GARETH McKeegan, like cricketers the length of the land, should have been playing his first competitive match of the summer next Saturday but, instead, the Brigade double winner from last season will be on the frontline doing a job which has earned greater applause each week than any of his memorable innings on the cricket field.

McKeegan is a theatre orderly in Altnagelvin Hospital and experiencing first-hand the trauma of patients with Covid-19. As he admits, “it’s not a nice place to be at the moment”.

“Thankfully, I’m still ok and while a lot of nurses have been forced to take time off, my colleagues and I have been pretty lucky so far,” says McKeegan.

"I haven’t been tested because you don’t waste tests unless you have symptoms. But we are well protected, well drilled in what we have to do. Altnagelvin have dealt with it very well so far.

“I was used to wearing scrubs even before the pandemic but now it’s the full gear, with gown, mask and gloves as well which have to be changed regularly. At the end of a shift, the scrubs are put in a red bag, taken away to the laundry and a new kit is waiting for your next shift.“

Although there are still regular admissions for surgery, they are kept apart from those with coronavirus.

“Covid is on one level and everyone else is on the next one, so you always know who you are dealing with. My job is to take patients from the ward to theatre than go in and help, sometimes positioning the patient or holding them while they are prepared for surgery. It’s hands on,” adds Gareth who accepts he has to work longer hours in this time of crisis.

“Yes, the hours have changed to accommodate what’s happening. I was always four days a week, working two long days (8am-8pm) and two normal days (8am-5.30pm). Now it’s four long days, but you will always get the time back.”

It was announced last week that the lockdown in Northern Ireland will continue for another three weeks but McKeegan not only remains optimistic of some sort of cricket season but it could start as early as June.

“I’m an optimistic person anyway,” he says. “Three weeks takes us to May 7 and then another three weeks when a lot can happen, so still think we could start in June.

“Fitness wise shouldn’t be a problem. I live in the country so I have acres of space to do what I want and I have a wee gym in the house. And when in the hospital you are doing nearly 30,000 steps a day, anyway!”

When the season does get up and running, it will be new surroundings for McKeegan who, after 10 years at Beechgrove, has moved to captain Championship side Newbuildings where his father-in-law, former Donemana bowler Raymond Mitchell, just happens to be the chairman.

“I always promised Raymond I would give him a few years before I hung up the boots. I told him two years ago, when he first asked, that I wasn’t ready to leave Brigade but at the start of last year I said ‘give me one more year’ and told him ‘that’s for definite’. So I had to keep my work and I’m really looking forward to the new challenge and getting Newbuildings up to the top division.”

McKeegan may have turned 40 this year but his batting powers are certainly not diminishing. He has surpassed 600 runs in each of the last two seasons – only opening partner David Barr scored more for Brigade last year – as the Beechgrove side, perennial bridesmaids, finally came good.

“We had been so close for three or four years before so we talked at the start of the year saying ‘don’t take our foot off the gas, keep the concentration’. We didn’t have one bad week in previous seasons, it usually turned into a bad month, so if we stopped that the rest will take care of itself.“

McKeegan’s personal reward was the Michael Bannigan Trophy – the Players’ Player of the Year – which he modestly said was “a bit of a surprise” and even his career best 216 not out at Donemana in 2018, which included 21 fours and 16 sixes, was “one of those days when I enjoyed a bit of luck”.

He admits: “I’m not one for personal honours. I only knew I won the man of the match in the 2010 cup final because you told me.”

And he selflessly gave up any chance of an extended run in the North West Warriors side because he didn’t want to deprive younger players of the chance to break into the Ireland side.

Uniquely, McKeegan played the Warriors’ first Twenty 20 game in 2013 and never played again.

“I was 33 at the time and asked ‘did I really want to put myself through this’. Ricky-Lee Dougherty was keeping wicket, I was only a batter and not good enough to be a specialist batter in that team. I was denying a young boy his place.”

Newbuildings will be grateful for his experience this year and with former Ireland A all-rounder Johnny Thompson also following him from Brigade, McKeegan admits his new side will “probably be favourites” to win promotion.

But for now cricket, and all sport, is on hold and everyone not on the frontline is just grateful for the work that McKeegan and his heroic NHS workers are doing in these unprecedented times.