Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Cricket: Seddon Park's dirtiest secrets revealed

In summer, a 20m strip of clay represents the most-obsessed about land in the country. Dylan Cleaver spends a day or two with the Seddon Park ground staff.
Karl 'KJ' Johnson, head groundsman and pitch whisperer inspects his  work ahead of the second test against Pakistan in Hamilton. Photo / Greg Bowker
Karl 'KJ' Johnson, head groundsman and pitch whisperer inspects his work ahead of the second test against Pakistan in Hamilton. Photo / Greg Bowker

Not going to lie to you, this is a story about soil. And the grass that pokes its hardy leaves up out of the dirty stuff.

We'll talk a little bit about the guy who is in charge of the dirt and grass but the star of this story is and 20x3m strip of crew cut grass that sits in the middle of 1.5 hectares of manicured lawn in the heart of Hamilton.

"It's 60sq m of turf that gets a lot of people talking... and writing," says Karl 'KJ' Johnson, staring at my A5 notebook.

Johnson is about as close as you get to a celebrity groundsman in New Zealand and only appeared mildly embarrassed when this is mentioned to him. He drives a sponsored ute of notable girth with his name emblazoned on the side. Everyone in town knows who KJ is.

He manages the turf here at Seddon Park and its close neighbour FMG Stadium. He has turf-managed Emirates Airlines vast sports facilities in Dubai and been seconded by the ICC to prepare cricket grounds in Los Angeles for World Cup qualifiers.

When the All Blacks played in Apia last year, it was KJ they sent for to ensure the ground was playable.

He has a crew of helpers, including 2IC Andrew Brown and left-hand man Andrew 'Horace' McMecking and seven other employees that are distributed around Hamilton's council-owned sports facilities.

They're busy, doing busy things with ludicrously expensive equipment. You could walk into an Audi dealership and drive a 2016 Q3 six-speed off the lot and have change left over for what Seddon Park's outfield mower costs.

Still, it's a bloody nice mower.

When the Herald arrives to spend a couple of days with the crew, the second test against Pakistan is a day away. There's ominous clouds gathering out beyond Raglan, where the bad weather comes from, and already the pitch is the centre of attention.

"We're two days out and they're talking about how green it is," says Johnson, shaking his head. "I'm pretty happy with where we are at the moment."

The ground staff's best intentions have been hamstrung by a Waikato spring that has been both cold and wet. Really wet.

"You can do your best work down here," he says, pointing at the wicket, "but if you don't get help from up there [the sky] there is a limit to what you can do." The sky is the limit then.

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The colour of a wicket can be a little misleading. Johnson begins a lengthy explanation of evapotranspiration, which is, essentially, the sun drawing moisture out of the ground through the leaf of the plant. This is what can a wicket its green appearance.

There are ways you can prevent this process by "bruising" the grass but to steal from Newton's Third law, for every action there is an equal reaction. Take the green out of the wicket too early and you might have a wicket that is too dry, where the bounce is low and the pace slow.

"This is where the art side of it comes in," says Johnson. "The wicket is a living, breathing thing and living breathing things don't always behave exactly how you want them to."

Johnson has a whole stack of these aphorisms but the equating of turf management to art is one he'll return to. The science side of it - moisture levels, disease control and the like - can be learned by anyone, but you've really got to love your job to develop the artistic side; that ability to coax almost human characteristics out of clay.

The string-lines are out and the creases being marked and painted. It is to-the-millimetre work. Just last month a pitch used for Victorian premier club cricket was discovered to be 2.44m too long. Unfortunately it wasn't discovered until after stumps when bowlers complained about how hard it had been to find their lengths.

Andrew Brown paints the creases a day before the start of the second test at Hamilton. Photo / Greg Bowker
Andrew Brown paints the creases a day before the start of the second test at Hamilton. Photo / Greg Bowker

There are stories that circulate among curators in New Zealand, too, of internationals being played on pitches where the creases haven't been aligned properly.

"It happens," Johnson says, "you just have to make sure it doesn't happen to you."

It seems an opportune time to remind Johnson of the time when a test against South Africa in 2004 was nearly called off because a crater appeared in the pitch. The enduring memory of the game was a front-page photo of Johnson appearing to take to the pitch with a sledgehammer. Although Johnson's hammering was all for an innocent cause (he was tamping down the edges of the crater), for those of a certain vintage it had strains of Basil Fawlty's unforgettable assault on his car with a tree.

"That was the darkest day of my career. That was horrible," he said. "As [match referee] Clive Lloyd stopped play and was walking out to inspect the wicket I thought if he calls this game off I might be looking for a job at Whitcoulls by Monday.

"Old ladies were coming up to me in the supermarket after that and telling me to sort out the pitch."

The test continued and petered out to a draw but the damage was done, especially when New Zealand's left-handers refused to bat on it during the second innings.

Seddon Park would be removed from the international circuit for three years as improvements were made. It returned with a Chappell-Hadlee one-dayer. In the previous match New Zealand had chased down 336 with eight balls to spare on what was a belter of a wicket. To say Johnson felt under pressure would be underplaying it.

Australia scored 346, New Zealand chased it down with three balls to spare and one wicket in hand. It was a magnificent game. Johnson celebrated the 'win' like a player would. It remains his career highlight.

On the eve of the test Johnson will be joined in the middle by New Zealand coach Mike Hesson and Pakistan's brains trust of Micky Arthur and former Black Caps' coach Steve Rixon. They have more riding on the answer to the question everybody wants to know: what will the pitch do? Johnson treats both camps with equal deference.

"It's a bowl first pitch," he tells me.

Tim Southee tries to get some inside intelligence on the state of the wicket. Photo / Greg Bowker
Tim Southee tries to get some inside intelligence on the state of the wicket. Photo / Greg Bowker

This thirst for knowledge does not end when the umpire's call play.

One of the nicest traditions of New Zealand cricket is to allow the patrons on to the ground during the lunch break. Within seconds of the players leaving the field, grown men and women will be standing around the edge of the roped-off wicket block staring intently at that strip of closely mown grass, asking it to offer up its secrets.

Is there still any moisture? Are the bowlers' footmarks going to create opportunities for the spinners? Is there any sign of cracking in the surface of the wicket?

It seems so perfectly natural to cricketophiles but the sight of adults standing around a block watching grass die must be an alien concept to anybody else.

In truth it is what is underneath the grass that matters most. It just so happens that Johnson loves a good natter about clay.

Seddon Park has nine strips, or wickets. The five strips on the city side of the wicket block are Patumahoe clay, the four on the Frankton side of the ground are Waikari. Out the back the nets are also split and are prepared to as closely replicate the wicket block as possible.

The differences between the clays are important.

The latter is used mainly for one-day cricket. It has medium bounce. It turns, though somewhat slowly. The future of Wakairi is fraught, with the North Canterbury farm from which it is sourced recently sold.

Patumahoe is a non-swelling clay, as opposed to Waikari. This is important in terms of their preparation when you are trying to get optimum "bulk density", referred to by laymen as hardness. This is achieved through rolling. The heavier rollers will be used on the Waikari.

(The team have plenty of rollers, from a 200kg tiddler that zips up and down the wicket for a tidy up, to the rarely used three-pin, 10-tonne machine that looks like it has been borrowed off a roading gang.)

The North Otago town of Kakanui is the other main supplier of clay for wicket blocks, being used at University and Hagley Ovals.

No story about soil would be complete without reference to Port Albert. The Kaipara Harbour town provided the oft-maligned clay for Eden Park back in the bad old days. Rarely did balls bounce over thigh height. It was partly responsible for what must rank highly in the list of worst tests ever played, where New Zealand declined the opportunity to chase a target of 157 in 62 overs.

On top of all this fascinating clay sits a mat of hardy ryegrass. Johnson has toyed around with couch (pronounced cooch) on the Seddon Park banks but the hardier rye suits New Zealand's cooler climes better.

The problem with grass is that it is constantly under attack. You're reminded of this when you answer the call of nature in the groundsman's shed. This is no place for swimsuit calendars. Instead it has glossy posters of some dreadful beasts like Greasy Cutworm, the Tasmanian Grass Grub. There's a poster highlighting diseases like the Fusarium Patch and the catastrophic Thatch Collapse.

There is also a poster celebrating the great innovations in irrigation, because who doesn't need reminding from time to time of the simple brilliance of the Archimedean water screw.

Irrigation will be an unwanted theme of this test.

On the first morning of the match, the relaxed vibe of Thursday has been replaced by the grim acknowledgement that the rain radars forecast a busy day for the crew.

"If we don't start at 11am, I don't think we'll get on at all today," says McMecking, who appears to be the Jim Hickey of the team.

There is some comfort that if they do come off today they won't get back on, so dire is the forecast.

The covers are peeled nervously back as the weather holds to reveal a verdant strip similar to Christchurch a week before. Pakistan win the toss and surprise nobody by inserting New Zealand. Jeet Raval is dropped in the first over and Tom Latham is caught.
It's lively enough all right.

Johnson doesn't look so much at the extravagant seam movement. He knew that would happen for the first session or two. He's more interested at how far back the keeper is standing and whether he's catching the ball with his fingers pointed up. That indicates pace and carry. He seems pretty happy.

Just prior to lunch the rain comes. The crew spring into action. McMecking is right, too, there will be no further cricket on Friday.

The test has played out to a day five conclusion that you will have plenty of opportunity to read about elsewhere.

Large chunks of the test have been lost to rain. It has been an enervating experience for the ground staff.

"I have a lady from a back-rub company coming in later," says Johnson on the phone from Hamilton. "There's a few broken men here.

"It's the toughest test I've ever worked. I've never had to do so much covering and deal with so much water."

More rain equals more back-breaking work for the ground staff. Photo / Photosport
More rain equals more back-breaking work for the ground staff. Photo / Photosport

And the 60sq m patch of dirt, what's his thoughts on how that has behaved?

"There's a few cracks starting to show and that's great because there will be some variable bounce. In New Zealand our pitches don't break up and turn but on day four and five we want to see variable bounce.

"So I'm absolutely rapt."

Johnson will face a further examination, when he gets feedback compiled by the ICC match referee, the great West Indian batsman Richie Richardson.

That's when the groundsman's labours are brought into sharp relief.

The quality of Johnson and co's workmanship, their ability to meld the "living, breathing" qualities of grass and soil into something like a five-day sporting canvas, something like art even, will be judged in a few short paragraphs.

It can be a dirty job.

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