On-song Ben's perfect pitch

When you're returning a volley or hitting a six this summer, spare a thought for the folk keeping the grass in fine fettle.

When you're returning a volley or hitting a six this summer, spare a thought for the folk keeping the grass in fine fettle. Steven Russell finds out about life as a groundsman

IF BATSMAN Ben Connell ever feels like cursing the groundsman for a dodgy bounce, he doesn't have to look far for the guilty party - for he's the man paid to prepare a perfect wicket. By coincidence, he plays for Felixstowe Cricket Club for fun, and maintains the square as part of his job as a municipal groundsman.

“If it's a bad wicket, then I get moaned at,” he admits with a grin. “You're always watching, hoping it will play true.” Do his team-mates ever rib him, then? “A little bit, if there's a funny bounce. There are a lot of grounds where an unpaid volunteer will do the wicket. This is my paid job; I think they probably expect a bit more than from a volunteer - rightly so.”

It's an unusual situation, but one he takes in his stride. In fact, the wooden plaque behind his shoulder shows he was player of the year for 2005. He must be doing things right.

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Ben, 26 this month, began work last summer with Suffolk Coastal Services Ltd, which looks after council-owned courts and pitches. Before that he was at Felixstowe Lawn Tennis Club for eight years.

Under the aegis of head groundsman Ben and apprentice Tom Mayes are Felixstowe Cricket Club's square in Dellwood Avenue, two hockey pitches alongside, and two grass tennis courts. Just across the way is Felixstowe & Walton United's soccer pitch.

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At The Grove are seven pitches used for Sunday morning football, with another at Walton recreation ground. “And at Coronation Park, where Felixstowe Corinthians Cricket Club play, there's a square, and two small-scale football pitches, and one junior football pitch. And a rugby pitch. I think that's it!”

This is one of the busiest periods of the year - a time of seasons overlapping - with cricket under way and football creeping towards the end of the campaign.

“Five days a week I do half-seven until 5pm,” says Ben. “At the weekends, between us, we've got to come in Saturday mornings, Sunday mornings, either to put up football nets or, during the cricket season, to finish off the wicket.”

In winter, normal hours drop to 8am-3pm. “It's mainly keeping things ticking over: looking after the football and the rugby, really - keeping the hockey pitches cut and marked out.”

So, why does he love the job?

“Having put a lot of work into something, it's the satisfaction of seeing an end result - for example, with the football pitch, when it's nice, when it looks pretty, and they're playing on it.”

Ben recently won the county Local Authority Groundsman of the Year award, presented by the Institute of Groundmanship and the Football Association - although, as he's been in the job only since last June, he's the first to acknowledge the hard work of his predecessors.

The award focused on Felixstowe & Walton United's pitch.

“It's judged on grass cover, condition, and the ratio of how many games are played on it compared to how well it's held up,” he explains. “We have near-on 100 games on there every year, plus training.

“It's not as pretty as pitches you see on the telly, but they take into account how well it's held up considering how much play it's had. At worst we had five games in a week.”

The pitch came back to Ben and Tom this week for maintenance. “They'll get it back off us 10 weeks later, I think - sometime in July. You've just got to get in there quick and get the work done.”

The goal areas will need considerable TLC. “What's happened over time is that the top dressing in the goalmouths has mounted up. We're going to rotovate it and drag the soil out so we can level it off, so it will be flatter than it is. You can see that it goes up a little bit in the goals.”

It will then be seeded, Verti-Drained (holes put in the ground to improve aeration and drainage), and top-dressed - with time being of the essence so the grass gets a chance to become established.

Does it mean peak-time holidays are a no-no, then?

“I can take summer holidays, but I haven't taken one since I've been working in grounds. I always do it during the winter, when it's quiet time,” says Ben, who nevertheless sports a healthy colouring thanks to the hours spent outside.

The cricket field and tennis courts get an autumn-winter fertiliser. “We'll keep an eye open for disease, and we can spray if necessary, to prevent or cure. And we'll cut them as and when needed.

“The grass won't grow, I think, below 7C. So during the bulk of the winter the grass isn't going to grow anyway. We have long periods when we don't do very much to the squares and courts after our autumn renovation, which will be scarifying” - like high-speed raking, with thin blades getting rid of moss, thatch and dead material - “spiking, top-dressing, seeding”.

Cricket can eat up the most preparation time, with a good wicket tending to reflect how much effort has been put into it. It's a delicate balance, and experience counts for a lot.

“It's difficult to try to judge when I put my last water on, how quickly it's going to dry out. Are we going to have three days of 30 degrees, or is it going to be 15 degrees and cloudy? You have to judge how much water you're putting on, how much you're rolling, how much grass you're taking off. You've got to try to judge with the weather.

“Some wickets will turn out great. And some of them you'll do exactly the way you did the week before, but there'll be a funny bounce and you'll thing 'Oh . . .'”

Is the British weather a groundsman's biggest enemy, then?

“It can be. Fortunately here we have covers, (costing about £6,000) so we can keep the rain off the wicket if we need to.”

What about this theory of an east coast micro-climate?

“I'm told that we're the third-driest place in the country. We quite often see the clouds looming over Ipswich and Trimley - big black clouds - and people who have come down from Trimley say 'Oh, it's been chucking it down,' and we've got blue skies here. It will go down the river.”

Is that a help or a hindrance?

“A lot of the time it does help, because we can always put water on - as long as there's not a hosepipe ban - but you can't take it off! It's better, perhaps, that we do have a bit more control over it.

“Sometimes you want the rain, because there is nothing like it. You can put the water on all day and it might not green up at all if it's a bit dry. But you get an hour of heavy rain and it will green up just like that. It's obviously certain nutrients that are in the rainfall. Nothing's quite like a good rain.”

The climate really does make its presence felt. “In the winter, if it's really cold and we're marking seven football pitches, which will take us an hour of steady walking, you're actually sweating under your jacket, because you've built up the heat.”

The council, by the way, supplies sun lotion. And Ben manages to work with grass despite suffering from hay fever. Luckily, he tends only to suffer a blocked nose, rather than itchy and watery eyes, and reckons he can keep it under control if he starts using nasal spray early in the season.

What's his ambition?

“That's difficult. I would like to work at a ground where you've got professional sport being played. You get a certain buzz from having professionals play on the surface that you've put so many hours into.

What about tending the courts at Wimbledon?

“It doesn't take that much to get a job there, but you'll be one of 30, or whatever. I don't think I'd get the satisfaction. Down here” - at Felixstowe's tennis club - “the satisfaction was that I'd do absolutely everything: from ordering the fertiliser to applying it, organising the repair of machinery, and using it.”

Of more immediate concern than career plans is the house into which Ben has recently moved, after three years back at his parents' home. Will he lavish time on his own garden?

He laughs. “When I moved back, Dad said 'Oh, I'm going to have the nicest lawn now you're back.' Well, I do it all day at work; I don't want to come home and do it in my spare time! But, yeah, I'm going to have to go and buy a lawnmower . . . But at least my garden's a lot smaller than what I've got to look after here, thankfully!”

IT was his lifelong love of sport that had Ben Connell considering a career as a groundsman.

The former Deben High School pupil went on to study at Otley College. When he started an NVQ in sports turf management he was offered a work placement at Felixstowe Lawn Tennis Club - which is where he ended up working. “I got offered a job at a golf club, but they were only willing to pay me £45 a week, and that would only just cover my petrol! So I thought 'No thanks.'”

It was the right choice. Ben was there for eight years - responsible at that time for 15 grass courts. “It used to take me most of the day to cut the courts, with a 22-inch mower. I worked out, and I believe I'm right in this, that in cutting all the courts I walked about 12 kilometres each time!” he laughs.

The Bath Road club is in the international tennis spotlight each summer, when it stages the East of England Championships - a tournament that attracts some talented players, such as one-time British number one Elena Baltacha.

“Yeah, there are some big names that have played there. Baltacha was there; (Amelie) Mauresmo - she was there the year I started, I think. But it's hard to remember, because a lot of those come along and maybe will be famous a year or two later. Justine Henin was there - but I can't remember her!”

HIS job keeps him pretty busy most weekends, but Ben Connell squeezes in time for another of his sporting loves: Exeter City Football Club.

Five or six times a year he'll usually catch The Grecians when they play within reach of East Anglia: in London, perhaps; or in Woking, Oxford or Gravesend. Once a year, he'll make the trek to Devon for a home game, leaving Suffolk at 5am.

So how come he's a long-distance supporter of a Nationwide Conference team?

“I was a Chelsea fan, and then they started getting foreigners in and all that - this was in the early '90s - and I sort of went off it a little bit. Then I thought I'd follow a second club. I just picked out Exeter; they were midway in the then Division Two. Then they became my first club.

“My dad used to have to take me to matches, me being 13, I think, the first time I went to see them. I couldn't drive, so dad had to come with me, and now he's as big a fan as I am.

“You get to know all the people there. You get to speak to the people who run the club; whereas the normal Chelsea fan wouldn't get to talk to Roman Abramovich (the owner). It's a bit more personal.”

And there are moments of drama. Exeter gave mighty Manchester United a fright in the FA Cup in early 2005, for instance.

“We managed to get tickets for Old Trafford, so that Saturday we went to Old Trafford and the very next week we went in the FA Trophy, I think it was, to Billericay!”

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