As always, the groundsmen hold the key
They are the largely unseen, unheralded and so often taken for granted. But as the players are presented in their gleaming whites and most attendees appear in their best dressed form, these are the ones garbed in soil and stained gear of lesser appeal and favour.
Yet the role performed by the groundstaff stands as one most critical to the end result, whereby without their efforts no match of true quality would be possible and elements of danger exponentially rise for the on-field talent.
Both artists and scientists, with the ability to demonstrate precision within complex, changing variables, Cup Match groundskeepers must possess knowledge and aptitude for all conditions and genre in order to present a stage suitable for local cricket’s showcase event.
This year’s Classic pitting champions Somerset and underdogs St George’s at Somerset Cricket Club has Reid Jones in the role of “field marshal”, with his team of Herbie Brangman and Nico Smith responsible for providing a pitch suitable for the teams’ expert talents.
Smith has built his reputation as somewhat of a “grass whisperer”, through many years of refined course management at Port Royal Golf Course, while both Jones and Brangman hail from the groundsman tree of the late Winton “Timmy” Edwards, who, after starring as a batsman in Cup Match, earned legendary status as one of the island’s best caretakers.
“When I was a youngster, I was given the nickname of the ‘Portuguese of Somerset’, as I used to go around Somerset doing lawns, gardens and hedges for people, and when Somerset went to the turf wicket, I was one of the people that offered themselves to help,” said Brangman of his indoctrination into the field. “At the time, Timmy Edwards was the groundsman and I used to help him.”
Jones’s tutelage was quite similar, even though it arrived at a definitively later date.
“At about 13 or 14, during the summertime, my father would encourage me to go up to the club to help my cousin Timmy and during a Cup Match year and others I would go there and if he needed something from the shed, I would go get him whatever he needed,” said Jones of his early foray into the trade. “At the same time, he was teaching me and he allowed me to take the light handroller out of the gate, through Springfield [Nature Reserve] all the way to my house by Manchester Street to prepare a wicket right outside my home.
“And we guys would come out in full attire, in whites, with cricket gloves, pads, hard ball, scorebook. Friends today would say that I as destined to be a groundsman.”
Fast forward a few decades to a Tuesday evening a few weeks before the big game and there was Jones, post-playing career, cajoling the outfield into a lush, finely cropped lawn, while diagramming and moulding the clay square into one sought after by batters and bowlers alike, although decidedly meant to favour the home side.
And even though Cup Match occupies but two days in late July and early August, preparations are months in the making.
“What happens when I prepare a pitch for, let’s say, the Cup Match Classic, is a few months before I have a conversation with the coach and the captain, where we go through our game plan based on the nucleus of players and the strategy to be used,” explained Jones, with his trusted trade tools, including a framing square, a baton for marking the crease, white paint, twine and a century-old handmade roller laying near by. “It could be a spinner’s wicket or one based on form, so they tell me what they’re looking for and I abide by it.”
“Most times we want something that’s good for both batting and bowling, a balanced pitch, particularly as Somerset has a very balanced team.”
This year promises an exponentially tough road for St George’s, with the Somerset wickets having cascaded runs all year, with several scores in excess 300, and even a 400 total. And with the East Enders needing to bowl out the champions twice over the course of two days, the task appears most unenviable, perhaps impossible, although the green top seen earlier this week might offer at least a ray of hope for an upset.
“Earlier in the season I tried to get the [league] team’s confidence up and limited-overs cricket tends to lean towards the batsmen,” Jones said. “For open cricket you want to be more evenly balanced, but overs cricket leans more towards the batsmen and that was the case in the beginning.”
“The grassy top is a lot easier to manage. The first pitch we played on was kind of sacrificial, until we got the other ones up and going. That was the sacrificial lamb and run-getter while I got the others ready.
“People tend to look at the instance of more grass as a wicket more suitable to bowlers. It also helps to better knit the surface and keep it together.”
Jones is a serious man about the business of his craft and there are few items he is more intensely connected to than getting things right for Cup Match.
“It’s a real honour, not only for the Somerset community, but the whole island of Somerset fans, who expect the conditions to be first-class, as well as the wicket to be a winning wicket for their team,” he said. “So I have a big task on my shoulders, which I take very seriously and I put my best foot forward.”