THE outfield won’t so much take a stud as a snorkel; the Great Lake that covers the square is so deep that that optimistic seagulls fly in from foreign parts, as if it really has been raining tadpoles.

“No point covering it now,” says Stockton Cricket Club groundsman Colin Gray, effortlessly interpreting the adage about stable door and bolting horses.

The second team game with South Northumberland has lasted just 12 overs before the deluge. Roads are flooded; word arrives that the ceiling’s down in the local bingo hall, too. Colin – “soaked through” – has changed completely.

Players head homeward, having first partaken of something appropriately to drown their sorrows, wheeled coffins dragged lugubriously behind. The depression deepens when word arrives that the firsts, North East Premier League first division, are all out for 113 up at South North.

They’ll lose by ten wickets, have won just one in 12. A tough year will become tougher yet in October when Colin Gray, among the region’s longest serving and most admired full-time groundsmen, hits 65 and retires.

Most people set their televisions to record Coronation Street, or whatever. Colin’s records the weather forecast. “It’ll be nice to watch something else,” he says.

He was a farmer’s son from Toft Hill, where his 89-year-old mum still lives. We attended Bishop Auckland Grammar School together, will retire on the same day.

A BBC Television crew’s also there on Saturday afternoon, inexplicably keen to ask him about his former schoolmate. “Clever lad, terrible goalkeeper,” he summarises, and for once is only half-right.

Colin went on to agricultural college at Houghall and at Edinburgh, returned to the family farm, left to work in a factory at Newton Aycliffe – “disillusioned with farming, like a lot more” – and became groundsman at the new company golf course.

“It was a big drop in wages, but I was sick of the shifts. No one becomes a groundsman for the money,” he says.

“I think I’d picked up most of the groundsmanship skills at college. Once you have a feel for the land you can do an awful lot. The theory is fairly straightforward, it’s the graft that people don’t realise. Anyone can drive round and round on a tractor.”

In 1981 he became groundsman at Feethams, Darlington, in the days when both cricket and football clubs used the site and both craved the services of greenfingered Gray.

“Twice a year I’d take my P45 from one end to the other. Officially you’d work one day a week for the cricket club in summer and vice-versa in winter, but it was terrible when twice a year the two overlapped.

There was a lot of jealousy.”

It was at Feethams, however, that he encountered his favourite cricket captain – “Neil Riddell was brilliant; he knew what he wanted and he helped you achieve it” – and where he enjoyed his most memorable football moment.

Darlington played Boro in an FA Cup third round replay, January 1985, 14,237 in the ground and trouble brewing. “While the police sorted it out, David Allison the referee came over and said he’d finish the game even if there was only me and him and left at two in the morning. I said it was fine by me. We won 2-1.”

Feethams had regularly hosted Durham cricket in Minor Counties days.

Stockton, for whom he left in 1987, had never done so. “I remember asking them why they didn’t try,” he says. “I think they got the shock of their lives when Durham accepted.”

His new club hosted 13 days cricket in the opening first-class summer, 1992, gaining a high reputation for hospitality and organisation, for the excellence of the pitch and for the bacon sandwiches.

“I think our tea ladies invented bacon butties, the players used to sneak round the back for them. If the physios had known there’d have been hell on.”

It meant a huge amount of extra work. “I wouldn’t like to think I’d to do it again, all those extra stands and accommodation for the press. You couldn’t move for press men early on; on our last day I think we had Tim Wellock.”

It was also the ground on which I T Botham scored his last County Championship 100. “The next day they were queuing down that street to get in, and Botham scored a duck.

“I’d only twice seen them queue like that. The other was when the tea ladies had ordered too much bread and were selling it at 10p a loaf.”

First-class status also meant that he met some of the game’s biggest names – “Gower lovely, Botham terrific, Gooch never happy.”

Particularly he remembers Durham skipper Michael Roseberry – “an absolute gentleman, always seek you out to thank you, win or lose” – and that proud Yorkshireman, umpire Bird.

“One morning someone sought me out to say that Dickie wanted me. I went to the umpires’ room and he had his head in a menthol bowl and asked me to get him a bar of soap.

“There was liquid soap all over the place but Dickie wanted a bar. I thought I’d better go.”

It was reminiscent of the Wensleydale League’s 75th anniversary, at Scotch Corner maybe 20 years ago, when everyone else had beef and liked it. It was a Friday; Dickie said he didn’t eat meat on a Friday. They’d to send out for fish and chips.

Stockton has provided ample grounds for satisfaction, nonetheless – “I tried to escape but they wouldn’t let me” – though he admits applying for the head groundsman’s job at Kelso racecourse.

“They interviewed me, the wife and the dog for an hour and a half then gave it to the assistant. Good luck to him.”

It’s to the Borders, Jedburgh, that he’ll retire – though in no sense be put out to grass.

“The new house has three patios and some decking, not a blade of grass anywhere.

After the winter, I might see if there’s a little bowls club somewhere needs a hand, but for six months I’ll have nothing to worry about but the concrete.”

By now the sun’s shining warmly, and upon righteous and unrighteous alike.

Colin’s off to check Sunday’s forecast. Another Gray day?

“You wouldn’t bet against it,” he says.

STILL at the grassroots, we are asked to mention that John Bell – Lanchester Cricket Club’s groundsman for 30 years and occasional provider of muchappreciated questions for the column, will be 50 on Friday. A very happy birthday – and thanks.

IT’S tossing down at Tow Law, too, inauspicious since it’s the first football match of the column’s pre-season “Just be thankful,” says Lawyers’ secretary Steve Moralee. “It’s usually snowing when you land.”

It’s the now-annual match between Tow Law and Weardale teams, in aid of the British Heart Foundation and in memory of John Noddings, who died eight years ago while playing in a pre-season game at the Ironworks.

Tow Law, so far as may reasonably be ascertained, win 4-2. Some of us, in truth, have retired to the clubhouse long before the end.

GREAT lads, Tow Law are themselves fund raising – not least with a sponsored walk this Sunday in which most of the team will take part.

After that, Steve Moralee and club treasurer Kevin McCormick plan a round at Crook Golf Club – where Kevin’s treasurer – using only a putter.

“The other day it took me nearly five hours to get round with a full set,” says Kevin. “I think we may have to start off before breakfast.”

...and finally

THE three Premier League football clubs which began as Sunday School teams (Backtrack, July 9) were Everton, Fulham and Aston Villa.

Norman Robinson in Annfield Plain today seeks the identity of the familiar cricket broadcaster who became Gordon Greenidge’s only bowling victim in international cricket.

Another one for the pot, the column returns on Saturday.