Photos: Bruce Lim | Photosport.co.nz
When it comes to watching sport, Hamilton’s Karl Johnson probably watches more intently than any other sporting fan. The enthusiast has a keen eye for detail, but more often than not he is watching the ground just as much as the action.
Karl (KJ) is a leading expert when it comes to turf management and has decades of experience in creating the ultimate playing fields. As turf manager of Seddon Park and Waikato Stadium since 2003, he heads up the team responsible for transforming these grounds into international class facilities.
His expertise is globally recognised. As well as being involved in perfecting Indian cricket surfaces, KJ recently spent time in Dubai, establishing cricket grounds at new purpose-build stadiums.
“It was something completely different building a brand new cricket ground out in the middle of the desert,” he says. “The scope of the project, the financial input and the number of staff involved is all pretty different to how we do things in New Zealand.
With 50 staff under his wing at one stage, and only three who spoke English, KJ had his work cut out for him.
“One day in July it was 53 degrees. That heat took some getting used to. I flew into Hamilton in the middle of winter and it was minus 2 degrees.”
Back home he has been busy preparing Seddon Park for the ICC World Cricket Cup and Waikato Stadium for the new season and upcoming FIFA U20 World Cup.
KJ’s fascination with sports fields has been almost life-long. He started his apprenticeship as a 16-year-old on a Christchurch golf course, before becoming head green keeper at Akaroa Golf Club.
“I’ve always loved sports, always loved working outside and played a lot of golf as a youngster. It was the ultimate job for me, and to be honest it still is.
“I never have a day where I wake up and think I don’t want to go to work. It’s pretty cool getting paid to do something you enjoy.”
While he always imagined he would focus solely on golf greens, KJ admits he is surprised with his move into cricket and rugby sports fields.
“As far as growing the grass it’s all much the same. Cricket pitch preparation in particular is a combination of art and science and is a little bit different from what we would do on a golf course.”
When KJ took on his role at Seddon Park, the ground had lost its international cricket status. He has been an integral part of the upgrade and restoring the venue’s quality and reputation.
“There were some major projects involved; we had to upgrade the park, replace the soil in the wicket block, build a new practice area – the list goes on.”
Today the grounds are widely admired and respected, and a large part of this credit must to go KJ and his team.
“We’ve had some amazing games here in Hamilton over the years. Our venues are beautiful and we’re fortunate to have these boutique facilities right in town where people can sit so close to the action.”
As turf manager, KJ is on site throughout the season’s games, in the turf hut on the edge of the action. He rarely misses a thing – although when the weather packs in, it is all hands on deck to ensure the grounds remain playable.
He is well accustomed to being surrounded by All Blacks and Black Caps and prides himself on providing the best quality playing field possible.
Having played rugby, cricket and golf, these days his hours of participation are limited due to not having much spare time. When he’s not painstakingly ensuring his grounds are up to par, he is a volunteer firefighter, coaches his four-year-old son Zach’s Marist rugby team, and keeps a close eye on 19-month old Toby’s prowess with the cricket bat.
Six quick questions with KJ
What music do you listen to while you work? We are constantly tuned into the weather reports. One of us has an ear on these every minute of the day as our jobs are so weather-dependent.
What are you most proud of in terms of the venue and grounds? I am proud of the team I have here, a dedicated bunch of 10 guys who are all as passionate as I am. They do massive hours and are unsung heroes. People don’t realise the extent of what they do.
How long does it take for the final pitch preparation in the lead-up to a big event? It’s incredibly complex actually. It takes us between 12-14 days of constant attention to prepare a pitch.
What would people be most surprised to know when it comes to the Seddon Park turf? The outfield is all sand. It’s a sand carpet basically; we have grown the grass in a sand profile. And there are 13 kilometres of drains installed under that as well.
What is one of the most memorable moments you have witnessed at Seddon Park? Definitely the 2007 Australia v NZ One Day International. Australia scored 346, NZ chased that down. It was a thrilling game to watch and was played here after we regained our international status.
Who is your sporting hero? Martin Crowe is someone I always looked up to when I was a cricketer. I’ve got to know him pretty well and played quite a bit of golf with him over the years. My new sporting heroes are my two boys, Zach and Toby. They’re only 4 and 19 months but already their passion for sport is fantastic.