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Middlesex's marquee approach to pre-season
While some counties have been preparing for the new season with trips to Barbados and Dubai, several of the more thrifty have been practising in sub-zero temperatures, leaving footprints in the snow on their way to nets in a marquee of transparent plastic sheeting.
Essex started a trend in 2012 by erecting a steel-framed structure on their square at Chelmsford and practising 'outdoors' on grass pre-season. By happy coincidence, the weather in 2012 was blazing hot. This year, with players facing snow and wind chill temperature of -2C, Essex have been joined in the experiment by other counties such as Middlesex, Kent, Worcestershire and Glamorgan.
Angus Fraser, Middlesex's director of cricket, said he was thinking about ways of conducting covered outdoor practice last year. "Lo and behold they did it at Essex," he said. "We went over there to have a look and it seemed to work."
Middlesex's marquee at Radlett Cricket Club, their training facility, has proved to be a learning process for Fraser, the head groundsman, Nick Searle, and his New Zealander assistant, Regan Sinclair.
Fraser said: "We've obviously made an investment at Radlett and want to base ourselves here. Nick, the groundsman, is as keen as mustard to help so we said we'd go ahead with it. In a sense it has been a challenge because you learn as you go along.
"For example, you forget the fact that when it rains the water goes off the roof and collects in a small area. If you are on a little slope, the water can start to roll underneath. There was a frantic day last week when I had to rush out to Costco to buy towels to stop the water coming down. But we pulled the sides out slightly and it's okay now."
Standing inside the marquee - Kent call it their "greenhouse" at Canterbury - there is constant noise as the wind rattles rope and material against the metal framework, but the light is surprisingly clear. In fact, in sunshine the transparent plastic has produced glare, so that the sightscreen has to be moved further back to reduce the effect. The struts throw shadows across the mown strips, but the batsmen hardly noticed.
The Radlett marquee was erected in early February to ensure the soil had dried by the time net practice started a month later. The use of four hired industrial heaters helped the process after the heavy winter rain, and the players were glad to have one heater on duty during practice to keep them tolerably warm. Beyond the mouth of the nets the air remained almost freezing cold. Woolly hats and multi-layers were required for the stroll over the crusty snow to the middle.
The surface played true and easy-paced and not dissimilar to an early season Championship pitch, though sounds were deadened and deliveries from fast bowlers occasionally proved hard for the eye to judge in overcast conditions. Fraser and his assistants, Richard Johnson, Richard Scott and Mark Ramprakash, were hoping the side sheeting could be removed, but the persistent cold ruled out that idea.
Middlesex had used Loughborough University's indoor elite centre for the previous few years, but this time Fraser decided to take a gamble for meaningful practice, having pre-empted any possible player mutiny by arranging a few days of light training in Spain. Fraser and the players felt the adventure in the cold was worthwhile.
"There are two reasons for doing it," Fraser said. "One is financial. If you send a group of 25 people to South Africa for a week or 10 days, it costs you the thick end of £40,000 or £45,000. This net here is probably going to cost us in the region of £12,000 to £15,000. And also I question whether training in Dubai or Barbados, places like that, on dead, shirt-front pitches in 40-degree heat prepares you for the sort of conditions we're training in today, when it's quite cold and soft underfoot and the ball is nipping around. It's a completely different sensation of bat on ball.
"So there a cricketing aspect and a financial aspect. I think this is going to be the way forward. If we don't go on a pre-season tour and we use this, we can almost afford another player on the staff. There's a trade-off angle too.
"We just want to get out there on the square. We've been practising over the winter in indoor schools where there is bounce and consistency. It's a completely different feel to what you experience in the middle. The earlier we can get our players used to what it's like outside the better."
Middlesex allrounder Gareth Berg reckoned the experiment at Radlett, his home club, was a "huge help". He said: "In an ideal world we would love to have been in Barbados playing a bit of cricket and to have a few cocktails but, in terms of moving forward and being a better team, this is much more important."
When the County Championship starts on April 10, Nottinghamshire (Barbados) meet Middlesex (Radlett marquee) at Trent Bridge in Division One's opening round, while in Division Two there is Lancashire (Dubai) versus Worcestershire (Kidderminster marquee) and Glamorgan (Cardiff marquee) versus Northamptonshire (Barbados). The die-hards will take on the sunshine boys and it will be interesting to see what happens.