Cricket: Forty years of putting pace in pitches: Michael Austin talks to Ron Allsopp, veteran head groundsman at Trent Bridge, venue for today's one-day international

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ANY interloper encroaching on the lush acres of Trent Bridge today can expect an ear-bashing from Ron Allsopp, that otherwise jovial and inoffensive tracksuited figure with an agricultural, shambling gait and a remarkable longevity in the game.

Allsopp is in his 40th year of preparing pitches at the Test arena, the last 19 as head groundsman dedicated to injecting pace into the turf and producing positive results, with controversy in his slipstream.

Nottinghamshire won the County Championship twice under the leadership of Clive Rice in the 1980s amid dark mutterings of pitch-doctoring, suggestions that holes were filled with grass cuttings and a sour taste left by those jealous of the club's world-class seam attack.

Allsopp, now 61, said: 'The lines on my face are not just age, you know. Criticisms hurt at first, but with Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee in our team, why not exploit their talent? It was a wonderful era.

'I hated producing dull pitches, so I gave the square rolling, rolling and more rolling pre-season. It quickened the surface and I left some grass on, nothing more. It seemed a revolutionary step, I suppose, but Surrey had played to their own strengths when preparing pitches in the 1950s.' Allsopp has trodden the tightrope of introducing pace and bounce, knowing that any aberration might result in too much of both, prompting a visit from the pitch inspector, as in 1989, when Nottinghamshire were docked 25 points. 'It was the saddest moment of my working life,' he said.

Allsopp's animated conversation raced back at regular intervals to Rice, that rugged South African. 'In all my years, Clive and his captain-manager partnership with Ken Taylor made the deepest impression on me. Clive was fearless and could earn his keep as a batsman or bowler, but what a leader,' he stressed.

'We went out to inspect pitches we planned to use. One day, I pointed to a suitable one for a match against Warwickshire and Clive looked around and said: 'No, I want that one', looking at a pale green surface.

'I said: 'Someone might get killed' and Clive replied: 'What's up Ron, are you getting religious?' He meant it, too.' Allsopp prevailed. The innocuous pitch was used and the match drawn when even Nottinghamshire's attack could not evict the tail-enders. Rice and Allsopp did not speak for a while.

In three consecutive summers in the early 1980s, Allsopp was groundsman of the year twice and also runner-up. Nottinghamshire even presented him with a miniature replica of the Schweppes Cup at the Championship winner's dinner when the county lifted the title in 1981, after a 52-year gap.

These accolades were far removed from Allsopp's early years working in the Raleigh bicycle factory before doing national service and helping to prepare his squadron's sports ground at Catterick camp.

'I always wanted to work with turf and soil. I love an outdoor life and the wide range of people I have met since starting work on a year's trial at pounds 5 18/- a week.'

Since then he has seen the world's great players on the five acres of Trent Bridge. Sir Garfield Sobers and Reg Simpson figure highly in the estimation of someone who played the game only in his schoolyard.

Allsopp, a widower, is as fiercely proud of his working-class origins as of his professionalism. He was born in Sneinton, close to the heart of Nottingham, and lives in the Meadows, an inner-city area.

Nowadays, his pitches are made on the side of caution. 'A few years ago, spectators would not leave until the last ball,' he said. 'Now they pack up their picnics with half an hour to go. I was so pleased about getting pace into the pitches in our first Championship year that I left extra grass on for the Australian Test that summer. I worried about it in my sleep but thought: anyone can cut, scarify, add water and roll a pitch. I wanted something better and thought perhaps Mike Hendrick might win the game for England but Terry Alderman did that for Australia. I did not regret my pitch preparation. The game was full of interest.

'My job is a big responsibility. Ten days before one Test, I arrived to see piles of soil a few yards apart from the boundary to the square. 'I thought, oh no, a mole. Here? I don't believe it.' I ran past the piles and on top of the one next to the Test pitch there was a dead mole. I looked toward the dressing-room and knew the players were all falling about. I had been set up.

'I shall miss it all when I retire in three years. But I think I shall make a clean break, do other things and not come back to Trent Bridge. I don't even watch Test matches on the television now - I have enough problems of my own]'

Allsopp is only the 10th head groundsman at Trent Bridge in 137 years. He regularly does a 12-hour day, cannot take a summer holiday and escapes to the autumn sun of Tenerife. When the Nottinghamshire committee discuss the next beneficiary, the name of the longest- serving head groundsman at an English Test ground should be near the top of the list.

(Photograph omitted)

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