Sussex by the sea

Neville Johnson went to the seaside to cricket’s oldest first class county to talk to Ben Gibson, the youngest head groundsmen in the first class game.

Sussex County Cricket Club was formed in 1839. The 1st Central County Ground, Hove, the club’s headquarters since 1871, offers the perfect balance between all that’s traditional in cricket with the needs of the modern white ball game.

It was for instance the first ground to install permanent floodlights, yet many of its regulars watch the game from the comfort of a deckchair. Day-night matches have been on the fixture list since 1997, when the ground was then only the second – behind Edgbaston – to stage cricket under lights in this country.

As if to reflect Hove’s perfect balance, it has the youngest head groundsmen in the first class game. Ben Gibson is just 31 and has been in charge there for three years now.

All the usual optimism and joy at the prospect of bat on ball out in the middle was severely put to the test the day we were there because the spring equinox had served up a beast of a day. The covers were on and it was very much an indoor day. Sussex players were hard at it in the practice marquee.

Ben filled us in on his life as a cricket groundsman and his thoughts on the game generally.

How did he get started and why cricket?

“I’ve always liked cricket, still do, but it was at an open day when I was at Brinsbury College, Pulborough that the idea of looking after cricket pitches first crossed my mind. I’d been chatting to David Horsman of Horsham Cricket Club, where I lived, and he suggested I went along to the ground and talk to groundsman Roger Ward about helping him. It was a ‘why not – give it a go’ moment, so I did and worked with Roger for two years, completing my apprenticeship. He taught me a lot.”

“I got to know Sussex head groundsman Andy Mackay from his involvement in the county’s outground matches played at Horsham. I came and helped at Hove during the winter months, then in January 2011 a chance to join Andy’s team full time came along. After working here for two or three months voluntarily, as an intern if you like, this was a big step up and a real start to my career, my first taste of being a real professional, my baptism into frontline cricket pitch care. Andy was the perfect mentor. I owe him so much.”

He went on to describe the set up at Hove. “There are nine of us full-time all told. My deputy is Chris Deere and there are four other groundsmen based at the Hove ground. I also have three working at the club’s two academy grounds.”

“I’m big on a maintaining a proper work-home balance and everyone in the team can cover for anyone else during time off or sickness. It is important, especially during the summer, for everyone to get away from the pressure and routine of work now and again. I’m so lucky, it’s such a brilliant team. I’ll do whatever I can to keep it like it is.”

“Sussex CEO Rob Andrew, former England rugby international, is amazingly supportive when it comes to funding equipment and materials. We have everything we need. The club owns all its own kit.”

The Hove playing surface has probably the most distinctive slope in county cricket. Ben recalls that when he joined the staff Andy Mackay said there was a 10 foot drop from the north east to the south west boundary. “A lot of work has been done on it over the years, so it is somewhat less these days, but nevertheless it’s a feature that has an effect on play. Bowling from the Cromwell End on the north side of the ground is noticeably easier than from the Sea End. Sides’ top pace bowlers nearly always opt for the former, and England paceman Jofra Archer, who leads the Sussex attack, was given Sea End duty when he first came to the county, but with seniority he readily switched to downhill.”

The square has 18 strips, but Ben only has eleven at his disposal for first class matches, dictated by boundary size. He says that over a season he will use each of them maybe twice. The central pitches are set aside for T20 fixtures, with probably an early Championship match or two to get this part of the square into play routine. It’s simply a matter of rotating the strips, he says. They play pretty consistently and the last to be relaid was probably five or so years ago.

Ben calls in contractors at the end of the season for annual renovation. Either Garsons or local firm Grasstex of Horsham help with koroing, top dressing and re-seeding. In the past couple of years, Ben says that all told 30mm has been taken off the square’s surface. Removal of the thatch layer is the main issue and it is always dealt with efficiently.

Once autumn renovating is completed, winter at Hove for the ground staff is a time for machine servicing, including blade grinding. He is always well stocked up with machine spares.

“Doing our own servicing is a real money and time saver. If a mower suffers a mishap on the outfield by say picking up a stone or small item of debris, we can have it back working in a couple of hours instead of having to get it shipped out for repair. Jobs in the workshop are part of what we all do. I was trained and so is the rest of the team.”

Ben usually likes to get a number of rotary cuts done November time, but growth last year was slower than usual due to unhelpful weather and heavy rain washing away some of the fresh seed. Ben uses Johnson’s J Premier Wicket ryegrass mixture for outfield and square.

Conditions were far from favourable as winter became spring, according to the calendar. It was the day before the first pre-season friendly when we visited the Hove ground, but despite it being cold, grey and drizzly in the extreme, the outfield looked decently green and lush. Ben said he was praying for sunshine and warmth to speed up growth. The covers were on though and Ben’s 18 strips were hidden from view. Odd as it seemed on this dismal day, Hove is statistically one of the better grounds for weather affecting play. Hardly any time at all was lost last season.

Ah, Sussex by the sea! Hove is rightly the home of deckchair cricket. Barmy breezes and factor 30 sunshine. But it isn’t always like that. Ben says that not infrequently a decent day is spoiled by a quite sudden un-forecast cold sea mist, or fret as it is known, which makes watching and playing uncomfortable. The strength of the wind can be disruptive too.

Hove is the ground closer to the beach than any other, so it isn’t surprising that seagulls have an annoying presence.

“They peck holes in our sheets and damage sprinkler heads. I don’t blame them. They’re thirsty, and we offer a ready source of fresh water, but it is a nuisance we have to contend with year-round. They are rubbish spreaders too. Whenever we get a big crowd in, they peck at and distribute rubbish all over the place. They are messy devils, but it’s part of being at the seaside.”

“Quite often you can be mowing the outfield and one will settle in front of you and stay there defiantly – playing chicken you could say.”

In mid-January, a training marquee for players was erected at the Cromwell Road end behind the area of the ground always noted for its deckchair spectators. It is the third year Hove has adopted this pre-season facility, and for many of the first class counties it is becoming de rigueur as a means of creating outdoor playing conditions under cover. Sussex players use it three of four days a week in the run-up to first class matches, and the sound of bat on ball added an optimistic tone to a distinctly non-cricket day.

Drainage at Hove has always been helped by its slope and is seldom a major issue. However, the bottom south west corner can have a tendency to hold water when there’s an excess of it, and there has been the addition of a little extra drainage to keep things flowing. Ben’s predecessor, Andy Mackay, made sure drainage channels flowed around the square to avoid any overspill in excessive rain.

It is clear Ben is as much a cricket man as a groundsman, as we talk about the game as it is in 2023.

“The complex scheduling of white ball and 4-day championship matches means, like so many other counties, we don’t have outgrounds on our fixture list, which remembering my days at Horsham saddens me. For the time being, delightful grounds like Arundel and Eastbourne’s Saffrons are off the Sussex itinerary,” he said.

“The importance to counties of limited over success has gone through the roof in recent seasons. Winning is now so much more essential than it used to be, as is attendance, and the reliability of pitches under so much scrutiny. Having all your games at a single venue allows more control of things, and I suppose from the financial side of things makes sense.”

“I think all of us county groundsmen have added pressure these days to deliver quality pitches for every playing day of the season, though I’m very lucky here and the Sussex coaches have always been very supportive and understanding of the issues we have to overcome to achieve this.”

“If you’re a cricket groundsman, you know jolly well that you’re in the game, part of its process and outcome. In no other sport does the pitch have such a major bearing on how the game pans out. We have an active dialogue with coaches, umpires and occasionally match referees. We do have a say in things, good and bad, which keeps us on our toes. I love it.”

As a Sussex cricket fan, Ben was looking forward to a successful season for the club, but just then a bit of sunshine was higher on his wish list.

Article by Neville Johnson

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