Bill Gordon poses with shirts signed by Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. In the Galadari Museum
Bill Gordon poses with shirts signed by Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. In the Galadari Museum

Bill Gordon, the legendary groundsman at The Oval, won the Groundsman of the Year award six consecutive seasons from 2003 to 2008. The only non-cricketer to be capped by Surrey, Gordon no longer prepares wickets, but has moved on to the dual roles of the curator of the museum and the librarian.  Arunabha Sengupta met up with him at his office in The Oval’s Galadari Museum.

“Are you related to AK Sengupta?” he asks me as I walk in.

The most striking features of Bill Gordon are the mop of white hair and the sure, efficient hands that shake slightly as he presses the keys of his computer. In contrast, when I look at his pictures in a couple of books about The Oval, what seems to stand out is the Bob Willis style hairdo of the 1970s. In Reflections on the Oval by David Norrie, Alec Stewart remembers him as the man with the biggest sideburns.

However, neither the change in colour and texture of the hair, nor the tremor in his hands, have kept him from finding out the only Test cricketer — unrelated though — who shares his surname with me. Bill Gordon is still sharp as a tack. Similarly keen is his memory of over half a century’s association with perhaps the most historic of cricket grounds. ALSO READ: Apoorva Sengupta: A baffling Test career

Gordon first walked into The Oval in 1964 on the groundstaff as a scoreboard operator. He has spent the next 51 years here. From 2003, he was Head Groundsman of the landmark arena. At present, he serves as the museum curator and librarian.

To get to him, one has to walk up to the first floor of the pavilion building, make one’s way through the famous Long Room, and enter the Galadari museum.

Bill Gordon (BG): I came here in 1964, because I loved cricket and I loved Surrey. I started out working the scoreboard.  I knew nothing about the wickets then, but I did learn with time.

I did scoreboard work for three years, and by then I was pretty interested in working as a groundsman. I was already doing a lot of work in the ground. And the Head Groundsman of the time (Ted Warne) said, “I can’t have you in there anymore. I want you out here.” It used to be tiring in the scoreboard. You had to be alert through long days, noting everything, no ball, leg bye. Finally, I became a groundsman in 1967.

CricketCountry (CC): And you stayed one for 49 years?

BG:  Yes. I stayed on the groundstaff till 2012. I became head groundsman in 2003. I won the groundsman of the year for six consecutive years [from 2003 to 2008].

CC: How have the pitches changed from your early days?

BG: We had uncovered pitches back then and in my opinion it produced world class batsmen. England had some of the best batsmen of the world in those days, in the 1950s. Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, Len Hutton — you name them, we had them.

And then came the covered pitches. The spectators were paying good money and they were losing half the cricket because of the rains. Health and safety issues also came into the picture, because in those days there were no helmets or arm-guards. However, I think covered wickets are poorer for the game. They produce boring, boring cricket. In the recent series in the West Indies, some of the pitches were benign.

I have seen sticky dogs back in my time. There used to be heavy rain, and the pitch stayed uncovered.  And then the sun came out and it became a sticky, the ball started doing all sorts of tricks. But, they learnt how to play that type of bowling. Nowadays, the batsmen have good batting wickets with the ball coming to them with no deviation. The young guy (Danny) Lawrence who scored a hundred yesterday, I would like to see him bat on a wicket where it is seaming around and turning a bit, to see how good he is technically.

As I’ve always said, if you want to learn to drive, you don’t go to the motorway on a straight road. You go to the training school, and pre-school, you learn all the skills, and come back a better driver. They don’t listen to me.

CC: Did those earlier pitches play a role in the 1950s when Surrey won so many championships?

BG: Surrey won seven times on the uncovered pitches. They had two of the greatest spinners in Jim Laker and Tony Lock, and there was Alec Bedser, the great fast-medium bowler. A lot of people said the wickets were prepared for the spinners, but Laker and Lock took wickets everywhere.  In 1952 they won 20 of their 28 matches. They had to win both at home and away. In 1956, Laker got 19 Australians at Manchester, and earlier that season he got 10 wickets in an innings here against them for Surrey. The batting line up was also tremendous.

CC: Last evening Stephen Chalke was here to talk about his new book Summer Crown, and he did mention that one of the reasons pitches got better was that people learnt from Surrey and Bill Gordon.

BG: We get better weather down here than they do up north, that is one of the reasons why we have better pitches. Also, groundsmen are becoming very technical nowadays. When I came in I had no training at all, I learnt everything from Ted Warne, the previous groundsman.  We stuck to basics. Now they are very, very technical, with all this soil testers, drying methods and so on. All we actually need to make a wicket are soil, seed and water. You get that right and you have a good wicket… And the rolling is very important, if you get the roller wrong, you get into trouble. But it is getting very technical.

But then, Cricket itself is getting very technical as well with all these computers… back then in the old days it was nothing like this. There used to be simple, basic cricket. I remember Fred Trueman and Brian Statham bowling all out, and they did not have people carrying drinks to them at the end of each over. They did not change gloves so often as well. Those days they used to eat what they felt like, none of these diet plans. Everything is very technical nowadays. ALSO READ: Ashes 1968: Basil D’Oliveira, Derek Underwood and the drama in many acts at The Oval

CC: What about the rain and the drying methods of 1968, when England beat Australia at The Oval?

BG: It rained heavily during that one. It was a beautiful batting wicket. John Edrich got a hundred, (Basil) D’Olliveira got one. There were four hot days, really, really hot days. And then on the fifth day the morning was red hot, and at lunch time the storm came over from nowhere. And it was a storm. The field was flooded, there was water-logging everywhere. The outfield in those days had not yet been re-laid, it meant water would find its way to the top.  Colin Cowdrey came out and asked the head groundsman what he reckoned. He said if we got cracking for a couple of hours there could be play. And we did it. We asked for volunteers from the crowd and they came over with scarves and blankets. It was a different game back then. Nowadays the match referee wouldn’t allow all those people on the turf.

And then (Derek) Underwood bowled them out on a sticky. (John)Inverarity was the last man to fall. It was hard work that afternoon. We tried to get play going and we did.

CC: The outfield has changed since then…

BG: The outfield was completely re-laid in 2008. We took all the turf out. There was new drainage put in place, a new underwater system with 68 sprinkler heads. Now if there is a storm we can get the match started in half an hour. It’s all sand-based. If you charge the spectators £80 or £90 a day to watch cricket, you can’t have them sitting around with no action.

You also have the super-sopper that dries the water. The covers are spread around a huge area nowadays, not just the wicket as it was back then.

CC: Did the captains pick your brains about how the wicket was going to behave?

BG: The captains don’t really ask a lot of questions. Not even the Surrey captains. Normally, they talk to the other players to find out how the pitch is playing, which is more than what I can tell them. They also ask the umpires whether it will be a slow wicket, and so on.

I remember in the World Cup of 1999, Mohammad Azharuddin came up to me and asked what I reckoned. I told him to bat first, and instead he put the Australians in. I also told him about the roller to use between innings, but he went the opposite way. And Tendulkar got a snorter of a ball from Glenn McGrath.  India lost. You can only talk. If they don’t listen it’s up to them.

CC: What about your relationship with cricketers?

BG: I am a very close friend of (Rahul) Dravid. He is one of the most pleasant of cricketers. (Sachin) Tendulkar is also quite like him. Genuine men in spite of all their greatness.

I remember we had our benefit season in 2008. Mark Ramprakash was given his benefit and I shared my benefit with him. In 2007, the Indians were here, and I asked Dravid [then captain of India], if there was any chance of getting shirts signed by the Indian cricketers. I could sell them at the benefit auction.  He said okay. When the Test match ended, and players were coming out for the presentation, he came running out in the middle with the shirts signed by all the Indian cricketers. People were wondering what was going on. It was very good of him.

He came back in 2011, and the first thing he did was not to go out to take a look at the wicket. He came straight to me and asked how I was doing. He got a century here in 2011, and also a double-hundred in 2002. The last day of the 2002 match was washed away by rain, and he came up to the groundstaff workshop and asked if I could give him a match stump.  I got him a stump. In those days we had special shirts made for the groundstaff, and I gave one to him. And he said “you might as well have mine”, took his short off, signed it and gave it to me. I have got it over there, framed. He is genuine.

Kumble was another nice guy. He used to play for Surrey. At the end of the 2007 Test, he came running out, saying “thanks Bill, nice knowing you”. He’s a good fellow. He got a nice hundred in that match.

Those were great players, but there are a few new ones coming along. [Virat] Kohli is there, [Ajinkya] Rahane is a good one. I don’t know who is going to take over from [MS] Dhoni once he is done.

CC: What about cricketers from other countries?

BG: Waqar Younis and Intikhab Alam were very close to me. They played for Surrey. Intikhab asked me to go to Karachi, to the Gaddafi Stadium, to train some of their groundsmen. I said no, because I am scared of flying and someone else was sent instead. Intikhab gave Surrey great service for 13 seasons.

Saqlain (Mushtaq) too, was a very good friend. In 2000 Surrey won the championship, and we prepared turning wickets for him. At the end of it, he put his arm around me and said, “I am here because of you.” But it wasn’t really true. He was a quality bowler.

Mushy (Mushtaq Ahmed) played very few matches for Surrey, but I know him from his playing days for Pakistan and then when he was the spin coach of England. He was also a genuine person. Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) is another good friend, who will come here and have a laugh.

The Australians don’t really interact that much. They have got better now since John Buchanan took over. But they don’t really tend to have a conversation with you.

CC: What about the England players? Your term stretched from the days of Micky Stewart to his son and beyond.

BG: Micky Stewart was the captain when I came in.  And then I was there during the days of Alec . The same with Alan Butcher and Mark Butcher.

When Alec was young I used to bowl leg-breaks to him. I will show you a book where he has written about it. (Reflections on the Oval)

Andy Sandham was the scorer at the time I joined in 1964.  He had scored the first ever triple-century in Test cricket — 325 at Kingston, scored with borrowed boots. By the time I was here, his eyesight had started failing him. Towards the end he couldn’t see who took the catch, and I used to help him out.

When Ken Barrington and Tom Graveney would have a hit I would bowl leg breaks to them. They would smack me all over the place. But it was something to remember. Especially Graveney: he nearly broke my hand. He smashed it straight back to me and I tried to stop it like an idiot, trying to be a hero.

He was a class player, scored a great hundred here in 1966 against West Indies. England were in trouble, but he got a hundred, John Murray got a hundred, and England won. Brian Close had been brought in as captain, and when Sobers batted he went right close to him at bat pad. John Snow bowled a bouncer and Sobers fended straight into his hands. I was so excited, I tripped over the ladder in the scoreboard in trying to celebrate.

CC: You must remember quite a few fantastic matches. For example India’s first win in England in 1971.

BG: I remember (Bhagwat) Chandrasekhar was bowling from the Vauxhall end, and England collapsed to 101 all out. When India were fielding, Dilip Sardesai came up to me and said, “Could you do me a favour, Bill? There is a woman in the stands and I think she keeps looking at me. Could you keep an eye on her?”  I said, “Dilip, everyone is looking at you, you’re out in the field.” It happens sometimes. You get the feeling everyone is watching you.

Dilip Sardesai was a nice, very pleasant fellow.

On the last day of the match an elephant walked around the ground. It had been borrowed from a nearby zoo.

Of course I remember 2005 as well. That innings by (Kevin) Pietersen on the last day, it was tremendous. Shane Warne dropped him, and then Brett Lee kept peppering him with short balls and he kept playing them fiercely.

If you go further back, when Trueman took his 300th wicket, I was working the scoreboard (in 1964). He went into lunch at 299 and then got Neil Hawke caught by Cowdrey. And he shook Hawke by the hand. It was pleasant…which you can’t see today. They fight each other.

CC:  How have the crowds changed over the years?

BG: International cricket has always been popular here. At one point of time in India Test match was madness. IPL and One Day Cricket have ruined everything. One time in West Indies there were terrific crowds, now there is nobody watching. For some reason, we have always had a lot of support.

In county matches, after the War in the 1950s, with all the big names, no television, no i-pads and i-pods and all that, huge crowds used to come in.  In the 1960s when I joined, however, it was not so good any more. In contrast, we are actually getting better crowds now.

CC: And when did you become the curator?

BG: In 2012 I was offered another job at the ground. And I preferred the library, because I was always interested in keeping the records. I am in charge of both the museum and library. We haven’t got as much space as in Lord’s. So, we haven’t got a stand-alone library or a museum as they have out there.  But, we have a lot of books and memorabilia associated with Surrey.

CC: You have had some wonderful tributes paid to you by the club and beyond.

BG: I was the first non-player to be awarded a county cap. That was during the 2013 Ashes series. I am very proud of that. The club also gave me an honorary life membership.

In 2012, I went to a PCA dinner, and was given a silver bat by the ECB as a Special Award. It is given to people who have made great contribution to the sport but have never played the game themselves (the previous recipient before Gordon was Peter Baxter of Test Match Special). I have got it at home.

There were 1,000 people in the audience and David Gower was presenting the show. I went behind the stage to have a word with him. And he said to me, “All I’ll ask you, Bill, is who is your favourite cricketer, present company included?’ I said, okay. Then, when I went on stage, he asked me, “So, Bill, how do you prepare a good wicket?“  I was just about going to say “Ken Barrington”, and the audience started laughing and I had to say something quickly. Gower thought it was funny.

As the interview draws to an end, Gordon takes me through some of his own memorabilia. His Surrey cap is proudly displayed in the library. He shows me a medal awarded to him for standing as an umpire in a staff match against the caterers in 1989.

He opens a couple of books for me to look in. The first is a fascinatingly researched A History of Foster’s Oval by Nick Yapp.

BG: I helped the author with the research that went into this one, and he mentioned me in the book.  When I got the copy, my name read ‘Bill Norman’, a printing error.  So I took it to a printer friend. He stripped the book down, and put my correct name in it. This is my personal copy, the only one that has my name spelt correctly.

Then there is the book Reflections on the Oval in which Alec Stewart talks about him bowling leg-breaks at the nets while sporting enormous sideburns. He points to a picture of himself as a young man in 1975, saying, “That’s me with Bob Willis hairstyle.”

He flips through the pages, the pictures lighting a gleam of recollection as they roll back the years. “That’s the 1968 Test match. There is Cowdrey after the rains.  There is so much history in this place: the first Test match in England, the first Ashes Test, the first Rugby International between England and Scotland. During the Wars it was used as a Prisoner of War Camp. We will soon have the Bradman Door, the door through which The Don walked out when he played his last Test innings. No other ground can have that.”

Yes, and along with all these, Bill Gordon himself is one of the sparkling treasures of The Oval. He belongs there.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)