It feels like the 2019 season is one that Instonians will be more than happy to see the back of.
There were contrasting fortunes across different tournaments, with the Shaw’s Bridge side thriving in white ball competitions only to struggle massively in the Robinson Services Premier League before really standing up when it mattered to secure survival.
Reaching the Gallagher Challenge Cup final will be the highlight and they had CIYMS in some early trouble at 12-3 and were ticking along nicely at one point in their run chase, but they would eventually go down to the same opposition that knocked them out of the Twenty20 Cup at the semi-final stage.
Horrid luck and a bowl-out meant they were eliminated by Waringstown in the Irish Senior Cup quarter-final, and captain Andrew White admits the 2019 campaign was ‘full of disappointments’.
“It was difficult.,” he reflected.
“We’ve had two difficult years. Last year, we suffered with injuries to key players and then this year we never really got going or into any sort of rhythm.
“We lost league games at the start which put us on the back foot. We lost to Waringstown in a bowl-out in the Irish Cup, we have been trying for years to get to Finals Day of the T20 and we lost in the semi-final, lost in the final of the Challenge Cup and then fought relegation for most of the season.
“It was full of disappointments. The squad stuck together very well through those disappointments and ultimately we were strong enough to stay up and had the personnel performing at the right times to enable us to stay up.
“It was certainly not something I would be keen to repeat.”
Coming into September, Instonians were shockingly sitting bottom of the league table having won two of their eight league matches at that stage, with White and his men knowing they would need some big results despite the cushion of having fixtures in hand over Lisburn and Muckamore.
They saved their best red ball form for the final matches, beating CIYMS at Belmont to all but secure their top-flight status before triumphing over Muckamore the following morning – a result which would ultimately put the hosts down after a washout at Carrickfergus.
Instonians have long been a club you associate with the top of the table rather than fighting at the bottom of it, but did it ever feel like a true relegation battle considering they ended the season sitting in fifth?
“I mentioned the ‘R’ word back in July time in our changing room and I’m not sure the players actually believed me,” adds White.
“Once we came into August, there was a real recognition that we were going to have to win key games to stay up.
“We’ve heard in sport people say ‘they’re too good to go down’ and people were telling me that we were too good to go down and it wouldn’t happen, but I wasn’t believing that for a minute because I knew we had struggled to get across the line in many games.
“The longer you’re at the bottom, the longer you start to worry about it. It wasn’t an ability thing – it became more of a mental thing.
“I was talking to James Kennedy there, who was at the bottom end of the table with Ballymena for many years and they became very good at overcoming the relegation battle because they were hardened to it.
“For us, it was a new experience for a lot of our players and for me as captain, and knowing what way to turn was quite difficult. We were happy to come through in the end.”
The absolute low point of Instonians season came in early-July at Wallace Park when they were bowled out for 61 by Lisburn with David Simpson ripping through their middle order to claim figures of 5-18 – all of which came in the space of 18 balls where the visiting side failed to score a run.
There are major differences when it comes to playing in white and red ball cricket, and White feels Simpson exposed technical weaknesses that afternoon.
“I think we struggled technically against the red ball,” he said.
“Davy Simpson bowled extremely well at Lisburn one day and exposed our technical deficiencies, and I think that put the frighteners up a couple of the boys because they realised when the ball was moving around that they weren’t as tight as they needed to be.
“In white ball, the guys were a lot more confident, comfortable playing their shots and a lot of the guys are playing white ball now with their provincial and representative cricket.
“They maybe don’t see as much of the red ball, especially the younger guys, as they once did. We came up against some really good sides as well that were in-form.”
Murray Commins really showcased his brilliance towards the end of the season, finishing his first full campaign in the NCU with 844 runs and an average of 44.42.
Three of his last four innings resulted in at least half-centuries with his last knock being a 64-ball 110* against Waringstown.
“Murray is an outstanding young cricketer – I think that’s evident to anyone that has watched him play this year how technically gifted he is,” said White.
“He has a flair about him which makes him very easy on the eye to watch play. He struggled injury wise – he has hip injuries which he is hoping to get sorted during the winter.
“He at times showed his class and probably didn’t score as heavily at the start as he would have wished. When you’re young and coming from overseas, it can maybe take a season or two before you really find your feet.
“We would be hopeful that fitness permitting, he will kick on again next year.”
17-year-old opening batsman Ollie Metcalfe took another step forward in 2019, going past the 500-run mark and recorded a century in the Irish Senior Cup against Cork County.
He is certainly one of the most exciting young players in Ireland, and White was pleased to see yet another season of progress.
“At the start of the year, we sat down with him and his dad and we talked about where the best place for him was to bat,” he added.
“He had a year opening the batting, struggled a bit but myself and Gavin felt the best place for him to bat was at the top. He took that challenge on again this year and we are glad we stuck with that.
“He was rewarded with some excellent performances, hitting a hundred in the Irish Cup at 17 and he played really nicely in the Challenge Cup final. To score 550 runs on top of what he did last year was really encouraging.
“He’s hungry, wants to do well and he has a unique talent. He has the ability to play aggressive cricket but he is going to have to work really hard to continue his improvement.
“When he comes up against that higher quality of bowler, they are quite clever and can work out a batter quite quickly. He is going to have to try to play to his strengths and work on his weaknesses to make sure he progresses.
“In the overall scheme of things, it should give a lot of people confidence to give young guys more of a role.”
Perhaps the star of Instonians season was fast bowler Josh Manley, who took 22 wickets in just eight matches and had the best strike-rate (15.86) of any player in the NCU.
He was rewarded with a call-up to an Irish Academy side for a fixture against Gloucestershire 2nd XI towards the end of last season and White was full of praise for their new addition.
“He had agreed to come around this time last year,” he said.
“He was always going to be late into the country, but when you talk about someone bringing a breath of fresh air to a squad, he was magnificent. He has great energy, great enthusiasm and really bowled superbly throughout.
“You just need to look at his stats, and in particular his strike-rate – he took a lot of wickets for us. You could argue that without him we would have really struggled.”
2019 marked White’s second year in charge of Instonians and with his ever growing demands as Chair of Selectors at Cricket Ireland alongside work and family commitments, does he fancy continuing for a third season?
“My two years have been really challenging in different ways,” he added.
“The captaincy side of things was fine it’s just more the energy is draining. At the age of 39 I didn’t need those energy levels to be drained!
“I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of boys to captain in terms of the effort they gave. They supported me the whole way so that was magnificent. That made avoiding relegation quite an achievement for us because it could have quite easily gone the other way.”
“I have to sit down and make sure it’s the right thing in terms of the Cricket Ireland commitments and I have a young family as well, so it’s making sure I’m not spreading myself too thin.
“Club captaincy takes a lot of time and the players no doubt need someone that can deliver when you need to deliver from a captaincy point of view and on the pitch too.”