It's a cricket ground steeped in history and, for the members of Muckamore Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club, it's a real privilege to continue to play there. Situated in the village of Muckamore just south of Antrim town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and beside an old flax mill, the club dates back to 1874. At one point in time, the finished linen from the old mill used to be laid out on the ground where the cricket pitches are now in order for the sun to bleach it.
For over 140 years, the sport of cricket has been played on the same ground which runs adjacent to the Six Mile Water River.
Thanks to development work around the turn of the century, this cricket club can now boast two cricket pitches; the main one called Moylena and a smaller one called Harrigans Hill, or Nursery Park as referred to by the players.
Moylena is regarded highly in the cricket world as a beautiful ground and, back in 2005, it was used as a venue for ICC Trophy group stage matches. Then, in 2007, Moylena hosted an international match between Ireland 'A' and Denmark and, in the last few years, has hosted Ireland U19s, an MCC team and several local cup finals.
Although there are no lawn tennis facilities at Muckamore these days, the venue has provided tennis facilities in the Antrim and Muckamore areas for over 100 years and currently has four synthetic tennis courts.
The lucky man who has the job of looking after these historic grounds is head groundsman Michael Kennedy. His day job is in IT, but he has worked on a part time basis at Muckamore for the past ten years.
It's a real labour of love for Michael to look after the grounds as, in the early days of his involvement, he found working in the open air a real escape from airports, as he always jetting off somewhere for his IT job.
Michael said: "I started getting involved at Muckamore all those years ago helping the previous groundsman, Billy Johnstone. My initial involvement was pretty much sitting on a roller on a Friday afternoon. At the time, I was working in Europe from Monday to Thursday and, having been trawled through various airports, sitting in a wide open space on a Friday afternoon was a great way to unwind. And it sort of grew from there."
Although working in IT, Michael has completed a number of training courses, including the PA1 and PA6 courses and assessment. He is currently studying Level 2 Sports Turf.
Michael fondly remembers the man who inspired him into the industry, and that was John McCormick. "John has a passion for local cricket, and Muckamore in particular," said Michael. "Anyone who knows him will understand where I am coming from, and I caught the bug from him. Thankfully, he stays away from the machinery these days," laughed Michael. "The sightscreens would have been a crash barrier when John was on a mower."
Even though Michael is part time, he does have an important role within the club with some budgetary responsibilities. "I report to the cricket committee who, in turn, report to the general committee of the club," he said. "I do have a budget and, in this day and age, it's becoming more and more difficult to manage, but our club treasurer does a fantastic job."
"During the winter months, all the work at the club is basically left to me. In the summer months, I have a number of helpers. My role is pretty much to work on the square and oversee the outfield operations. I have a contractor who takes care of the tractor mounted operations."
Drainage at Muckamore probably ranks amongst the best in Northern Ireland, as Michael explained. "On the main pitch, we have probably the best drainage in the country, due to it having been a bleaching green during the days of flax. The workers would have used this green at the weekends. It's a cinder or clinker base and, on top of that, its mostly sandy, although we do have some areas where it is quite clay based.
These latter areas are slowly improving through verti-draining and topdressing with sand."
"We have standard roll on roll off covers. However, we do have a slope to contend with, which can cause water to run under. It's not a slope on the scale of Lord's, but it's a factor."
"We have five senior men's teams, a ladies team, two midweek teams and several youth teams. The club has a real community feel."
There are approximately seven acres here, split between the two cricket pitches and the tennis courts."
"Being so high above the Six Mile Water, flooding is not a risk, but we get frost just like everywhere else in the area. However, the shadows from the surrounding trees cause it to hold longer than most."
"The only real issue I have to contend with is the morning dew. It seems to be particularly heavy, perhaps it's being so close to a river or Lough Neagh, but it can cause issues when matches start early. I've seen times when this dew lies to well after noon."
"We used to have a tree line of Leylandii separating our two pitches and this caused a severe shadow during the winter months on the Nursery pitch. This tree line was removed in 2009 and the result was instantaneous, although it did change the appearance of the ground somewhat.
We have thinned out other tree lines as much as possible to allow light and air in."
"We are pretty much surrounded by trees, and this causes the usual headaches with moss. We did remove a number of old Larch trees from around the ground and this has helped with the light in certain areas, however we do have to manage moss on areas of the outfield."
"Luckily, I have a great contractor, McLaughlin Sports Turf. They have been working with us for a number of years now and we are seeing an improvement year on year."
"We also have an all-weather pitch as well as both the main square and the nursery ground, and two artificial practice bays."
"There are four all weather tennis courts, for which the bulk of the work is done by contractors as and when. We recently had two of them renovated and trialed a paddle tennis court in them, which is a cross between tennis and squash, which was a huge success."
Michael follows a pretty straightforward maintenance routine and, being the main man in charge, knows it inside out. "Our square is maintained at around 10-12mm during the playing season with the Ransomes Matador, which we have recently put a nine blade cutting reel into. It is typically cut three times per week and verticut monthly with the Sisis Mk4 rotorake. Scarification is carried out with the Sisis 600 during end of season renovations and aeration during the winter."
"Pitch preparation for matches typically follows a fourteen day programme. The outfield would be sprayed with iron, typically early March, and scarified a fortnight later. It would then be overseeded and fed with slow release fertiliser. Plus, it would be fed and sprayed for weeds as required during the season."
"I am very lucky to have a number of volunteers at my disposal, but it's usually organised chaos. The ground is used pretty much full time every evening through the week, either with adult and junior practice, midweek matches, various age groups and ladies cricket. So we have to work around that."
"Presentation is always something I strive to improve," said Michael. "The square gets the majority of my hours but, where time allows, we try and double cut and box the outfield clippings with the 30 inch mowers."
"But, typically, the two outfields are cut two or three times a week with the John Deere triple mower."
"We have been lucky enough to host a few marque matches. The MCC have an annual fixture here and we host the local schools cup final. The trophy is in memory of our late club president, Ferguson Grainger. The addition of the Dennis Premier has really raised the definition of the striping."
"Our end of season renovations are carried out in-house. Having re-laid seven of the eleven pitches back in 2009, I have four older pitches to consider. Typically, these would get a harder and deeper scarification than the newer pitches."
"Taking core samples from various parts of the square will dictate the requirements."
"Once the last match of the season is played, I mow the entire square down as low as possible, typically 3mm, brushing between cuts with a Sisis Rotorake MK4. Next, the square is scarified in several directions with a Sisis 600. It is then brushed, blown and mown again to remove as much debris as possible."
"Next up is the sarrell roller, and there are never many willing volunteers for this task! It is then overseeded with 100 percent dwarf ryegrass, at least at 50g/m2, then lightly dragbrushed, pre-seeder applied and topdressed with six to eight bags of Boughton County loam per pitch. Finally, it is dragmatted and checked for levels."
"Renovation work is not generally affected by budgets. The square always get what it needs, as a priority. In an ideal world, I would like to relay the remaining pitches, or even koro one or two of them per year."
"The outfields are the areas that would get more or less work depending on what funds are available at the time."
Of course, the weather plays a vital role in Michael's management routines. "It definitely seems like the winters are becoming milder, and the summers wetter. Covering the pitches and getting them dry to depth is a constant issue here in Northern Ireland."
"Soil samples are taken on a regular basis to see what is going on under the bonnet, so to speak."
"Artificial surfaces are brushed and given a general tidy up. The artificial practice pitches are fairly young, but will be due a refurbishment in the next year or so."
Michael is also involved in a few other projects which consume his time. "I am working on a project with Phillip McCormick at Stormont to get a groundsman's association up and running in the Northern Cricket Union," he said.
"I am also working with a local company on a project to allow me to be able to cover the entire square, using an inflatable tube and a new semi-transparent tarpaulin which Cunningham Covers have developed."
"Just recently, I have had the absolute pleasure of a new machinery garage on site, which is a far cry from the two old damp, dark wooden shipping containers we had to cope with over the years. The difference a dry bright storage and workshop has made to day to day activities has been immense, and I can't thank the club enough."
"As my position is effectively run as a part time hobby, training doesn't really come into it. Perhaps as cricket evolves, with Cricket Ireland pursuing a first class structure, we may see the days of employed groundsmen but, for now, it's very much reliant on volunteers."
Most of the machinery used at Muckamore is bought secondhand from a number of sources in the trade.
Michael prefers to use Ransome mowers for pitch preparation, but says the Dennis Premier mower has impressed him. "The addition of the Sisis 600 has been a huge help in end of season work," he added. "A tractor is at the top of my machinery wish list as it would make a huge difference to operations here."
Weeds and pests are not such a huge problem at Muckamore. "Weed control is mostly spot managed on the square, with the contractor looking after the herbicide application on the larger areas," said Michael. "We would get the odd outbreak of red thread and fusarium. We don't tend to have too many issues with animals, but have the occasional rabbit, whilst worms can be an issue from time to time."
"Managing soil pH levels tends to keep worms in check, although we do spray a suppressant on the square as and when. I don't tend to worry about the outfield."
"The grounds here are regarded as being one of the most picturesque in the country. And, as we are on the banks of the Six Mile Water, the local flora and fauna is very much a consideration. Hedgerows and areas around trees are left to nature, but this does cause the odd cricket ball to get lost."
"I think cricket groundsmen in Northern Ireland are undervalued. The move towards first class cricket in Ireland may change these opinions. I believe the only way to raise our profile would be to start to invest in the future. Let me quote Einstein's definition of insanity; 'doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'."
"Without investment in playing surfaces, the standards and profile won't improve. But these issues aren't unique to Northern Ireland. I imagine it's the same across the UK."
"The number of volunteers is dropping year on year, and I honestly believe most committees and players simply don't know the level of work that is needed to produce better pitches."
What's in the shed?
John Deere 2653A
Allen National 68
Dennis Premier 30 with trailing seat
Locke 30 inch with trailing seat
Ransomes Matador 71
Ransomes Certes 61 with groomer
Ransomes Certes 51
Sisis Autorotorake MK4 (various reels)
Sisis Rotorake 600
Sisis Autocore aerator
Sisis Hydrocore aerator
Stothert & Pitt 32 Roller