Kingsmead’s groundsman speaks about the myths surrounding the famous pitch

2012-07-21 00:00

ASK Kingsmead groundsman Wilson Ngobese whether the tide affects the state of the pitch and he answers with a wry smile, a scratch of the chin and a glint in the eye.

“It’s part of Kingsmead’s legacy and is always a talking point. There are many who believe this is the case, but I cannot take sides or argue with them. What I do know is if you dig about 1,5 metres down, you hit water and this effects whether the pitch is hot or cold. Is it the tide as people claim? Does this change the state of the pitch at certain times of the day? I think I will leave that open to debate for many more years,” he said.

If anyone would know the intricacies of the Kingsmead pitch, it’s Ngobese. He started as a general worker at the stadium in 1975 and learnt the art of pitch preparation from groundsmen Jay Pillay and Phil Russell, working for 15 years as the latter’s assistant. When Russell retired, Ngobese stepped up to the mark and has been head groundsman since 1999. In those years he has been involved with an ICC World Cup (2003) and the IPL (2009), massive events which tested his prowess.

“I learnt as I worked. I was involved in mowing, cutting, crushing bully — all the ingredients that make a healthy pitch,” said Ngobese.

With a team of six, Ngobese ensures the “table” at Kingsmead is always well set and immaculate. There are eight strips, six which are used and rotated through the season, with the two on each end used for practice and bowling.

It’s about pitch management, determining which strip to use and allowing enough recovery time between each use.

“Different formats require different preparation. A four-day match or Test match requires at least two centimetres of grass on the surface, giving the strip time to play itself in over those days. The one-dayers and 20-over matches sees the grass cut right down, allowing a firm surface for pace, bounce and run scoring.”

In consultation with the Dolphins coach, Ngobese tries to prepare a pitch suited to the home side’s strengths, allowing the pitch to work for the team. It’s done around the world and is considered an intricate part of home ground advantage.

Ngobese acknowledges that the off-season requires more work as the pitch is given a complete makeover ahead of the next season.

“This must not be confused with putting in a whole new pitch. We cut all the grass, drill, scarify, take the old bully out and add fertiliser and top soil. It’s a complete once over as the pitch is watered and nurtured back into shape. This is done to the square in the middle and the nets.”

As for covering the pitch, this is only done in preparation for a match, a few days before play starts. Otherwise it’s left to the mercy of the elements. “Rain is good for the pitch and is better than using sprinklers. The water spreads better and it’s for free of course,”said Ngobese.

There’s much that goes on behind the scenes which ensures joy is brought to the cricket connoisseur.

For the longer versions of the game, Ngobese and his team are at Kingsmead from 6 am.

For a match starting in the afternoon, they report for duty at 7.30 am. They are at the ground throughout a match or day, ready to move the covers when the rain arrives and remark and roll the pitch between innings. If a night match finishes late, the team are there to do their duty.

The 2010 Fifa World Cup provided Ngobese with a different challenge as Kingsmead was transformed into a mini-tent village for the Australian fans. More than 50 tents were on the hallowed turf, although the pitch was protected. Once it was over, Ngobese was greeted by the sight of his beloved outfield covered in patches of brown, dead grass.

“That was tough. We look after and tend this field like a baby and to see it like that broke my heart. Again, it required hard work and I am relieved it was restored to its glory as the field needs work every season too. I am proud of my work and this ground is like a second family.”

During his time at Kingsmead — and he has no inclinations to retire — he has seen many players come and go. His favourites remain Jonty Rhodes, Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener, and he enjoys banter with them all. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s one happy man in town to have Klusener back at the park as Dolphins coach.

“He’s a good man and is right for the team. Maybe we will win something this season because it’s been a long time since we were the champions,” he said.

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