Three months after Ireland played its first Test match, another Irishman will make his five-day debut at the Ageas Bowl – and will be just as nervous as any player. Karl McDermott, formerly of Clontarf CC, is head groundsman at the Southampton ground.
“I’d have preferred if England were leading 3-0”, he laughs. “There’d be a lot less pressure!”
Long the preserve of middle-aged men who wore shorts long past a time they ought not to, the 42-year old Dubliner is part of a new breed of groundsmen.
McDermott owes his career to his maths teacher, Podge Hughes, the former Ireland fast bowler who looked after Clontarf’s Castle Avenue ground. “Podger wanted a non-player to give him a hand for a few hours a week. What started as a good way of earning a bit of pocket money – I was 14 – 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 OK second teamer."
He’s invited Mr Hughes to the Test as his guest, but the 13-times capped seamer is tied up with the new term at Mount Temple.
When Hughes stepped down, McDermott stepped in and an increasing Ireland programme meant it became a full-time job for seven months a year. “We had a lot of NatWest and C&G games which gave me a taste for county cricket”, he explains. “Mike Hendrick, the former Ireland coach, got me work experience at Derby, and Cricket Ireland helped with contacts in South Africa too.”
In 1999, Clontarf hosted a World Cup game between West Indies and Bangladesh, which he says was his “eureka moment”. "Sky cameras, temporary seating. It was a whole new big match experience. I knew then I had to get into county cricket, but I dared to dream of Test and international cricket."
He moved to Worcestershire in 2007 and a year later headed south to the Rose Bowl. The differences between a club ground in Dublin and the Test venue were enormous. “The standards expected are a lot higher, the finish has to be perfect. It’s easier to work with a properly-laid and built ground, but there’s more pressure. There are more eyes on you and everyone’s an expert on preparing pitches.”
McDermott’s biggest headache is fixture congestion, with 56 to -58 days tied up with games – although he was delighted this year not to have to work around a pop concert which has been a regular occurrence in recent years. “We’ve a nursery ground too which has 55 games this summer, plus practice.”
Dale McDonough, 25, has even more games to worry about as the owner of Leinster’s only cricket grounds-keeping firm, GM By Choice. McDonough looks after four grounds at the moment, and is talking to others about 2019.
It’s just seven years since McDonough was asked to help get his club ground in shape for the cup final. “I grew up on a dairy farm in Meath so Alan Lewis asked me to come down and help make the surrounds of the YMCA ground look nice!” he recalls.
The main groundsman was working that week and McDonough ended up more than he bargained for. “I really enjoyed it though, and when YM hosted a women’s qualifying tournament the next year I really got into it.
“I made loads of mistakes but learned a lot too. Lewy organised the Glamorgan groundsman, Len Smith, to come over and oversee preparations for a week. That was like going on a golf course with Tiger Woods. You pick up things so quickly.”
His biggest nightmare is the weather, working in a land where rain falls more than half the days in a year.
“The weather helps and hinders the work, you hope it rains some days and not others. Getting covers on at the right times is crucial. I’ve worked in Australia so I’ve seen the extremes of what they have to deal with – one day can be 40 degrees and the next 18 and a thunderstorm. Over there you leave the covers on to stop pitches drying out.”
With so many matches, McDonough has to adapt. “There’s a lot of late nights here till 1am moving sprinklers around and getting enough water on to keep the grass alive while making sure its fit for cricket.”
Hampshire sees a lot more sun than Dublin 4, but McDermott also keeps a keen eye on the climate and has detected big changes. “It’s definitely got warmer over the last ten years, and we don’t seem to get light rain anymore, it’s all thunderstorms. We had 39mm here yesterday – that’s a monsoon! This year has been very difficult with snow, rain and drought.”
While there is controversy at international level at what is called ‘doctoring’ pitches, McDonough has no issues with it.
“Every week I get on to the captains asking what type of pitch they want. Home advantage should count in club cricket – I’d ask who they’re playing and whether they have more seamers or whatever so I’d use a pitch that’s been used.”
McDonough studied accounting but two years ago he wintered in Australia and was asked back by Green Options, the company that tends the grounds for several Sydney clubs. At the same time Merrion asked would he look after them.” Expansion meant it was time to get organised and GM By Choice was born.
“GM means ‘Grounds Man’ – and the ‘By Choice’ is because I could have been an accountant!” he grins. Credit for the name goes to his girlfriend Shauna Kavanagh, the Ireland batswoman.
In each of the clubs he has local assistants – “to the work!” – Jack Balbirnie on Pembroke, Sam Streek in YMCA and Angus Fleming in Merrion. “I hope to follow the model I saw in Australia, where Green Options do other sports in winter. I’ll be working on Monkstown rugby club this winter.”
His big project is College Park, where Cricket Leinster and the university have agreed to develop the first-class home of Leinster Lightning once the students have finished their season.
“It’s a consultant job with the lads who work in there. I’m coming to an old square that has been used a lot. We have to take an inch and a half of soil off the square and resurface it to get it to the standard it needs to be at for first-class cricket. We’re in the early stages but it’s very exciting.”
McDermott has been mentioned as a candidate for the biggest job in his world – head groundsman at Lord’s in succession to Mick Hunt, who retires this year. He’s honoured to be considered but hasn’t heard anything more than the speculation.
McDonough worked on the Test in May, helping the Malahide curator Phil Frost. The governing body’s plan is to move to a new stadium in Abbotstown in five years. He would relish the chance of working on that, but may have opposition from his compatriot at the Ageas Bowl.
“Would I be interested? I don’t know to be honest”, McDermott replies. “I’d like to come home at some stage but the job would need to be big enough for me. I’d love to do more Test cricket – producing a good pitch is a great feeling.”