Life’s a pitch in the birth of turf

18 November 2009

Written by: Tom Cowie

You stand outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground in complete awe. Contemplating the breathtaking sights of the stands, it is hard not to admire the intimidating light towers.

When you enter the ground, it is buzzing with excitement. The atmosphere is electric. As the players come out to begin battle, the crowd roars as one in a crescendo of anticipation.

But, suddenly, you avert your eyes to the stunning surface out in the middle of the arena. It is a luscious green colour that almost makes you feel a little jealous. Jealous because you know your lawn and garden can’t possibly compete with what you see.

While the sports stars attract most of the publicity when it comes to the sport media, spare a thought for the hard working curators and ground staff. You’d be surprised how tirelessly they work to make sure the outfield turf and cricket pitches are in top condition for the professional athletes to show off their skills.

Cameron Hodgkins is a man who is always under enormous pressure to deliver. He is the chief curator at the MCG and is constantly confronted with difficult situations. A classic example of his testing job is when he and his team had to convert the ground from an AFL football setting into a world-class cricket venue.

“The grand final finishes and the very next day we’ve excavated the centre (of the ground) and cleaned off the slab,” Hodgkins explained.

“We’re then arranging for road permits and all those fun things to bring the ‘drop-in’ wickets in one by one. And we have got ten of those.”

The whole process of re-arranging the centre of the ground takes around a week. The process of ‘dropping in’ the pitches is a large-scale production. It requires the closure of Brunton Avenue – the main thoroughfare next to the ground – and the use of cranes to lower the pitches into place.

Staff place the ‘drop-in’ wickets onto a concrete slab in the middle of the ground, while at the same time renovating the outfield.

“It is our only real opportunity to get rid of a lot of organics that have accumulated during the cooler months and really set ourselves up for the following winter, rather than the current summer.”

Hodgkins and his staff started preparing for the first cricket match at the MCG as soon as they could, with the first match taking place on 7th November when Victoria played Tasmania in a 50-over game.

Currently, the MCG uses sand as its surface base with cool climate rye and couch grass placed on top, giving a similar affect to a golf green.

The generalisation amongst most people is that curators only work throughout the summer period. However, Hodgkins, a curator of twenty years himself, says that it’s a complete twelve month job and requires more than one person.

“Despite what most people think (that it’s just a summer job), we’re always involved and we have got a staff here of seven. So they are required to complete what we need to get done.”

Interestingly, there are no articles or information about what Hodgkins and his team do throughout the AFL season. Running a Google search of Hodgkins’ name only uncovers some press coverage about the preparation of pitches for last year’s Boxing Day Test match and a few other cricket matches.

“Curators are normally just associated with cricket season. But I would say that over the last two football seasons, it has probably been my most challenging time of the year.”

Hodgkins admits that trying to produce a quality surface for AFL matches is more difficult than it seems.

“Quite often most people accept that a football ground is what it is. But now, with sports medicine and so forth, the turf has to comply with all the standards which the AFL has set. It has been a challenge for me.”

Spare a thought for curators of local grounds who, because of the horrible drought, battle hard to try and keep an even covering of grass across a whole field, let alone trying to keep the turf green.

Unfortunately, Australia is heading towards what could possibly be the hottest, driest and deadliest summer in our history. With summer approaching, Hodgkins and his staff are preparing to cope with the intense Melbourne heat by using wetting agents.

“From our point of view it’s a developing thing because we are coming from a history that hasn’t had to worry too much about it. But certainly now we are very conscious of wetting agents and we are making sure that we understand the efficiency of turf grass, rather than just giving it everything we want to give it.”

The MCG, due to its hosting of professional sports, is allowed special considerations and receives some leeway from the State Government in terms of water restrictions. But Hodgkins is adamant that they will use their special water restrictions sensibly and with care.

“In the past we have often irrigated to evaporation. So we monitored what evaporation we got during the week and we’d irrigate to 110% evaporation, so it was a more than copious consumption. Now we irrigate to 75% evaporation, so that’s a 35% saving right there and we are obviously conscious that if it doesn’t need irrigating we don’t do it.”

“Our grass selection and even the way we have developed our sand profile now has an artificial water table within it. So there are a few techniques we have developed as a result.”

A newly developed synthetic turf has been in the news recently, which could be used on suburban grounds in future years. Hodgkins believes that this fantastic development, which could save local turf grounds, may one day find itself being used at professional level.

“The new synthetic turf certainly could certainly be applied at a higher level of cricket. Whether that would be at first-class level or not, but I can’t see any reason why it couldn’t be used in that format due to cricket not being a head impact sport.”

“I suppose there will always be some question marks over player injury and so on, but a lot of those issues are being addressed.”

Plenty of research and emphasis is being placed on the new synthetic turf, which is just starting to reach our shores after being developed in the USA and Europe. Hodgkins believes that there will be some differences compared to regular turf.

“So much testing has been done on friction which eliminates the old burns people used to get (on real turf surfaces). I think there will be a certain amount of damage to clothing, but the old days of burns and so forth are behind us if the turf is well maintained.”

The general perception is that this new synthetic turf could possibly eliminate the role of the curator, because synthetic turf doesn’t require mowing, fertilizer or pesticides, but Hodgkins believes that the turf will require more preservation than less.

“The funny thing about synthetic turf is that it requires a lot of maintenance. You haven’t done the job by just putting synthetic in. It creates a lot of debris and algae on top and, believe it or not it even needs irrigating.”

Hodgkins is currently in his second year as chief curator of the MCG. And with one year of experience now under his belt, he is more prepared than what he was this time last year.

“I think I was probably a little bit naïve last year. But now I know what I’m in for and I’m much more conscious of how important my role is within what we do.”

“I wouldn’t say it is any easier (than last year), but there are a few unknowns which are out of the way.”

A former curator of the Bellerive Oval in Hobart, Hodgkins says that while he’s enjoyed his previous jobs, nothing compares to the aura and challenges of the MCG.

“I guess it is probably the pinnacle of what I do in terms of being a curator,” Hodgkins explained.

“Just being able to test myself and whether I could manage all the turf aspects and requirements of the MCG was certainly something that attracted me (to the job).”

“I love what I did down at Bellerive, but it would be rare for someone to pass up the opportunity to be in charge at the MCG.”

And when he has a spare moment in his very busy schedule, Hodgkins pinches himself knowing that he is in a dream job.

“Quite often I find myself out here on a weekend during cricket season and it’s pretty hard to believe that I’m managing all the green stuff around me. And it’s such an impressive view as well, especially of the northern stand. So you could find a lot worse places to be.”

So this summer, whether you are taking the field or watching from the couch, think about all the hard work that curators, like Hodgkins, put into their own respective grounds.

Because, unlike their bat and ball wielding colleagues, the curators’ work often goes unnoticed.

Ben Waterworth is a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. He  writes regularly for upstart about AFL and cricket.