Soaks it up, spits it out
The new drainage system at Lord's may have received glowing praise for enabling play on the Friday of the first Test, but the groundsman, Mick Hunt, is unhappy with a less obvious disadvantage. It's the end of beer clouds.
Before the £1.25million drainage was installed in winter 2002, Hunt would cast an excited eye at the heavy clouds, but now, thanks to the enhanced drainage capability, which can handle two inches of water per hour, it's play all the way. "My local publican isn't too happy!" he says.
He is, of course, joking. As a Lord's groundsman for 38 years, 19 of them as head, Hunt is more than delighted that the match was saved, preventing a £1.2million refund of tickets.
"Two inches of rainfall doesn't happen very often - once every 30 years," he says. "I honestly can't recall rain as heavy as that." He swapped his trusty deck shoes for wellies for the first time on a Test day last week. So bad was the flooding on day two that paintings were moved out of the Long Room in the pavilion to prevent damage. Some spectators had headed off to nearby Regent's Park zoo; others were in the pub and astonished when they saw the match on television.
After the deluge, at 12.30pm the remaining crowds and cameras gaped in awe as two inches of rainfall vanished, allowing play to commence 80 minutes later.
"It's a bit spooky," Hunt says. But there's no underlying mystery. Rather, there's 18,000 square metres' worth of sand. This new turf, which boasts 90% sand content, replaced one that consisted of 20,000 tonnes of non-porous clay, which retained much more water. Below the 18-inch sand layer is one of gravel, and then a bottom level of stone. The idea came from the USA, and is based on a spec for golf courses in that country. "It's probably the biggest golf green in the world," says Hunt.
There are other matches which have been saved, like the first one-dayer against West Indies, but that happened away from the cameras. "Leading up to that, it really was continuous rain; you probably had just as much rain in that period. At one stage I just gave up."
But the drainage did its work and in this freak year, not one day has been washed out at Lord's - most delays have been down to bad light. The system could strengthen the MCC's case for keeping their second Test. "I think other groundsmen will be looking at it, thinking 'Perhaps we should' - but perhaps not the spec we worked on, because we really did go for top of the range," Hunt says.
It's not all roses, or to use Hunt's phrase, "bloomers and streamers". If anything, now the ground can at times become too dry. He points out the yellow run-up footholes left over from the Test. "It gets very, very thirsty because of the filtration. There's no retention of nutrients. If you have three days of average summer conditions, it just starts to dry out. So we have to keep watering."
That's when the irrigation system, which was installed at the same time as the drainage, comes into its own. "That's worth its weight in gold, too," Hunt says. The irrigation happens at night, to prevent the moisture being sucked up during the day.
There are other innovations: Lord's was the first to get hover covers, the inflatable, quick-access pitch-coverage devices. "I got the old jokes about 'I suppose you're off to Calais'", Hunt says, but he and his team had the last laugh. They've used hover covers for about eight years now, and everyone's getting them these days. "The old sheets are backbreaking, and they were so heavy they just used to leave ruts - the outfield was a mess."
Hunt is very happy with the kit he's got. "It's very quick. If we could reduce the amount of cricket we've got... but I suppose we're fortunate - we've got a big budget. The system is so far advanced of anything else. I was up at Trent Bridge the other day, to show my support, and was encouraging them to go down a similar route to ours."
The investment has made a huge difference. Hunt remembers in 1976 a spectator belly-flopping into what became an outdoor pool as the water banked up at the Tavern Stand and settled at the bottom of the 8' 6" slope. "It would be like waves coming down."
The only waves recently were those of applause as the players resumed on a magical day; the groundsmen - and Lord's - soaking up the deserved credit. Now all that remains to be seen is if the investment will open up the floodgates around the country.
Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo