Marylebone Cricket Club - The Lord’s way being done

Neville Johnsonin Cricket

For Pitchcare's ton-up issue, Neville Johnson visited a place where centuries are given special recognition. A chat with Head Groundsman Karl McDermott at the Home of Cricket in London's St John's Wood reveals why, for him, there is simply nowhere else to go as a cricket groundsman.

When you work for the club which laid down the Laws of Cricket over two hundred years ago, it will quite likely take your professional pride up a notch or two. You sense that the moment you start talking to Karl McDermott, who has now been in charge at Lord's for three years. He says that every single day he still finds it hard to believe he achieved his lofty ambition to look after its pitches.

Pitchcare: In your wildest of dreams at Dublin's Clontarf Cricket Ground all those years ago, you couldn't have imagined you'd one day be running things at Lord's? How's it been? What have been the standouts?

Karl McDermott: When I took over from Mick Hunt, I had a month here alongside him and I bombarded him with questions at a time when he was winding down for a much-deserved retirement. He was a font of knowledge and it was a privilege to tap into it. He was a difficult act to follow. I always looked up to him, as did pretty well every pro groundsman, and I'd got his job. Still can't believe it.

Being at Lord's does put you in a spotlight like nowhere else. I remember when I was at the Ageas there was added pressure of a kind for international matches, but really they were just another game. Here, it's a different level. Attention and interest in the big games - and there are more of them of course - is so much higher, from the media, players, spectators, not to mention MCC, my employer.

I don't deny it, I really enjoy the pressure. The 2019 Ashes game here took me where I'd never been before. The build-up began days, even weeks beforehand, and it got more and more ramped up in the press and social media. Wonderful excitement.

Lord's changing skyline

That game, and the World Cup final, have been stand-outs in the short time I've been here, oh and of course the first England v Ireland Test. I do try to enjoy the big games but you don't get much time to take them in because the next game is always just around the corner.

Is there a new level of responsibility on your shoulders, not just because of the hallowed playing surface, but the global gaze there is on all things Lord's?

But for the added tension and expectation surrounding big games, I can honestly say I feel the same about every pitch I prepare here. I get just as concerned and involved about pitch performance on the third day of a Middlesex county game.

The first ball of every Lord's game is a focus of attention for me. I need to see that my surface is going to be a fair and lasting one for bat and ball. I reckon ball one tells you if you've achieved that. That inner relief is worth all the hard preparation work.

Every match at Lord's is an event for somebody. In the minor matches here, for plenty of cricketers it will be the only chance they get to play at the Home of Cricket - a special day - and I love the responsibility of doing my best to make it so. The Village Cup final at the end of the season is probably one of my favourite days. I like to think that's because I was a clubman once.

Karl in front of a statue of W.G. Grace - and the Honours Board

Being groundsman at Lord's does make you a bit more conscious about what you do and say. My cheeky Irish temperament has been throttled back, some might say.

Part of the responsibility of this particular job is to fly the flag for the profession of cricket groundsmanship. I will always do what I can to make sure the gates are open to any pro or aspiring youngster to see what we do here. I am so keen to see that our work here is as transparent as it can be. Our problems are no different to cricket grounds at all levels. We are just fortunate to have resources at our disposal.

The two-day Test in India last winter brought into sharp focus the vexed topic of conditions favouring the home side rather than the tourists. What is your take on this?

I won't be drawn on whether conditions and the pitch led to that very short Test in India.

The aim here is always, always to produce a good, fair cricket pitch.

English conditions do produce exciting cricket with plenty of fluctuations in fortune, but I also like Australian conditions with plenty of pace and bounce. This goes back to my time spent working down under for Sydney club Mossman. I'm looking forward to this winter's Ashes series, but I admit my interest is going to be more focused on the pitches than the fortunes of England. There, a little bit of the cheeky Irishman coming through!

First outfield cut in early November

Are you concerned about the number youngsters who are given the opportunity to see cricket groundsmanship as an exciting career?

As a youngster, when I first came into cricket groundwork it sparked a lifelong passion, which I still have 100 percent. Ask my wife, she'll tell you I'm constantly thinking - and talking - about cricket. Every day I wonder how I can improve what I do, how can I produce better pitches. It never leaves my mind and drives me on.

The way we can make sure the new generation of cricket groundsmen have that passion is to see that they're included hands-on, either in work experience or plain and simple helping out. Make sure they get the whole experience. See how everything is done and why. The onus is on all of us established groundsmen, right down to club level to do the encouraging.

You can't let them jump on the roller or mow the square straight away, but you can find a pathway to let them gain experience and hopefully a passion. Avoid boredom setting in giving them only the 'shovelling cuttings into a trailer' jobs.

Actually, I've recently returned from Saltex where I backed the effort to bring youth into the industry.

Outfield re-instatement after completed extension of Compton and Edrich stands last March / Fineturf scarifying the square at the beginning of October

I try to make sure everyone on the Lord's team is involved in everything we do. No exclusions. Our team is five full-timers, including myself, plus two or three more for the summer months. They are all seasoned pros, and they know full well what we've all come to realise is 'the Lord's way'. In simple terms, this means ensuring that every single visitor to Lord's gets the wow factor.

Attention to detail, like seeing that edges are always neatly clipped, as are the irrigation heads surrounds, is the key. We showed our colleagues from Wembley Stadium around the ground a while back and a couple of them audibly exclaimed 'wow' as they passed under the Media Centre into the Main Ground. It made the hairs on my neck stand on-end, I'm not embarrassed to admit. That's the effect of the Lord's way and we do what we can every single day to uphold it.

The long hours, the weather: things do test your resolve, but I know we've got a Lord's way team through and through.

When there's a Test or other big match on, I do watch of course I do, even if it's just on the TV in my office. But it's the pitch I'm watching. That's my Lord's way.

Outfield renovation with the square completed and under germination fleece

What are your wished-for technological developments for equipment and materials? What's going to help you do an even better job?

Machinery is getting better and better and the developments coming along more regularly, there's no doubt about that. MCC are always very supportive when there's something available that will help us do the job better. It goes hand in hand with wanting to be the best cricket ground in the world.

There's a responsibility here to lead in other ways, like pitch development or the technology that goes with it. We recently bought a lighting rig, for instance. It's commonplace for winter games, but still pretty new in cricket. We have shade issues at times of the year at Lord's and it's become an issue that needs dealing with as the season is getting longer.

A good half of the ground - the Pavilion end - is in shade during the winter. We've had on trial units from Manchester United's Old Trafford Stadium and they made quite a difference. What we're getting for this winter is not on the same scale as for football grounds, but will be effective for three pitch sections of the square. SGL has constructed a bespoke single-run design for us, akin to those used at Wimbledon.

I'm very excited about its impending arrival in mid-December. A Christmas present, if you like. A first bespoke lighting rig for cricket and Lord's is leading the way.

The Bob Willis Trophy Final finished on 1st October so your end of season renovation work had to wait. How did it go?

The match schedule is so tight now there has to be a lengthening of the season. This and the receding warmth and daylight has an effect on end of season refurbishment. We're having to think more flexibly about it.

This year our usual outsource contractor, Fineturf, conducted a full scarification of the square, but did not Koro. This left an amount of grass for the subsequent dressing to marry into. This has worked out very well and gave us the strong likelihood of being able to verti-drain before Christmas, unlike last year when the weather and consequent tacky post-Koro surface conspired to delay this.

Repair work has changed so much. When I was starting out, we used a pedestrian scarifier and you'd be scared of taking anything out and wanting to leave as much grass as possible. You'd be scared of walking on the square in winter. Nowadays, we run tractors all over it.

Last strip of the season for the Bob Willis Trophy Final

Cricket pushing its boundaries. What's your take on plastic in pitch surfaces and The Hundred razzmatazz?

Hybrid pitches in cricket is in its infancy and Lord's is on the front row of the grid you might say for looking into their viability. The first was trialed here about three years ago on the main square. Since then, manufacturer SIS has provided us with two more and another for the Nursery Ground square.

They are similar in principle to football's Desso surface and have the same attributes. These strips have just a five percent plastic content and grass is still overwhelmingly the determining factor for performance.

Two of the three hybrids on our main square are used for professional cricket, notably and most recently for London Spirit home games in The Hundred tournament played here in August, though a natural surface was used for the final.

Early stages are quite positive. It doesn't make a bad surface good, but what it's given us is less wear and tear in the final delivery stride areas. It means strips can be used for second and third games in shorter limited over tournaments. Their future looks quite promising.

From our point of view, The Hundred is very much tournament pressure - more intense than T20 Blast games. Our work is high paced with plenty of on-pitch practice sessions to cater for as well. Hybrids do ease things somewhat.

Just 13 days after renovation work excellent germination has been achieved

What do you do to try and get away from cricket?

Our two-year-old daughter Aoife is taking up a lot of what little spare time I have. A lot of family time is lost over the summer and I do what I can to catch up over winter. Right after Saltex, the three of us went for couple of weeks seeing friends and generally chilling out near Broadstairs in Kent.

Rugby is an out of season passion of mine and I try to get to at least one of the Six Nations games if I can. I love horseracing too and, like a true Irishmen, I can't resist time at Cheltenham.

You said you had a liking for Aussie cricket conditions. Do you know any of your counterparts down under?

I met Damien Hough, Head Curator at the Adelaide Oval when he was over here for the Ashes in 2019. We struck up a friendship and kind of made a promise to strengthen ties between the two great venues.

A workforce exchange is a very practical and worthwhile exercise we have under way. One of my guys, Josh Finch, did a spell at the Adelaide Oval last year and got enormous benefit from the experience. We're hoping we can welcome one of Damien's team here next summer.

Aside from big cricketing days, what tells you Lord's is special?

My favourite time here is when I'm on my own on a weekend or early in the morning, and I'm just sitting on the roller as the sun rises over the Edrich stand and glistens on the Pavilion. That is a sight to behold. That's what tells me I'll never tire of being here. It's a unique place, certainly in the world of cricket.

A century for Pitchcare. Any decent strokes?

Well done, Pitchcare. Plenty of applause from the industry for your ton. From the moment you got started, you've had the best interests of everyone in turfcare at heart. Personally, I've loved being part of it now and again and grateful for the help it's given me in my career.

Oh, and I love the attention to detail - very much like the Lord's way - especially What's in the Shed. I love to see what fellow groundsmen use to deal with things. We are a broad church and Pitchcare's serves us all very well.

Where to next?

I was asked that by MCC when they interviewed me for the job. There is nowhere to go after Lord's was my answer then, and still is.

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