A real pro, who earned the gratitude of the game, 1976

Bert Lock — king of groundsmen

Alex Bannister

For the best part of the last three decades the name of Bert Lock has been synonymous with the difficult art and science of groundsmanship. In his exacting job, which often invites prejudiced criticism, he has achieved a notable status and eminence.

His long years of dedicated skill at The Oval -- including the miraculous transformation after the war -- were recognised in March, 1957, by his appointment of the first nationwide Inspector of Pitches. At the time the general standard of first-class pitches caused deep concern, and the most fitting tribute to his zeal and efficiency is in the simple statement of fact that when he retired from the post last October the position had immeasurably improved.

Cricket at large owes much to Herbert Christmas Lock, born at East Molesey, Surrey, on May 8, 1903. His multifarious activities at all levels have been conducted with a rare enthusiasm, and he always had the happy knack of harnessing new methods with a pride of craftmanship nourished in a bygone era.

At The Oval he was the man in shirt sleeves directing operations in the middle. His outdoor complexion suggested days in the crow's nest of a whaler. Latterly he has been the ultimate authority, both consultant and surgeon, available at a moment's notice to dash to a ground in need of expert assessment and advice. If he was not helping to make a pitch fulfil first-class requirements, he was lecturing, running a course at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, or serving on the committee of the National Cricket Association -- which he had done since its inception.

From 1959 to 1962 he was chairman of the Institute of Groundsmanship. He has written thousands of words, including a brochure, on a subject of which he is the acknowledged mentor, and there is scarcely a major ground, from club level upwards, which he has not visited at one time or another.

Like all who have reached the top of a chosen profession, Lock had a long and thorough training, beginning on the ground staff of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst -- he spent most of his boyhood at Camberley. Bob Relf, formerly of Sussex, was then the resident professional and he took the young Lock into his shop. The initial grounding over he became in 1922 the 35th member of the Surrey playing staff as a medium pace bowler able to turn to off-breaks when the shine had gone.

In a less competitive period Lock might well have become a better known player. His apprenticeship was served bowling to members, and with match play for the Young Players, Club and Ground, and 2nd XI. Considering the size of the professional staff, and a legion of high-standard amateurs available, Lock did well to win his 2nd XI cap within two years.

Altogether he made over 40 appearances in Surrey's championship team, including one against the Australians at The Oval in 1930, but he had scant chance of establishing a permanent place. Surrey had bowlers of the calibre of Tom Rushby, Bill Hitch, Alan Peach, P. G. H. Fender and J. H. Lockton and M. J. C. Allom arrived on the scene. Once when Lock took four wickets against Glamorgan, Fender, the captain, told him that while he was pleased with the performance there was no place for him in the next match.

Lock did not allow the discouragements to be all-stifling, and his success at Minor Counties level was consistent, and in 1931, nothing short of spectacular. Completing 513.5 overs he had 96 wickets at 11.97 each -- a record comparable with the deeds of the great S. F. Barnes for Staffordshire.

Prudently, Lock did not waste his winters. At 15 shillings a week retainer there was ample scope for a second job and he worked on the construction of sports grounds. Among the grounds he played a part in creating was the BBC's at Motspur Park. Nowadays as he journeys around the country he recognises the scores of grounds he helped to construct, or has been called in as a turf consultant.

He remained at The Oval until 1932 when he went to Devon as professional and groundsman at the county ground, Exeter. Apart from two cricket squares, he had tennis courts to look after, and in the off-season the Devon Regiment used the outfield for Soccer. Apart from maintaining the ground he played for Devon -- now, with a lift in the order, his batting was a valuable asset.

In one match against Cornwall at Camborne, Lock had an aggregate of 16 wickets for 93, scored 48 not out, and yet finished on a losing side, which also included the youthful George Emmett, then cogitating whether to go to Gloucestershire or Somerset; both had offered him terms.

Lock's war service was with the RAF. In May, 1942, he had the shattering news that his house at Exeter had received a direct hit. A resident guest was killed. Next door seven were killed.

Demobbed in October, 1945, he at once returned to The Oval as head groundsman. No one in his position had ever faced a more daunting task. For the duration of the Hitler war The Oval, originally prepared as a prisoner of war camp for German parachutists, was used as sites for AA guns, barrage balloons, and a searchlight, and as an Army assault course. Apart from the barbed wire entaglements, pits, cement posts, over 900 posts had to be uprooted for a start. In short, the famous ground was a wreck and a shambles.

With a staff of old men and boys, Lock started on October 8 to get a pitch and ground in suitable readiness for the resumption of first-class cricket on April 15. A miracle was needed. A miracle was accomplished. Once the original mess was cleared, the holes filled in, sickles and scythes rediscovered the square. Lock had to set his own levels, and then lay 45,000 turves taken from the marshes of Hoo in Kent.

Work started daily at 8 a.m. and continued until the light gave out. The unhappy discovery was made that rats had gnawed at the practice nets, and seated in the east mound stand Lock painstakingly repaired them -- often in a freezing east wind.

To this day Lock does not know how he managed the task of getting the ground into shape. He remained at The Oval until 1965, seven years after Surrey finished their record seven years as champions. At one time his own pitches did not escape criticism. "It's nonsense to suggest Surrey's pitches were deliberately made for the spin of Jim Laker and Tony Lock" he says. "For one thing it's not possible to do so. That talk was a load of rot, and was proved so by the fact that the record of Lock and Laker was actually better away from The Oval."

There was a simple answer to Surrey's success in those days. Not only were there Laker and Lock, but Alec Bedser and Peter Loader with the new ball. Four world class bowlers were supported by world class fielding, and Surrey also had Peter May, the greatest batsman of his time. What need was there for cooking the pitch, if it could be done, with this array of talent?

An arthritic hip needed an operation and in 1965 Lock left to be a sports consultant with Berk Chemicals. That, too, was an invaluable experience until he became Inspector of Pitches. Indeed his wide experience at all levels -- he has even acted as a temporary umpire in a first-class match and for the whole of a Minor Counties fixture -- gives him the right to hold forthright opinions of modern cricket and cricketers.

Never one to be other than truthful Lock says bluntly:

"I don't think standards are anywhere as good as they were in the 20's and 30's. To begin with, limited-over cricket will never produce Test players of genuine standard. While field placing has undoubtedly improved, and the players are generally fitter, today's bowlers are apt to concentrate on keeping the runs down rather than bowling the opposition out. The great batsmen of the past never allowed themselves to be dictated to -- as I can personally vouch."

"The disappearance of the amateur was a sad loss to the game. I cursed them in my time. Scores of them would appear in the second half of the season to make it even harder to retain one's place. But the genuine amateur captain made you try harder. If you dropped a catch when Mr. Fender was captain you took good care to avoid him for the rest of the day!"

"Cricket now lacks real personalities and crowd pullers. There are exceptions, of course, but there is a general uninformity, efficient in its way, but it is a rare thing for a spectator to sit up with expectation when a batsman goes to the wicket."

"The greatest batsmen I have seen were Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond, Charlie Macartney, and inevitably Don Bradman, who was more of a run machine. I played against him when he scored 252 not out at The Oval in 1930. Like most bowlers I found it difficult to bowl to him. He had a sort of chop shot, and I kept thinking he must get caught in the gully or slips. But he never did."

"The greatest fast bolwer? No doubt in my mind -- Ted McDonald. What an action he had. I could have watched him for hours at a time."

"I have spent a lifetime in cricket. My hours as a groundsman would have been roundly condemned by a trade union. Often they involved working all Sunday morning in the days before Sunday cricket. I suffered my disappointments as a player. But I have met more people worth meeting and seen more places than would have been possible in any other job. It's been a constant education, and seldom dull."

"In 1927 I went to Jamaica with Lord Tennyson's team. There were three other pros in the party -- Ernest Tyldesley -- what a fine player he was! -- Jack O'Connor and Dan Sullivan, who spent 12 years looking out of the windows at The Oval as Herbert Strudwick's understudy. Then he went to Glamorgan."

"I almost killed myself getting The Oval ready after the war, but it was all worthwhile when I heard I was the only groundsman nominated for the new job as Inspector of Pitches. For nine years I was on emergency call, ready to go to any part of the country if the captains or umpires had reported adversely on a pitch. I am satisfied the standard of first-class pitches has got better. The one constantly heard criticism is that they lack pace. In this direction I often feel the modern player has picked up some false ideas about pitches in bygone days."

"The criticisms often do not take into account the fact that many of the grounds are over 100 years old. The turf is tired, and sooner or later the squares need to be reconstructed and given a new lease of life."

Now Lock intends to set up in private practice as a sports turf adviser, and it is hard to believe that he will not still be in constant demand.

Few have given more loyal service in so many spheres and in so many grades as the ever-genuine Bert Lock. A real pro in the best sense of the word. He has earned the gratitude of the game.

Bernard Flack, 62, head groundsman at Edgbaston for twenty years, has now succeeded Lock as the T.C.C.B.'s inspector of pitches.

© John Wisden & Co