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Miracle man Philip McCormick still has that touch of magic

By Ian Callender

Ireland return to Stormont next week for the first multi-day match there for two years, the Intercontinental Cup fixture against Hong Kong, starting on Tuesday.

The man with the pressure of providing the best possible surface as Ireland resume their pathway to Test match status is Philip McCormick, now in his 20th season as head groundsman at Belfast's international venue but, although a veteran of preparing pitches for the best teams in the world, each match presents a different challenge and next week's has been greater than most.

"Normally I like to start work two months before an international match but the series against Afghanistan finished only four weeks ago so it has been a rush against time," admits Philip.

"The plan was to use only two pitches for the four games against Afghanistan, but the second one turned too much so we needed to use the third pitch which was being saved for next week's game. For now, we have only three pitches available for the big games, so I have had no choice but to use the same one again."

And for anyone who wonders exactly what a groundsman does to prepare a good pitch to last for four days, there is no-one in Northern Ireland better placed to explain.

"Three weeks before game, you give the wicket a good watering, put some fertiliser down to get grass growing, take a cut off it and start rolling it, every day, slowly cutting it down. It depends on the weather conditions how much you roll it," he explained.

"For the next week I will keep rolling it, add water if we need to - hopefully there's not too much rain - and then it's a case of drying it out as much as we can to avoid cracking and to get the balance (between bat and ball) right," says Philip.

Getting the balance right is all down to experience and after 17 years in the job, McCormick topped up his knowledge by taking a degree in sports turf management at Greenmount College, where it all started for him back in the winter of 1996.

"I had been taken on part -time that summer by Ward McConkey, and worked with Tommy Hamilton (his predecessor at Stormont) who taught me the basics and then sent me to Greenmount. I started full time in 1997, aged 18, and have been there ever since," says Philip, who also boosts a proud record as a player.

Despite working at Stormont, home to Premier League side Civil Service North, he plays his cricket in the third tier with Holywood - "my dad (Billy) took me there when I was no high" - but by his mid-20s it was his ambition to play in the top flight.

"I moved to Bangor in 2004 and that year we won the Premier League title! I stayed only one more year then, with 'job done, title won', I returned to normality, down the leagues with Holywood.

"The following year I took over the captaincy and apart from a two-year sabbatical I am still doing it.

"It's just right for me at the minute, and we have a good young team so we are keen to get back up to Section One to keep them at the club.

"We are currently sitting joint second, but if we win our last two games we have a big shout of getting that promotion," he adds.

McCormick has to give up his playing commitments when it clashes with an international at Stormont - "I usually miss only two or three games a season, but Ireland games have to come first".

As for his proudest moment, it wasn't Ireland's first one-day international against England in 2006, nor even the tri-series with India and South Africa the following year, but, rather, a match that lasted only 64 balls!

"That was the 'Watergate' match against Australia in 2012," recalls Philip.

"Just getting that game started after the weather in the build-up was my best moment. More rain on the day meant it lasted only 10.4 overs but that game was definitely the Miracle of Stormont."

Ireland will be hoping they don't need another miracle next week to make it four wins out of four in the I-Cup.

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