Hampshire’s shamrock ‘invader’

Neville Johnsonin Cricket

England's one-day cricket captain is an Irishman, but Eoin Morgan is not the only one from the Republic making a mark in the game. Neville Johnson went to the Ageas Bowl, one of the new breed of cricket stadia, to meet Karl McDermott, the only Irish head groundsman in first class cricket.

The Ageas Bowl (formerly the Rose Bowl) has been the home of Hampshire County Cricket Club since 2001. Only three weeks before the start of the 2018 season it looks in pretty good nick yet, only twenty-four hours earlier, the lush green expanse of outfield was white, suffering the effects of a second visit from the so-called Beast from the East.

Like most of the country, the Ageas Bowl was hit in March by two separate and disruptive snow events. The second of these was barely over, and there was still evidence of winter debris when I visited.

The bout of snow and ice a couple of weeks earlier had apparently caused the outfield to become quite yellowish after thawing. This time, a more rapid thaw had left the grass looking pretty good, to the relief of Head Groundsman Karl McDermott. His team had scraped the snow off the covers and a bit of early spring sun and a slightly warmer wind saw off the outfield blanket.

"It has been so wet and, more recently, cold, since Christmas that we've struggled to get work done," said Karl.

Winter's late double whammy meant it had been the worst ever pre-season build up at the Ageas Bowl. Karl said he had never known the profile to be as soft as it was this year. He was banking on a lengthy dry spell as the days ticked by to the opening fixture.

A walk across the ground showed just how soft, even soggy, it was. A first friendly against Kent, then just two days away is, not surprisingly, called off on Karl's advice and to his relief. He has a spring in his step and a smile on his face anyway, because it's just three days since Ireland clinched the Grand Slam at Twickenham.

When I asked him about being unique amongst first class head groundsmen, he said: "I'm an invader, the only one at the moment."

Cricket in Ireland is very club-based. There's very little school cricket. You learn about everything to do with the game from being involved in a club. That's exactly how Karl got his love for it, though oddly, in his case, it did actually stem from school life.

"When I was fourteen or so, my maths teacher, who was the local cricket club groundsman, wanted a non-player to give him a hand for a few hours a week, so I took him up."

"What started as a good way of earning a bit of pocket money, gave me the bug for cricket, and the beginnings of a passion for producing pitches. I ended up being a player too, though nothing more than an okay second teamer."

The Clontarf Club is in the leafy northern suburbs of Dublin and has always been at the forefront of cricket in Ireland, winning trophies and attracting good players the norm. It had given Karl a handy weekend and summer job for four or five years too, and a taste for a future career.

The groundsman at Clontarf retired and Karl readily 'filled his boots'. Presentation of the playing area had always been important, but it was getting more so, and the role had moved on from being part-time to a seven-month full time job. The then Irish Cricket Union (now Cricket Ireland) helped him with contacts to get work in Australia and South Africa during the winter months here. His career was well underway.

Clontarf had hosted county games and the then Benson and Hedges Cup matches involving the Irish national side. For Karl, being involved in this higher level of the game opened his eyes to an even higher level of groundsmanship.

"I remember the first big win over a county. It was Middlesex, with the likes of Gatting and Ramprakash playing," said Karl.

"Having these big names using my pitch gave me an even bigger appetite for cricket groundsmanship. It had become much more testing and rewarding. I was lucky. In the right place at the right time, you could say."

In 1999, when Clontarf hosted a Cricket World Cup game between West Indies and Bangladesh, it was Karl's real 'eureka moment'.

"Sky cameras, crowds of people on banks of temporary seating. It was a whole new big match experience," he recalls. "I knew then I had to get into the county cricket scene proper, but I dared to dream of Test and international level."

After plugging away looking for opportunities, one came at New Road Worcester. He spent a rewarding year at the county ground as a member of the grounds staff, and the River Severn flooded the playing area no less than three times whilst he was there - a test for any aspiring professional.

In 2008, the post of deputy at the Ageas Bowl came up and he got it, working under Nigel Gray. When Nigel retired in 2015, Karl took up the reins. This season is his third in charge.

When Karl came to the Ageas Bowl it was still the Rose Bowl, and in the early stages of redevelopment aimed at making it a viable international and Test arena. There wasn't the impressive 4-star Hilton hotel with its many 'rooms with a view', and two of the main stands hadn't been built. In his ten years here, he's seen rapid growth into one of the country's leading cricket venues. He remembers the first Ageas Bowl Test - England and Sri Lanka - in 2011, and the disappointment of dealing with four wet days.

Including Karl, the Ageas Bowl has a full-time ground staff of seven. The team's work routine is straightforward and democratic. Everyone works Monday to Friday 8.00am to 5.00pm, whilst evenings and weekends are a matter of fair and equal rotation, as required.

"We try and make sure everybody does the same number of days and weekends each month," he said. "A couple of the chaps play cricket, so no guarantees, but we try, when possible, to see that they can. The system works quite well. Everybody does everything. They're all excellent cricket groundsmen."

As well as the main Ageas ground, there's the next-door nursery ground, which stages second XI matches. The main ground has twenty pitches, of which eighteen are suitable for first class matches, though generally Karl limits play to fifteen of them.

"Things are massively governed by television when it's here to cover games," said Karl. "The positioning of the camera gantry reduces the choice to just six strips. "

On this pre-season day, you can see perfectly the all round symmetry of middle to boundary distance. It has a reputation as a free-scoring ground, and much favoured for white ball cricket. Australia's Aaron Finch, with his 156 off 63 balls in a 2013 Twenty20, holds the eye-popping big hitting record at the ground.

Karl says he is neither a batsman's nor a bowler's groundsman. He always aims to give the bat and ball an equal shout, though with Mason Crane and Liam Dawson on the Hampshire playing staff, he'll be expected to bring spin conditions into the equation this season. He says that generally it tends to be a flat playing surface, and he expects more crowd pleasing big totals this summer

All the time Hampshire is a Division One county, the Ageas Bowl is likely to remain among the elite of England's international grounds.

At the end of August, the ground is staging its first Test match since 2014, and it's Karl's first in charge. He relishes the intensity and pressure of preparing a five-day strip for England to take on India. As the date nears, the ECB will talk to Karl about the sort of pitch they want for it.

"As it's India I'm pretty sure they won't want me to produce a turner," said Karl wrily.

"It's not in our interests either to have a game that's over in under three days. We want customers - lots of them - and the revenue they bring. ECB pitches advisor Chris Wood is a regular visitor here and I expect to have chats with him in the coming months."

Karl has known Chris since his early days as a groundsman, and first met him in Ireland ahead of the World Cup game there in 1998. It was Chris that helped him get established in the first class game in England.

The Ageas Bowl is not scheduled to stage another Test until at least 2024 because the ECB has turned its sights on the more traditional Test grounds around the country, especially with the upgrading of their infrastructure, notably at Old Trafford and Headingly.

ODIs and Twenty20 internationals are a different matter and Hampshire's HQ will continue to be very much on the radar for these.

This year saw Karl and the Ageas Bowl host the annual head groundsmans seminar.

"Everyone was jealous when they saw our equipment shed," joked Karl. "They thought I had too much kit. Actually, a lot of what they saw belongs to the greenkeepers who look after Hampshire CCC's 18-hole Boundary Lakes Golf Club, at the front of the hotel and another important revenue stream.

For the time being, we share the same equipment space, though they are getting their own facility soon."

"We get on very well and even share one or two items of larger equipment, like tractors. The greenkeeping guys will be welcome extra labour during the Test match, because the golf course will be closed, but otherwise we operate entirely separately."

The main pitch covers had been on almost perpetually for weeks but, as soon as they came off, pre-season heavy rolling was in full swing. The square in late March looked verdant and ready for final preparation. Karl's seed of choice, Johnson's Premier Wicket perennial ryegrass mix, continues to produce the goods for him. Although understandably a little soggy after the snow, the outfield is not far from an all-over summer look too.

Karl breathes a sigh of relief when I ask him about concerts. There are none here this year apparently. He's not too upset. Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart are among the big names that have appeared in the past.

Concert seating is set up without covering the square, but outfield effects are a concern he doesn't deny. "Concerts are, for me, the most stressful time of the season and there's usually a game pitch to prepare for the following Friday," he said.

The hotel, conferences and banqueting - and more recently the golf course - are all part of the Ageas Bowl business, but it's cricket that drives things.

Presentation of the ground - not just for cricket - is crucial. There's no doubt there is almost a wow factor when you arrive at the ground and get glimpses of the stadium surface as you walk around the outer perimeter.

"Cricket is unquestionably the main provider at the Ageas Bowl," said Karl. "If cricket wasn't here, there'd be no business. None of those in charge of things here ever forget that and I get massive support and understanding for all matters relating to care of the pitches and outfields."

Next year is going to be a big one for Karl. There are five guaranteed World Cup group games, plus two or three earlier warm-up games. In May, there is also an England Pakistan ODI. It will be a very intensive six-week period of international cricket with no county matches at all.

Karl recalls his pre-Hampshire days when he wintered in South Africa and was on the team that looked after the pitches for five World Cup matches, including the semi-final, at the St Georges Ground, Port Elizabeth. He more or less shadowed the head groundsman and got a real feel for the pressure of big match preparation. Early summer 2019 may see the current deputy at the Port Elizabeth ground joining the Ageas Bowl team for their World Cup work. Karl knows just how valuable this is.

Karl refers to the pitch as the head groundsman's product. "You have to watch at least some of a game on yours to form an opinion on how it's playing and talk knowledgeably to others. I usually watch the first hour and some of the final session of the day during a 4-day county game."

"Control of on-field match matters is changing. It's not so much the umpires that call the tune in first class cricket as the new Cricket Liaison Officers, who are more or less match managers now. I have more contact with these than the umpires nowadays."

"With the CLOs rating the pitch, it's important to have a good relationship with them so as they understand what has gone into the preparation and any issues there may have been in the run up to the game. The pitches have been very settled here for six or seven seasons now and there are no issues regarding the quality of the playing surface."

The CLO panel is now made up of ten former players, among them Graham Cowdrey, Tony Pigott, Dean Cosker and Richard Ellison. The aim this season is to have one of them at every Specsavers County Championship game, Divisions One and Two, and all NatWest T20 Blast and Royal London One-Day Cup games. A Cricket Operations Manager, former Surrey all-rounder Andy Smith, has been appointed by the ECB to be in charge of the panel.

Karl admits to being a bit of a grumpy groundsman in his early days in Ireland and was perhaps too protective of the playing area. "I've mellowed a bit," he said. "You don't have to fight battles about everything. As long as you explain why things are the way they are, common sense usually prevails."

When the fixtures start ticking over this season Karl will be in his element, fulfilling a passion that began in the northern outskirts of Dublin.

What's in the shed?

Dennis FT610 cylinder mower with interchangeable cassettes x 2
Dennis 560 cylinder mower
Dennis Razor cylinder mower
Dennis Premier 36 inch cylinder mower
Lloyds Paladin cylinder mower
Allett 36 inch cylinder mower
Sisis Rotorake
Sisis Combirake x 2
Sisis Truspread topdresser
John Deere 8700 fairway mower
John Deere 8800 semi rough mower
John Deere R54RKB rotary mower
John Deere 3720 tractor
John Deere 3083 tractor
John Deere Aercore 1500 tractor mounted spiker
John Deere Aercore 800 pedestrian spiker
Tractor mounted Graden
Pedestrian Graden
Blec Uniseeder
Scag SW walk behind rotary mower
Autoguide Auto-roller
Poweroll County
Pedestrian sprayer
Tractor mounted sprayer
Variety of strimmers, blowers and fertiliser spreaders

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