Cricket has been played on the same ground in the Welsh town of Cowbridge since 1895. Mike Bird visited the Vale of Glamorgan to learn how groundsman, Tim Williams, prepares wickets virtually single-handed for Cowbridge Cricket Club's three senior and four junior teams
Cowbridge Cricket Club enjoys a long and proud history which dates back to the final years of Queen Victoria's reign, when two local cricket teams amalgamated and took up residence at Cae Wyndham, a field provided for the purpose by local landowner, Mr E H Ebsworth, an enthusiastic follower of the game.
Located close to Cowbridge's busy high street, the ground hosted its first match in 1895 when Mr Ebsworth captained a Cowbridge XI against nearby Bridgend Cricket Club, appropriately hitting the first-ever runs scored on the new pitch.
More than a century later, the club continues to play on the very same ground, which has been owned since 1913 by the Cowbridge and District Athletic Club, this club having been formed specifically to take over and manage the ground.
Having paid Mr Ebsworth 500 guineas (£525) for the land, Cowbridge and District Athletic Club quickly established tennis, bowls, croquet and hockey sections to complement the resident cricket club. Renamed the Athletic Ground, the former Cae Wyndham field hosted all of the additional sports on dedicated areas laid out by the club.
A rugby pitch followed in the late 1940s when Cowbridge Rugby Football Club moved permanently to the Athletic Ground, sharing the clubhouse with the cricket club.
The first known groundsman employed to look after the cricket club's ground was former Middlesex and Norfolk all-rounder, William Russell, brought in by Mr Ebsworth in the early 1900s to maintain a wicket that had been laid by Alex Hearne from Kent. Whilst residing and working in Cowbridge, William Russell also played cricket for Glamorgan as a professional.
Over the years, Cowbridge Cricket Club has produced its fair share of first-class cricketers, among them J C (Johnnie) Clay, a right-arm spin bowler who played county cricket for Glamorgan from 1921 to 1949, four of those matches being staged at Cowbridge Athletic Ground in 1931 and 1932.
More recent graduates of Cowbridge Cricket Club who have gone on to represent Glamorgan are Ben Wright, Alex Jones and Hugh Morris, the latter being selected to play for England in three Test Matches in 1991.
Cowbridge also boasts a succession of dedicated groundsmen who have prepared fine wickets over the past century leading, ultimately, to the club's decision to enter the sphere of competitive league cricket. Having joined the Welsh Club Cricket Conference in 1971, Cowbridge won the league title three times in its first four seasons.
In 1993, Cowbridge applied successfully to join the South Wales Cricket Association and remains the only club to have played in all five of the Association's leagues, being represented today by 1st and 2nd XIs.
A third Cowbridge team - known as the West Wales XI - competes in the West Wales Cricket Association, whilst the club's four junior teams play in the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan Junior Cricket Leagues.
When one adds cup, fund-raising and friendly games to eighteen adult home league match commitments, it becomes clear that groundsman, Tim Williams, has his work cut out to prepare, repair, renovate and present top-class wickets week in, week out throughout the season.
That said, Tim manages to find time also to produce wickets for nearby Vale Cricket Club, which plays in the Glamorgan and Monmouthshire Cricket League.
"It takes me less than ten minutes to reach Vale's ground on the outskirts of Bridgend," pointed out Tim. "The club keeps the outfield mown, so I only have to prepare a good wicket and mark out the boundary before heading back to Cowbridge where I look after the entire ground."
For that task, Tim is supported by an enthusiastic band of club members whose maintenance duties lie mainly around the clubhouse and ground surrounds, rarely straying inside the boundary ropes where Tim's skills and dedication have been given virtually free rein since he took up his post in the autumn of 2009.
Recalling the events that led to his appointment, Tim explained that he first heard about the job when attending a groundsman's training course being given by Len Smith, former head groundsman at Glamorgan County Cricket Club.
"Len mentioned, after class, that Cowbridge was looking for a cricket groundsman to take over from Bernard Cooke who had been doing a sterling job for many years but was wanting to take life a bit easier," said Tim. "I made contact with the club the following day, was interviewed within a week and was delighted to be given the job, helped by a good reference from Len Smith."
Tim explained that he had entered the turf maintenance profession rather late, being in his mid thirties when he left the building supplies trade to embark on a totally new career.
"You could describe me as a mature, yet keen student of the art of groundsmanship," he said. "Having spent my early working life stuck in an office, I got the urge to work outdoors. I've always been keen on sport and reckoned that you can't be much further outdoors than working as a groundsman, so I set about training for my new career."
Starting work at Cowbridge Cricket Club in October 2009, Tim was responsible for preparing the square for the 2010 season, producing all of the wickets used by the club's teams that year, before embarking on autumn renovations.
In 2011, Tim was asked by the committee of Cowbridge Rugby Football Club if he would be willing to repair, set out and line-mark the rugby pitch ahead of matches, becoming, in effect, groundsman for both cricket and rugby clubs based at the ground.
"The pitches are adjacent to each other, with the groundsman's shed positioned strategically between the two playing surfaces," pointed out Tim. "Although there is an overlap between cricket and rugby in April and August, I could see no problem in taking on added responsibility for a winter sport. I was glad also to have the work through the winter."
m explained that pitch set-up and white-lining takes him between two and three hours a week, his spray-type marker also being used in the summer around the cricket ground's boundary.
Mowing is currently outside Tim's remit as the rugby club does not own a suitable machine, preferring to employ a local contractor to trim the pitch, as and when required.
"I would love to have a ride-on rotary mower for the rugby pitch which could be used out of season on the cricket outfield," commented Tim. "It would allow me to keep the grass at an optimum length for rugby and not rely on a contractor who is not always available at exactly the time that the grass needs attention."
"However, I do understand that the two clubs have to prioritise their available funds, and a ride-on mower for use primarily on the rugby pitch is not a priority at the moment."
Tim has fared rather better when it comes to keeping the cricket outfield in trim following the club's purchase, in 2008, of an Allett Regal 42 cylinder mower with trailing seat.
"We are fortunate to have a committee that understands the importance of maintaining top-class presentation of the square and outfield throughout the playing season," commented Tim. "The Allett is ideal for the job, producing a good cut and clear stripes whilst also beneficially rolling the turf. Cutting height is set between 12mm and 15mm during the season and 18mm to 25mm out of season, depending on the weather and weekly grass growth."
For overall mowing of the square, Tim uses a 60cm Ransomes Matador, keeping his Ransomes Super Bowl 51 for preparing individual wickets, cutting no lower than 4mm ahead of a game.
"When it comes to first team wicket preparations, I start work around ten days before an upcoming game, cutting out, rolling and verti-cutting the wicket initially to get the pitch into the condition that I want," explained Tim. "We have covers at Cowbridge, so I able to protect the wicket from the weather to maintain the ideal moisture content as preparations proceed."
"I will normally be brushing, cutting and rolling the wicket every other day in the immediate lead up to the game, finishing off with marking-out the ends on the morning of the match."
Tim pointed out that the club's thirteen wicket square is capable of producing nine top-class wickets with sufficient boundary distance for all of the club's senior league fixtures. The result is that the best wickets may have to be used two or three times during the season for games involving the second and west Wales elevens, plus some of the junior sides.
To help spread the load across the square, the club has installed a synthetic pitch alongside the outermost edge nearest the clubhouse for use in friendlies and by juniors.
"My first job on a Monday, following a first team game, is tidying-up the wicket and filling in bowlers' footmarks using damp Ongar loam," pointed out Tim. "I will then be brushing, cutting, rolling and white-lining the strip ready for the following weekend's game."
One consequence of playing on a ground that has hosted cricket for almost 120 years is a build-up of compaction, caused by a succession of booted feet and the sustained use of a heavy roller in an effort to improve pitch performance, consistency and safety.
Add to these physical inputs the fact that Cowbridge's ground sits on low-lying land with an alluvial sub-base, and the risk of water saturation is much higher than it would be on a free-draining limestone soil.
In 2012, prolonged periods of heavy rain resulted in areas of standing water that delayed the start of games until Tim had been able to "sponge away" the puddles using the club's water remover.
"The build-up of compaction was also having a detrimental effect on grass shoot and root growth, so we called-in a contractor to deep aerate the square in November last year, followed by 12mm solid-tining," said Tim. "The latter work was carried out by Keith Exton, head groundsman at Glamorgan's SWALEC stadium, and is one of a range of services offered to local clubs by Glamorgan County Cricket Club."
Tim pointed out that tine aeration used to be a normal part of Cowbridge's autumn renovations programme, but had been deferred until the new grass seed had become established on the advice of ECB pitch advisor, Gordon Gill.
As a result, solid tining was carried out by Tim in late autumn this year using a Groundsman aerator borrowed from the South Wales Cricket Groundsmen's Association (SWCGA), which Cowbridge Cricket Club joined in 2013.
"The association is one of four similar volunteer-led organisations established by Cricket Wales throughout the country to provide advice, guidance and support to groundsmen on cricket ground maintenance, preparation and improvement," explained Tim.
"Each association owns a trailer and a useful selection of specialist equipment that is available to member clubs that cannot afford nor justify owning a specific machine. The equipment we borrow is kept at Neath Cricket Club and is a most welcome asset for clubs across south Wales."
Tim points out that, for a town cricket club playing local league cricket, Cowbridge has an excellent collection of machinery ranging from an Autoguide Auto-Roller to a CP10 knapsack sprayer.
"The equipment is mostly pre-owned, obtained over a number of years from a variety of reliable sources, near and far," he said. "However, our Allett Regal mower was purchased new, as was the Sisis Rotorake 600. The latter is probably the most frequently used machine on the square as it can be fitted with scarifying and brushing heads, both of which are in action several times each week ahead of home matches."
The Rotorake was the principle machine employed also within the club's 2013 autumn renovations programme.
Having cut the square in two directions using the Superbowl 51 set at 3mm, Tim scarified the entire area in three different directions with the Rotorake 600, going slightly deeper each time; the final pass being in line with the direction of play.
With all debris swept up and barrowed off the square, the scarification grooves received a final brushing ready for overseeding. This year, Tim applied Barenbrug's Bar Extreme seed mix using the club's Allen pedestrian spreader, applying a total of 35gm/sq metre over three separate passes.
Topdressing and levelling of the wicket ends of the square was carried out by specialist contractor, Wayne Duggan, using a tractor-trailed topdresser applying Binders Ongar Loam. Finally, the ends were overseeded by Tim with his pedestrian spreader.
A 5:5:10+Fe winter fertiliser was applied to the square in late November following solid tine aeration.
"One thing I've learned in my short time as a cricket groundsman is that the care and improvement of quality sports turf will never be an exact science," commented Tim. "This year, I solid tined the square in late autumn with the aim of encouraging root growth and moisture percolation.
Next year, I may try a combination of hollow tining and topdressing as a means of reducing organic matter and layering within the soil profile."
Tim pointed out that wickets had displayed good consistent bounce throughout last season and his next goal is to achieve and maintain pace of a similar quality.
"I'm always open to advice and shall keep on trying new ideas and different techniques in order to improve our wickets," he said. "One measure that I adopted last season, in an effort to improve pace and bounce, resulted from a recommendation made by advisor, Gordon Gill. He suggested that additional water, if needed, should be applied to the wicket around ten days before rolling to ensure that the roller is being used on a consistent soil profile, neither too dry nor too wet."
"Rolling a pitch which is of a consistent moisture content to depth definitely helped draw moisture more evenly from the wicket, enhancing pace and bounce when match day arrived. It's a fine balance, but appears to work."
In just four seasons, Tim Williams has made great progress in providing Cowbridge Cricket Club with wickets enjoyed and appreciated equally by players, umpires and spectators. And that, says Tim, is what being a groundsman is all about.
The author thanks Dr Jon Brazier and Tim Williams for assistance with photographs
What's in the shed?
Allett Regal 42 cylinder mower c/w trailing seat
Sisis Rotorake 600 c/w scarifier and brush attachments
Ransomes Super Bowl 51 fine turf cylinder mower
Ransomes Matador 60 cylinder mower
Laser spray linemarker
Sisis pedestrian wheeled scarifying rake
90cm pedestrian sarrel roller
Pedestrian drag lute
Surface water remover
Allen pedestrian spreader
Cooper Pegler CP15 15 litre knapsack sprayer
Atco pedestrian rotary mower