Only the lonely

Brian Jeeves

It’s a bright but crisp March morning. The Garon Park greenery – as ever – looks immaculate. The preparation process has begun ahead of the new season. But whether the square will actually host any cricket is currently open to debate?

As for self-isolation and social distancing amidst the Covid-19 epidemic, that’s not a problem to head groundsman, Philip Burton. “I’m the only one here,” he told Yellow Sport.

Despite sport grinding to a halt the world over, the 45-year-old – affectionately known as ‘Burt’ must carry on.

“Grass grows,” he explained. I’ve not finished my pre-season work yet – that will continue as usual.

“The square has to be ready, just in case the situation improves and the ECB lift the suspension. The pitch has to be ready.”

The Garon Park wicket is highly regarded amongst those in the game. Essex used to stage first-class matches here and even after their controversial decision to scrap festival cricket, the county still used the venue for second-string, women’s and youth fixtures.

The relatively new Southend venue also regularly host’s fixtures for the Netherlands national team. Indeed, Head Coach and former Australian international, Ryan Campbell, has often waxed lyrical over the track.
Meanwhile, Shepherd Neame Essex League Division Two champions, Old Southendian & Southchurch have played here since 2016. It’s fair to say, the ground sees a lot of cricket.

But for now, the sound of leather on willow and the inquisitive bawl of those in the slips has been replaced by the gentle hum of Burt’s tractor and the stern northerly, blowing in from the coast.

“I’m aiming, from the middle of May, to have a slightly underprepared pitch which I could have ready at five days notice for cricket of a decent standard to be played upon.”

The position of groundsman has become something of a specialist post over the years, so how did the man, who also has a subtle obsession with Bristol City, first stumble upon such a role?

“I worked for national opinion polls inputting data into computers, very boring stuff.

“Back in 1990 – aged 16 – a good friend of mine worked with the maintenance team at Essex County Cricket Club

“He told me about a six-month summer job, working with the ground staff. After that period, they offered me a full-time post. I worked my way up to Assistant Head Groundsman before leaving in 2004 to go travelling. I returned to run Garon Park two years later.”

Of course, he had one or two amusing tales from his fourteen years at Essex. “Paul Pritchard claims I fell asleep while rolling the square and he woke me up just before I crashed into the boundary fence.” Burt stopped short of telling me whether that was true.

He has also had some memorable times since taking over at Garon Park. “I was honoured with the Shepherd Neame Essex League Groundsman of the Year the first season Old Southendian & Southchurch played here.

“I also remember getting a call from a county age group coach, telling me to come and lock up. They had batted second and had been bowled out for twelve. A quick game is a good game,” he joked.

Nevertheless, Burt’s pride and joy is widely recognised by those lucky enough to perform on it.

“The pitches are first-class standard here given the right preparation conditions, he stated.

“We do have an awful lot of cricket here and managing the square and different users expectations is sometimes tough.”

Back to the present and the worrying substances threatening to submerge sport, including the 2020 cricket season in its entirety.

“I’d hope normality would resume sometime this summer.

“The back half of the Shepherd Neame Essex League Season starts on the second weekend in July, which is still a little way off.

“I don’t think anything can be written off just yet. But peoples safety is the most important thing at the moment – Not cricket!

Brian Jeeves