Arriving at the Empire Cricket Ground at Pavilion Road, Bank Hall just after lunch with a slight drizzle just beginning it was all I could do to rush into the clubhouse. Robert Clarke as per usual was out on the ground, and not being interested in venturing into the rain, I settled in for a bowl of chicken and pigtail soup while I awaited either the departure of the rain or the arrival of Mr. Clarke.
The latter happened first, it being quite clear where the nickname came from as he has a more than passing resemblance to the cartoon character, I recognised ‘Tweety Bird’ immediately. With his shirt tucked into his pants and his quite deliberate way of going about things as he appears almost timeless (and I suppose that is why he never answered my questions about his age).
A member of the Empire Club for some 44 years, and now under their employ as the groundsman officially for the last 12, Sporting Worldsat with ‘Tweety Bird’ to speak about the ground on which he would have played, football, cricket and hockey for his club – going on to represent Barbados from 1973 to 1985 on the hockey field – as well as the art of pitch preparation and to find out more about the ‘the lawn’ as the pitch at the Empire ground has been affectionately referred to for its suitability for pace bowling.
How did you first get into the preparation and care of the grounds and cricket pitch?
Well basically I’ve been around Empire all my life. I was raised just around the corner, the house next door to the club. So coming to Empire Club was like a duck to water. Because going to Roebuck (Primary) School you’d cross the pasture and after going to St Leonards was the same. So this was my life. Gaining entry to the Empire Club has been the best thing that ever happened to a little person like me. All the fellas around Emipre have been around doing that, the first thing that I do is come and help, roll, cut grass and all that. So from very early it’s like that so it was nothing new. It was just always what I have done, as soon as I would come home from school I would be on the pasture helping all the older groundsmen.
What’s the story or secret behind the lawn’s great propensity for pace?
In the early years it was Charlie Griffith, Anselm Morris, Courtney Selman, and before that, Huely Barker, you know real genuine fast bowlers. A lot of teams didn’t like to come to Bank Hall because of the green. I would have to say it was the love of the groundsmen that was the major factor. At that time groundsmen in Barbados were at work by half past three, quarter to four on mornings when they would use the formation of the dew to help prepare the pitches and do most of the work. Sometimes the dew was all that was needed and you would not even have to use water to wet the pitches during this process. Compared to now, with guys coming to work at nine… if you’re a real groundsman you can’t come to work at nine. You got to have a love for it and be there early and walk the pitch barefeet to feel it and know how you have to work it. Just like a real baker would have to get his hands in the dough. especially when you prepare it with a little soapy water and its zippy. You feel happy!
Explain if you can in layman’s terms what goes into pitch preparation.
Good preparation is all about good grass cuttings. Of course watering it well and rolling it are big parts of it and the timing of all those things. If you start at six or so by the time you spread your cutting then wet and roll with the small roller, within another hour to hour and a half you’re able to cache it with moisture to go again with the big roller. So by ten, eleven it becomes hard enough. The grass cutting especially the ones from the field are key. Years ago we would use the cutting from golf courses, Westmoreland, Sandy Lane, Rockley. These cutting would be so low, so short, sometimes by the time you spread them it would seem to evaporate. The ones from the field when you cut it with your lawnmower the cuttings are longer, so when spread they sit better and stay in place longer. Even with rainfall they aren’t washed away as easily.
Is there any difference between your preparation for limited overs as opposed to longer versions of the game?
Well basically all are the same. You trying to achieve a good surface. You don’t really vary from limited overs to what have you.
Does Empire do anything special with the preparation of their pitches?
I could say yes… (he says chuckling) but I wouldn’t go into it any further. As long as you playing home you must have that home advantage so we will know what to do on that day. For instance if Empire bats first the pitch can be prepared so that it would be very difficult for you to make the runs. We put it in the oven and bake it nicely!
How does covering the pitch affect preparation, especially as it relates to maintaining the grass?
Well years ago you could afford to make subtle differences because the pitches of yesterday had grass. Checking the fixture was very important then and you would prepare the pitch to suit. I would say now, the covers have more or less changed that, because there is no more grass on most of the pitches. When you have to cover the pitch they can’t breathe anymore. Even if you manage before the season to get a good growth on the pitch the constant covering, because under the covering it is so hot you wouldn’t believe, and then with the rolling it kills off the grass and you don’t get it back. Thats why nearly all of Barbados outside of Kensington and UWI, the pitches are scorched. It’s good on the one hand the covers… but it’s bad for the life of the pitches.
How close is a groundsman to the game of cricket?
You have to be very close, you have to be there with the captain, the coach, giving advice, hearing what they want and giving them what they want. So it’s almost a family unit. You always get some cussing in between, because when a fella bats 40 innings and he only makes 30 runs he says ‘fire the groundsmen’ first thing. No one will say ‘he’s a poor batsman’. But it is a family unit; you have to be close.
Any advice for up and coming groundsmen:
One… the younger folks of today are not going to get into this work. Why? And this is the truth. The money is not fat. Some guys prefer to stay on the block and don’t work rather than come do this work. Point blank, no young person is going to be interested, they say the sun is too hot! All around Barbados you would see the groundsmen are up in age and if you get somebody young they’ll come for a day or two and then they’re gone. It is a dying art.
What if anything do you think is the single most important thing to doing this job?
Can i say love. Love. If you don’t love it… it’s hard work, pulling a roller isn’t easy. For example, you’d be pulling a roller and ask one of the cricketers for some assistance, and when they come and help ten minutes, then they don’t come back. They complain their calf muscles hurting.
Is there anything you would attribute to your success?
Well if is one thing I view myself as a professional in an amateur sport. Always portray yourself that way. Even now, shirt and pants in, I say if you are not a professional you’re going to fall down.
Who, if anyone, would you say was most influential in your time here at Empire?
Well there have been a lot of people especially groundsmen that I have looked at over the years – Sauces, Braddock, Noel. But I would have to say, God rest him in his grave, Richard Applewhaite. He was here, then he went to the Oval and UWI. So he was the last person that I was with. He was always on time and was always what you could say was a perfectionist and I try to past these things on to Andrew Tudor who is now working with me.
The conversation went on for a long time again, drifting from hockey to the quicks of the past at Empire Cricket Club to the national trials call-up for football he recieved in his youth. But these may need another column. Needless to say the institution that is Robert Clarke, at the over 100-year-old club was a fount of knowledge and experience. I look forward to the opportunity to sit and speak with him again and possibly have another chicken and pigtail soup at Empire.