nitrogen fertiliser to green up the turf and mask the problem, so we manage,” he adds in typically matter-of-fact tone.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating though, so how is the new drainage system performing? “Wonderfully,” Bill declares. “It has coped with the heavy rain that’s fallen since everything was finished. The system’s 30 ml/hr percolation rate is seeing off the water with no problems.”
So what’s the news on the surface? The new turf will benefit the game in several ways, he believes. “Faster outfield, truer ball roll, more days of play and the financial gain that that will bring.” And what’s the maintenance plan going forward? “Regular vertidraining, keeping the turf short and tidy and a complete redressing with sand over the whole four and three-quarter acres in the autumn,” is his plan.
Bill surely has witnessed everything possible in the life of a head groundsman at one of the world’s most hallowed cricket venues. He is not about to be phased by the media frenzy surrounding the Ashes or any other battle royal in the cause of sporting prowess and pride.
But he is alert to the shifting persona of groundsmen in today’s era. “We are respected more now,” he says.
The growing aura of respectability comes at a price, however. “We take a bit of stick from the media and sometimes praise when it’s due. When they jump on you but I take it all in, go home, close the door and just carry on.”
Some things reassuringly remain the same. Despite the transformation to the surface and substructure, The Brit Oval still retains its characteristic “upturned saucer” contour. “It’s designed to make fielders run for the ball,” he jests.
Photographs by James Westwood