July 5, 2001

Fireworks and congestion the bane of turf managers

Even a decade ago, cricket groundsmen would have laughed at the idea that knowledge of fireworks, logo painting and the chemical deterrence of dew would be an essential part of their craft.

But these issues are all on the agenda of the New Zealand Sports Turf Conference and Trade Show, being held in Rotorua this week.

More than 300 people involved in the turf management industry are in attendance, with cricket strongly represented.

Some of the machinery on display looks like a by-product of the space programme, with computers and lasers seemingly more common than forks and spades. Delegates were reminded that things used to be very different by the reminiscences of Gary Walklin, formerly groundsman at McLean Park, Napier.

Walklin's first job in turf management was to be given sole charge of 15 cricket blocks and an equal number of practice wickets at Hagley Park in Christchurch, more than 30 years ago. His only qualification was a love of cricket, his only training a week spent with his predecessor. Equipped with tools that were little better than farm cast-offs, he learned as he went along.

While agreeing that the development of scientific methods, hi-tech equipment, specialist grasses and training programmes have been of great value to groundsmen, Walklin does not believe that the trade has become easier.

"I know of no other job that has so many people reporting on your performance. Umpires and managers report on the pitch, while players and the media are increasingly critical."

When Gary Walklin entered the industry the only bar chart he came across was probably a list of beers available at the end of a hard day's work. Now, they are part of a detailed package of information that groundsmen have to study before working on the turf.

Bill Walmsley of the New Zealand Turf Institute produced a bewildering array of graphs and charts in response this question, posed at the start of his talk.

"Why isn't every pitch you produce as good as the best you have ever produced?" Quality control and understanding of the scientific principles at work in the soil was Walmsley's answer, with the maintenance of good moisture levels throughout the preparation period the key. This is necessary for the achievement of the compaction needed for good bounce.

As curator of the WACA ground in Perth, Richard Winter is an authority on the production of fast, bouncy pitches. The WACA is considered the best Test pitch in the world, by Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, at least.

Formerly at the altogether slower-paced Eden Park, Winter described the process of producing a Test pitch. He acknowledged that the Western Australian climate and unique clay soils are considerable advantages.

The secret of producing the extra pace that causes batsmen around the world to wake up screaming in the middle of the night apparently lies in rolling the pitch quickly while it is covered in a thin mist of dampness. This reduces friction to a minimum.

It came as a relief to those delegates becoming bamboozled by the complex science of modern day pitch preparation that Winter's method for testing the moisture content of his pitches is simply to push a screwdriver into the ground to see how far it goes.

Trevor Jackson is responsible for pitch preparation at the new National Stadium on Wellington's waterfront, and at the Basin Reserve. He illustrated the problems faced by groundsmen at multi-use venues by presenting the February 2001 schedule for the National Stadium.

A period of less than three weeks began and ended with ODIs. Between these important games, the venue staged the World Rugby Sevens - two whole days of intensive punishment for the turf - followed by an Australian Rules contest.

Each of the sports took no account of the time needed to prepare for the others, and were very precise about their own needs.

The Australians were most demanding. It was inconceivable that their game should proceed unless every blade of grass was exactly 22mm long. There was to be no covering of the cricket block, a stipulation that would have been disastrous for the production of a decent pitch had there been bad weather. They were even unhappy with the pattern created by the mowing. It had to be redone.

Consideration is being given to reducing the block at the stadium from five to two pitches. This should make it easier and cheaper to maintain quality. Cricketers, who resent rugby being played on cricket blocks, can forget that rugby players dislike it just as much, sometimes finding them dangerously hard and slippery.

By implication, a decision to reduce the size of the block at the National Stadium would be good news for those keen to retain international cricket at the Basin Reserve.

Before the forthcoming season, Jackson faces another problem. 14,000 people on the outfield at a Robbie Williams concert. "At least that will get rid of the winter poa build-up" he wryly remarked.

Tomorrow, CricInfo will report on the solutions offered by modern technology to the problems of crowded schedules and the growing commercial and media demands that can get in the way of the production of top-class playing surfaces.