Paul Edwards offers some seasonal thoughts ahead of the New Year.
I spent most of Christmas Day visiting cricket grounds. An old friend and I take advantage of the almost empty roads and our relatively free time to drive to clubs we wouldn't visit in the normal run of a season. A few years back it was the Birmingham League; last year, the Bradford area; this Christmas it was the turn of the Lancashire County League plus Hyde and Compstall, so there we were at Thornham, Dukinfield, Woodhouses and more Dentons than you could shake a stump at.
Good fun it was too, but even in late December I rather wondered how long it would take some of the grounds to dry out. Even on outfields unmarked by massive puddles, the turf was saturated and the water rose above the welts of my shoes whenever I took a step or two on the sodden earth. It was difficult at such moments not to ponder the lives of the people whose job is to prepare such land for cricket.
Lancashire's groundsman Matt Merchant has lived with the vagaries of the English climate for most of the 23 years he has been on the Old Trafford staff, yet even he was surprised by the amount of rain which came down during the 2012 season.
"I've never known a summer like it," said Merchant. "It was the year when four-day games returned to Old Trafford but there were long periods when the square was hardly uncovered. Neither air nor the right amount of water could get to the wickets, and the result was the pitch we played on against Worcestershire."
Lancashire fans may remember that the match against Daryl Mitchell's side ended in a 207-run defeat, but few supporters stayed on for the subsequent wicket inspection by the ECB Pitch Panel, an experience the Old Trafford groundsman describes as possibly "the tensest and most nerve-wracking situation" of his professional life.
Merchant knows there may be more fraught days ahead in 2013, a few of them connected with the Test match against Australia which begins on August 1st. But he does not demur when it is suggested that the Ashes game will also be the highlight of his career to date.
"This is the one you look forward to," he said. "You're nervous, of course, but the preparations are going fine at the moment. We have a choice of two wickets for the game and we'll make a decision based on grass cover and levels in April or early May."
The decision whether to play on the strip used for last season's England Lions game or that on which the rain-wrecked t20 international was played in September will be made by Merchant and Lancashire's Cricket Director Mike Watkinson. Then the groundstaff will get the chosen pitch ready for the Test; and on the morning of the game, in a moment faintly redolent of an ancient religious ceremony, the wicket will be handed over to the umpires just prior to the toss.
Much of the rest of Merchant's time will be taken up in readying Old Trafford to host six first-class games and a host of one-day matches, some of which will be televised. "We sometimes have more TV games than TV pitches," he admits. In addition there are outground fixtures at Liverpool and Southport and a number of second team games, for all of which high-quality wickets must be prepared.
It is a tough schedule for the Lancashire groundsman and his men. So, at a time of year which is traditionally filled with resolutions, good wishes, all manner of kerfuffle and a general knees-up, perhaps it would be pleasant if Lancashire supporters join me in sending our best wishes to Matt Merchant as he gets ready for perhaps the most important summer of his career.
Photo of Matt Merchant (c) Simon Pendrigh