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Sussex CCC's head groundsman, Andy Mackay

Pitch Perfect

24-Sep-2014

Pitch Perfect

Match day! I left home at 6am this morning (which is far too early for civilised people) in order to be at the ground early so we could open the pitch up and give the overnight dew and condensation time to dry off before the start of play. The pitch, wicket, deck, track or what-ever-you-want-to-call-it has been covered over night with the roll on covers for the last 15 days, and surrounded by the side sheets and run-up covers for the last two, but even wrapped up in this manner it is not immune to the late summer conditions and cool nights that are starting to creep up on us. 

As the ‘domes’ are removed it is as we expected: the dry, hard pitch that we covered last night now has a dampness to the leaf that has nothing to do with the actual preparation of the surface and everything to do with the elements. Ten minutes after removing the covers the sun crests over the score-board and a blanket of yellow sunlight which moments before was just gracing the pavilion, creeps inexorably towards middle, the shadows shrinking away as we glare at them. By 7am the pitch is bathed in bright, early morning sun and by 9am, just as the players begin to appear we were wondering what all the fuss was about. The pitch is hard and dry, perhaps a ‘day behind’ given the last week or so of cool nights and heavy dews, but really I’m nit-picking here: we have a good surface to play this important fixture on, one of three prepared for this last game of the summer at Hove.

We are not in the habit of preparing three wickets for one fixture but the wicket in question (pitch number nine), chosen the day before after much head scratching and wandering between the three by Robbo and Ed, is a re-laid wicket built in Sept 2011 which has never been used before. This particular wicket was prepared earlier in the season for the Durham Championship fixture along with a back-up, but I didn’t quite like the look of it so it was abandoned in mild disgust. Following more remedial work I felt that it should come good for the Lancs game but since I couldn’t be certain we prepared another wicket… and then, because I felt that we could, we also prepared a third just for the sheer hell of it. For the record these were pitch number 13, which we used against Somerset in the Championship earlier in the year and pitch number five, which we used against Middlesex. All three were well grassed and looked good, but I’m pleased we chose the unknown, exciting wicket in the middle because should it play well, and all indications are that it will, then I can chalk off another re-laid wicket as ‘back in play’.

Once the covers were away in their protective bags the lads peeled off to the nets to get them ready for 9am and Greg and I rigged up the rope that we run between the tractor and the buggy for the purpose of ‘roping off’ the dew. Now, this is my absolute favourite thing to do because as you wiz round and round with the rope there is a spray of dew that follows and in the buttery morning light it is a thing of magnificence which almost makes up for the early start. We then set to work on erecting fielding nets, cutting the pitch and applying the roller (a quick five minutes with the heavy roller this morning because of the dew). The final job is to cut the square and tidy up any blobs of grass clipping that have dropped off the mower as it turns at the end of each pass. 

The forecast is set fair for the whole match, we have done everything we can and now it’s up to the two side to fight it out. We now have a chance for a cup of coffee and a chat while we await the time to set the stumps just before the toss and the last minute taking down of fielding nets etc. We’re a pretty mixed bunch so the conversation can range from Big Brother to Bizet depending on the day in question. This morning I took the time to elucidate on the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign to the lads… though it was met with a mixed reception and I may not have won over many minds amongst the 18 to 23 year old male demographic (Greg is in his very own demographic by the way). At least we didn’t talk about Big Brother though… or Saurez.

In the middle I have a pitch that looks good and solid. There are narrow cracks all over it, as one would expect with a new pitch and especially a new pitch made out of our heavy, high-shrinkage soil but the cracks are utterly stable under the 2 ½ tonne roller. The grass is dry and wilted and the ground looks neat if not pretty (I’m afraid that I murdered the entire outfield last week with roundup prior to the end of season works, and today it is starting to look decidedly peaky). So why am I nervous? I have a bad case of what I refer to as PMT, or Pre-Match Tension. It’s emotional rather than rational, but is not helped by the arrival of Pitch Liaison Officer David Capel who has been asked to conduct a random check of the pitch in order to make sure we’re not cheating by leaving it too seamer friendly, or perhaps too dry and bare in areas for the spinners. 

Of course we can also be penalised if there is too much variable bounce or the wicket is too ‘flat’: the penalty for any of these sins being an eight point deduction for the home side. This makes re-laying pitches a tricky business because new pitches do not always play ball and so even through doing the right thing and trying to create a better, more exiting surface for the future we can come unstuck and potentially loose points. My conscience is clear on this matter though, and if we ever do lose points because a re-laid pitch hasn’t done what we thought it would then I can hold my head up high, look myself in the mirror and know that I’ve done everything for the right reasons and that when I do one day leave the Club (probably in a coffin) that I will have created something that can be enjoyed for years, and those horrible, slow, pitches that we had when I arrived are in landfill. Anyway, David is a lovely chap, but even so, I will feel much happier when he leaves.

The new pitches will only get better over time, but for now, all I can do is wait and see if all the hard work that has gone into the preparation of the wicket and the ground over the last two weeks or so is about to come good. The hearty breakfast that follows the start of the match for my team and I comes as a welcome consolation for any nerves. 

GOSBTS!

Joe Vine, who scored a century in Sussex’s last match before cricket stopped 100 years ago following the outbreak of War

The Last Match

Throwback Thursday

28-Aug-2014

The Last Match

Next Tuesday, 2 September, marks the anniversary of a significant moment in cricket history when, in 1914, what was to be the last county match for five years finished at Hove.

The First World War was already a month old and while Sussex and Yorkshire played on, with Valence Jupp and Joe Vine both scoring big hundreds for the county, evidence of a country preoccupied with far more important affairs could be seen at the northern end of the ground as army recruits were put through their paces by drill sergeants. During the match, a group of territorials from the Royal Sussex Regiment also undertook a recruiting drive.

It seems staggering, 100 years later, that cricket did not stop the moment War had been declared a month earlier, but the MCC insisted “no good purpose can be saved at the moment by cancelling matches,” not even after the first big skirmish of the conflict – the Battle of Mons – had led to the deaths of 2,000 British soldiers.

MCC secretary Francis Lacey later admitted the committee felt “an outward show of ‘carrying on” should be permitted. After all, he added, most people thought the War would be over that Christmas. The Oval was closed, after the War Office requisitioned it but otherwise, as men rallied to the cause all over the country, cricket carried on.

The authorities finally came to their senses at tea on the third day. Roy Kilner, the Yorkshire batsman, made a half-century, although he confessed afterwards that it meant little to him. It was the last fifty scored in county cricket for five years.

It had taken the intervention of WG Grace to bring the authorities to their senses. Writing in The Sportsman, he said: “I think the time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed, for it is not fitting that able-bodied men should play day-after-day and pleasure-seekers look on.”

That was on 27 August 1914. All county games were cancelled that day, Sussex v Yorkshire at Hove the last of them. The title was awarded to Surrey.

Over the next six years, Wisden ran the obituaries of 1,800 cricketers who died during the War. Kilner himself was hit by shrapnel during the Battle of the Somme.


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