Warwickshire County Cricket Club’s return to Division One after relegation in 2017 is backed by a pledge to pursue silverware in all competitions this season. For head groundsman Gary Barwell, who lifted his own glittering prize in 2018 as winner of the Alex R Miller Ransomes/DLF Groundsman of the Year, 2019 presents an even stiffer challenge as he and his award-winning grounds team strive for sustained turf care excellence in what is being heralded as cricket’s ‘Golden Summer’.
“My award was the culmination of 25 years’ hard work but just a point in time to progress from,” says Gary, 43, whose career kicked off in 1993 with two weeks’ work experience at Leicester City FC, his home football team. He then spent 16 years at Leicestershire CCC before moving to Trent Bridge in 2009, where he became deputy head groundsman.
In 2011, Gary became head groundsman at Edgbaston, where he is now in his ninth season. He is a perfectionist who routinely puts in an extra 500 hours over summer to “get everything right”. It’s all part and parcel of the team’s turf care commitment at an international venue, foundation ground and the practice ground across the river Rea.
“We are a cog making Warwickshire work and preparing pitches for first class cricket is our way of playing a part in club history,” he explains. “If I put in the extra hours, I know the team will, too. Success means the club can bid for prestige matches, and that creates need and demand from players – our nets are used 8am to 5pm but we have lost the second set to ground redevelopment so the remaining practice strips need to withstand even heavier use.”
Global passion about cricket focuses the media spotlight firmly on facilities and Edgbaston will host more international fixtures than ever this season. “When India played Pakistan here in 2013, viewing figures were reportedly one billion,” Gary reveals. “That’s when your work really comes under scrutiny.”
On major match days, up to eight camera crews can crowd the square, compared with the usual two. “The level of intensity is massive,” says Gary.
Many of the 17 pitches on the Edgbaston square will stage a host of high-profile international, championship and new format fixtures. The crowded itinerary includes the Ashes opener, seven T20s, the Vitality Blast Finals Day, five Royal London One Day Internationals and five Cricket World Cup games, not forgetting seven championship dates. “These are exciting times for us,” declares Gary. “The Ashes test on 1 August will require the highest-profile pitch we’ll have prepared since the third England test in 2015.”
Running a top team is “all about the culture,” explains Gary. “Everyone has earned their place and deserves to be heard. If you are genuine in your approach, you’ll shine. My approach is simple: work hard, be honest and deliver the level of expectation every time.”
His approach seems to have paid off as Edgbaston won a second GMA accolade in 2018 – the Headland Amenity Professional Cricket Grounds Team of the Year.
Deputy head groundsman Mark Johnson, 51, is Gary’s ‘right-hand man’. He’s been at Edgbaston since 1989 and he is “highly knowledgeable, works hard and very much practically based,” says Gary. Former policeman Ben Smith, 32, is taking his GMA Level 1 qualifications. “He’s improving year by year and will be progressing up the ladder in the future.” Brandon Johnson, 19, is also taking Level 1. “He’s an outstanding prospect – punctual, hardworking and a good all-rounder.” And nothing’s too much trouble for Martin Porter, 54, says Gary. “He came here after more than 20 years at golf courses. He does the jobs nobody sees, like irrigation, putting out flags to cover sprinklers so other team members can tackle the outfield and vertidraining. Martin ticks all the boxes.” Dave Keen, 47, arrived in 1995 and is Gary’s yardstick for gauging the team potential of job applicants. “He is extremely diligent. If you don’t get on with Dave, you don’t join the team.”
Gary values highly the timeline of experience that connects younger professionals with more experienced ones. “I learned so much from Steve Birks, head groundsman at Trent Bridge,” he recalls. “I was also blown away by the knowledge of more experienced groundskeepers – Mick Hunt, Eddie Seaward and Keith Kent to name a few – and talk about them to my team in the context of their vast experience. That continuity of transfer from younger to older generations is critical.”
Many more opportunities exist for young groundskeepers now, Gary believes, thanks to bodies such as the GMA’s Young Board of Directors. “They bring a fresh pair of eyes to the sector, pushing for progress while opening career paths for those entering the industry. The lower end needs to be better paid to attract more talent, though.”
A say in the future
Gary likes to be involved in discussions about Edgbaston’s future provision and 2019 is a particularly pertinent time as ground redevelopments loom. “Bridging the main ground and practice site is one option that would allow all our machinery and equipment to be stored in a single maintenance area, saving time and maximising security,” he explains.
“Building the shed in the corner of the main ground under the new stand would allow us to catch rainwater for use on the square and outfield and that would save running costs. In the run-up to the India test series last season, we were applying 147,000 litres of water nightly: capturing just 10 per cent of that as rainwater in underground tanks would make a dent in our water bill.”
Looking further ahead, Gary foresees solar panels on the shed in the next five to 10 years. “The days of saying ‘that’ll do’ have gone,” he says. “Our fleet will be all-electric eventually as part of that move.”
Baking the cake
Return to Division One means escalating media coverage and intense scrutiny of the square. “There’s always demand to play on the middle strips,” Gary explains. “We have nine Sky TV pitches for 14 Sky games now.
“After the final fixture, we cut the square at 2mm, scarify, remove all debris then water heavily before seeding with R9 mix,” he explains. Four or five bags of pre-seed fertiliser follow, then topdressing with Ongar Loam Plus 30 per cent clay, spreading and drag-matting crossways and vertically.
“We leave the square for two or three weeks before starting the biological programme – liquid seaweed applied monthly, hydrates and sulphurs to break up the soil, then base fertilisers. We cut to 22-25mm if needed but we don’t force it. We spray if disease shows up.”
Mid-February sees pre-season rolling in Union Jack formation, using blotters in two directions for a couple of hours, then Autorolling in three or four directions without water in the barrels.
Fourteen days pre-fixture, the team trims and cleans out the selected strip, lightly scarifies to see soil, a 12mm cut and drenches with water for two days.
Eleven days out, Gary takes the first moisture content reading. “About 38 per cent moisture content is the target, so we’ll roll with the 2.5 Autoroller with added weight to squeeze moisture up from depth.”
The process continues for four hours on days 11 and 10 pre-game, then from day nine through to day four the team applies the lighter Autoroller for about an hour a day.
“Brushing begins on day nine as well as a SISIS Combirake/brush every time we roll,” Gary explains, “along with a magic eight hours of rolling.” Two days before match day, the Combirake/brush is applied. “We’ve left the grass to grow through the process so we will look to cut now from 12-15mm, dependent on the game, meanwhile brushing regularly. Cut height drops from 12mm to 7mm as match day approaches.
On match day, it’s 5mm and brushing three or four times.”
Does Gary give the club a home advantage? “Ashley Giles, Warwickshire’s director of sport and the new director of England cricket, says we play on the best pitch we can and the best team will win.”
This feature was published in the February 2019 issue of the Groundsman magazine, written by freelance journalist Greg Rhodes
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