Albert Widdowson was the Head Groundsman at Derbyshire County Cricket Club from 1899 to 1930. Walter Goodyear served for half a century in the role, while Barry Marsh managed 22 years, all of which suggests that – as with long-serving wicket-keepers and high class fast-medium bowlers – Derbyshire has a penchant for producing high quality groundsmen.
When Neil Godrich first began working as a schoolboy at Derbyshire Bill Clinton was about to be elected President of the United States, the film Jurassic Park was the big summer release and 21-year-old Dominic Cork produced a Gold Award-winning performance to secure the Benson and Hedges Cup for Derbyshire at Lord’s.
Heritage Officer, David Griffin caught up with Neil on a misty morning in early November to discuss his career at Derbyshire.
Before we go right back to the beginning of your time at Derbyshire, can I just ask how your close season work is going?
Fairly light at the moment although this is the time of year when I’m waiting for the fixture list to come out so I can start planning pitches for next season. The new Head of Cricket is due to be here soon and that means a chance to find out what he wants pre-season and also long-term. Otherwise, we just keep working on the square and outfield, especially after the fireworks night, just making sure everything is ticking over. I’ve been able to have a bit of time off as well.
Most people stop cutting lawns when they get to this time of year. Are you able to work on the outfield throughout the year?
We cut all year when the weather allows. We left the grass a bit high for the fireworks event as we had ten thousand people trampling over a damp outfield for several hours, but we like to keep the grass short to allow the rainfall to get through into the soil.
Returning to your earliest days at Derbyshire, what brought you here in the first place?
In 1993 I came here on Work Experience from school working for Steve Birks. My mum knew his mum and it was a case of our mums saying that if I had nothing else to do then come down and help out. Thirty years later and I’m still here.
What did Steve have you doing then as a young teenager?
Weeding. All week in the pouring rain on the old Grandstand. It was a nightmare! On the first day he gave me some coveralls and waterproofs and sent me with the old prisoners who we used to have here on a day release scheme just weeding the whole Grandstand for that week.
All for free?
Yes, the prisoners didn’t get paid and neither did I. Then Steve asked if I wanted to come down during the six weeks holiday if I wanted to and I must admit I did wonder if I really wanted to come down here on my days off to weed.
But I did come down and he got me working as a groundsman, cutting pitches and helping out everywhere with the general preparation of the ground.
Did you like cricket?
I did like it. I probably dislike it a bit more now (laughs) – probably because of the long hours. Cricket has evolved so much, and it was so much easier having a four-day game with a one-day game in the middle, then away for a week and then do it again. Now the games are all over the place and there’s greater practice needs.
You mentioned Steve Birks earlier, and when he went to Notts, Barry Marsh came back as Head Groundsman again…
Yes, the feeling was that I was too young to be a Head Groundsman because I was only nineteen and I was still the youngest Head Groundsman in the country when Barry left, and I took over at 22.
I remember the game against Surrey in 2000 when Derbyshire were docked points after winning what was generally considered a great game. Barry seemed to take that personally – is that fair?
Well the sheets had leaked, and water got under the covers. The weather during the night before the game started was awful and Barry took it to heart because we had worked above and beyond – through the night in fact – to try and keep everything dry. Barry thought he’d done far more than anyone could reasonably expect of him and that’s why he took it so personally. For Barry, after all those years, it was a kick in the teeth, and that was the reason he finally decided it was time to go.
It was actually a good game – and we won!
Yes, Di Venuto batted brilliantly, and it was just so disappointing for it all to end the way it did.
At that time were you the official number two to Barry?
I was deputy but working alongside Simon Marshall and then when Barry left, I had to apply for the job. Dominic Cork and John Smedley interviewed me and I obviously did alright.
You’re very experienced now but back then you were still very young. Do Head Groundsman work as a group despite the fact they’re scattered all over the UK?
Well we have a full meeting every three months, plus an annual awards evening, but we’ve also got a WhatsApp group where we share ideas and discuss problems. When we had vandalism to the covers, we were able to talk quickly to other groundsmen and borrow equipment in the short term. It’s good, it’s a close-knit kind of community really.
You mentioned a new head coach coming in right at the beginning. How does the head coach determine – if at all – what sort of pitches you prepare?
I’ve been very lucky here in that the coaches generally just let me get on with it. The last coach, Dave Houghton, said to me that he wanted all the nicks to carry but also that he wanted our batsmen to score plenty of runs. In other words he wanted pitches with pace and even bounce which is what I tried to do.
The challenge, of course, is that I’m supposed to be trying to give assistance to our bowlers AND our batsmen! But in twenty years I’ve not really had any interference which has been anything other than helpful.
Does it ever go wrong, for example where a pitch doesn’t play how you expect it to?
Well we’re working with grass. Take too much off and the pitch is dry and leave too much on and the ball goes sideways. But here at Derby the ball will nearly always do something on the first morning, but after that it’s pretty good for batting.
The ECB are keen to see spinners in the game and we’ve had spinners in our side for the past few years so an added incentive is to try and make sure there’s some turn later in the games.
I’ll give you a prime example, though, of what can happen out there. We played one game and the pitch played superbly – all the players agreed and then Luke Sutton came out to bat, the ball pitched and then literally rolled along the ground. It never bounced. It bowled him and it was the only ball to misbehave all game. I apologised to Luke after and said that I didn’t know what had happened. He was really good about it and said something about nobody knowing what lies just underneath the surface of the pitch.
Mind you, after that, I was watching every ball hoping we didn’t get a repeat.
And we’ve had points deducted in the past but all you can do is your best. No groundsman sets out to prepare a bad pitch.
I suppose your work is never-ending. Grass keeps growing.
Grass is resilient and it grows everywhere. Believe it or not, grass seeds blow in the wind, or get carried by birds, onto the top of the sightscreens and the grass even grows there. It’s a very natural thing but managing it can be quite technical.
Footballers, for example, want longer lush grass to allow the ball to bounce, watering the pitch before games. We want quite the opposite on our outfields – we don’t mind it looking lush, but we need it short, so we spend the entire summer cutting it.
Hybrid pitches are becoming fashionable and Steve Birks showed me one at Nottingham. It looks no different to full grass pitches so what are they and can they benefit Derbyshire?
Basically, a certain percentage of the pitch has artificial fibres stitched into it – similar to football’s AstroTurf – it means less wear and tear so you can get more games out of a pitch in a season. On the other hand, the ECB haven’t said we can play four-day cricket on hybrid pitches, and the ICC won’t let us play international matches on them so we’re limited to 50-over and T20 matches. Mind you, I think there can be a bit of tennis ball bounce with these pitches so there’s probably room for improvement.
It’s interesting and for me the jury is still out – the good points are that they dry faster and the footholds need fewer repairs. Hopefully before Christmas we’ll have two hybrids out the in the middle and one in the nets.
Most groundsman say they play well for T20 cricket, but I must admit I still prefer 100% grass. I mean, producing good cricketers comes from playing on a variety of pitches – there might be a bit more grass on the pitches here but at Taunton the pitches turn. At other grounds they’re good for batting. You need that variety.
What sort of working relationship do you have with the Match Referee and umpires?
Normally, the umpires will come in the day before a game unless they’re travelling a particularly long way. On match days they come out at 9am – they always want to know the weather forecast – and they have to be present when I cut the pitch. That’s at about ten past nine and they have to be there.
But at the start of a game, you decide on the length of cut grass on the pitch?
Yes, the pitch is mine at that point, and I’ll have a chat with the coach and captain and work out how long they want the grass to be. I’ll cut it at that height and then each morning on days 2, 3 and 4, I’ll set the mower at that height again and they’ll watch me cut it.
We can do the other work, like the footholds, but cutting has to be done in front of them.
What are the best – and worst – parts of the job?
Worst bit? The long hours. Rain actually isn’t that bad because if the rain has set in, we just sit and watch it like everybody else. It’s only when it stops that we can do anything. But the hours are the toughest part – training days in the game today are far more regular than they used to be.
The best bit? Sunny days, good games of cricket and a bit more time off in the winter. We’re working outdoors and grass never stops growing so we’re always working. I can’t complain.
What was is like working with international sides during lockdown?
The touring sides were great. Again, long hours, but they really showed their appreciation. With an international side staying in a hotel on the ground, they expected to be able to just leave their room and be able to use the facilities at the drop of a hat so we had to be on the ball. Pakistan, Australia and England Women were all here.
Plus we didn’t see anyone from the Derbyshire cricket staff for more than a year. It’s easier working with your own players because you know what they want, but it was a bit different creating a four-hole golf course in the outfield in 2020 for the tourists. I put mats down on the tees and there was the occasional divot to tidy up, but they were bored and understandably so.
But it was very intense – there was one period where we worked 30 days without a single day off.
Looking ahead, you’ve been here for 28 years, and in the top job for 20 years – can you see yourself outlasting Walter Goodyear?
Well, I’m married with a young family and I’m fortunate that my wife understands the demands of cricket and of my job. But younger people aren’t coming into the profession – in all sports – because, I think of the longer hours, and the need for perfect preparation. On the other hand, my wife comes home to a cooked dinner every day in the winter!
Getting the life/work balance is difficult – I always said I’d like to retire at 50 and I’m 43 now. I’m not looking to break records, but we’ll see.
What have been your favourite cricketing moments?
Winning the second division in 2012 – unexpected but brilliant. Going to Lord’s for the NatWest Final in 1998. We lost and got bowled out in dreadful conditions – we should never have played, really. The Women’s World Cup in 2017, and the 1999 New Zealand v Pakistan game and all the pitch invasions. But I think 2012 was the best – that win over Kent late in the season was the really key match. Great knock by Redfern.
How different to domestic cricket is international cricket from a pitch preparation and management perspective?
There’s more pressure because the ICC send in their pitch inspectors and the games are usually televised and everyone has an opinion about the pitch, but otherwise the job is essentially the same.
You obviously take great pride in your work – how do feel when the wagons roll in for concerts and other events?
The first one – Elton John – in 2017 did have me feeling a bit concerned, but then when I saw how well they covered everything and how quickly they got everything off the ground, I worried a lot less. I take these events in my stride now and they’re really good for the club financially.
You’ve mentioned the creation of a short golf course for the lockdown tourists. Any other strange requests down the years?
Azharuddin (Mohammad Azharuddin, overseas player in 1991 and 1994) used to get me to wash his car every week. He used to give me a pair of his sponsored Oakley sunglasses every time. Unbeknown to me, these sunglasses were worth £200 a pair and I had to tell him to stop giving them me as I was throwing them away. I also get asked about lawns all the time, but my wife does our garden, not me.
And what about your favourite players?
Of them all, and there have been many, seeing Brian Lara and Shane Warne playing here was brilliant.
And what of Derbyshire’s hopes for the immediate future?
The new coach will hopefully bring us a boost. We have some good youngsters and we now need someone to bring them through while the experienced players continue to deliver.
Neil, it’s been a pleasure hearing your story. Here’s to 2022.
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