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Natural turf

What does it take to prepare an Ashes cricket pitch? We spoke to Edgbaston Cricket Ground’s head groundsman, Gary Barwell, to find out

by Colin Hoskins | Published in Sports Management 2015 issue 2
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Edgbaston Cricket Ground
Edgbaston Cricket Ground

When the doors open at Edgbaston Cricket Ground on July 29 2015 for the third Investec Ashes between England and Australia, head groundsman Gary Barwell will be confident in the knowledge that he has done everything in his power to produce the best possible playing surface. Being responsible for the pitch at one of the country’s busiest cricket venues, however, means that he has his work cut out. Each season Warwickshire CCC plays eight four-day English County Championship games and 12 or more one-day fixtures at Edgbaston, and there are also a number of one-day Internationals. In addition, the ground is used for daily practice sessions.

Preparation is everything
Barwell’s role at the five-hectare site is to prepare all international and domestic pitches plus two international-standard net facilities, and to oversee the preparation of the pitches at Warwickshire CCC’s outgrounds. He manages budgets in conjunction with the club’s director of finance and is responsible for an ongoing pitch plan which is submitted to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Sky TV for televised games.

With the modern cricket seasons now extending from April through to September (though work in the nets usually starts in mid-March), Barwell and his six-man grounds team will be kept busy.

An Ashes game was last staged at the Birmingham ground in 2009, but the stadium facilities have seen a number of improvements since. Barwell will be relying on some of those improvements to assist him in the lead up, especially when it comes to the weather dictating what he and his team can do.

“Heavy rain is certainly the scourge of the game of cricket,” says Barwell, who was crowned the 2013 Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG) Professional Cricket Groundsman of the Year.

“To counteract it, we decided to invest £600,000 in a remodelled outfield in 2010. The pitch is so much better now, and it’s getting better every year, with the turf sitting on four inches of sand. The pitch is surrounded by land drains and the outfield drains at 33mm per hour. That said, when you have a month’s rain in a week – like we did last year – it really doesn’t matter what drainage you have.”

The disruption caused by the rain can limit Barwell’s options, but when it comes to the type of pitch he wants to produce at Edgbaston, his aim is clear – consistency in speed and bounce. “Heavy rain prevents us from getting onto the square to do what we need to do. Sometimes we get just three days to get the pitch ready. When that happens, we roll the pitch on days one and two and take the grass off on the third.

“But whatever the conditions, my objective is to keep some level of pace in the wicket. Pace results from a mixture of moisture, grass coverage/density and heat – all have to combine in the right way.”

Ashes to ashes
According to Barwell, the pitch preparation for the forthcoming Ashes will follow a a strict regime to ensure there is adequate pace. The build-up to the Ashes Test will also involve a number of meetings with Edgbaston’s cricket operations team, concerning their use of the nets and practice sessions, while there will be the usual high level of communication and liaison with the various contractors involved in staging the event, including broadcasters and other media. Any specific requests from ECB for Barwell to produce a certain type of pitch will, of course, be a closely guarded secret. “I work directly with all of the game’s key stakeholders – governing bodies, broadcasters and sponsors – to ensure everyone benefits from their involvement at Edgbaston,” he says. “There will not be that much difference for the Ashes game; apart from an increased level of security checks and, of course, heightened media scrutiny of every ball and, naturally, of the pitch itself.”

Barwell has been at Edgbaston since 2011, after a two-year spell as assistant head groundsman at Trent Bridge, the home to Nottinghamshire CCC. At Trent Bridge, he primarily looked after the World 20/20 nursery ground. Before Nottingham, he had established himself as part of the team at Leicestershire CCC, where he completed his work experience while studying for NVQ Levels 1, 2 and 3 in greenkeeping and turf management.

He credits his recent IOG award to his hard-working team – and to the very particular type of passion that any successful groundsman “must possess”.

“My guys do a great job, often working very long and unsociable hours around – or because of – the weather,” Barwell says. “I do ask a lot of them and I appreciate their support. Every groundsman faces the same challenge: a battle to get the pitch right. But the standard of playing surfaces in this country is outstanding when you consider our weather. It is clear that groundsmen put their heart and soul into the job.”

Edgbaston Fact File

Established: 1886
Capacity: 25,000
First Test: 1902

Edgbaston’s first Test Match was the opening game of the Ashes series in 1902, for which the club erected a permanent stand, two temporary stands and facilities for 90 members of the press. Since then, 47 Tests have been held at the venue.

The record attendance at a County Championship match at Edgbaston is 28,000 against Lancashire in the championship-winning season of 1951, and the record for a single day of a Test Match is 32,000 against the West Indies in 1957.

Of all England’s Test grounds Edgbaston is the least disrupted by rain – losing an average of fewer than 90 minutes of play per match between 1979 and 1988, compared to more than eight hours per match at other grounds.

Edgbaston Cricket Ground in 1895
Edgbaston Cricket Ground in 1895
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