A brief look at the 2019 Robinson Services Premier League table will show you just how much North Down improved in the space of 12 months.
Having finished sixth in 2018 (and level on points with seventh-placed Muckamore), the Comber men ended last season in second and just two points behind champions CIYMS.
They picked up double the points in 2019 from their previous campaign and kept the title race alive into September.
“Overall I was delighted,” reflected captain Alistair Shields.
“If we look back at where we finished last year, to come and push CIYMS as close as we did in the end was really pleasing.
“I think the league ended up a lot closer than people outside of our club and team thought it would. We never gave up and took it to the wire. To lose out on the league on what was a drawn game is a really good effort.
“I think the two heartbreakers for us were those two games against CIYMS and we probably should have won both. It was maybe just that wee bit of nouse and experience to get us over the line that will come.
“Overall, I was delighted with how it went.”
North Down last won the Premier League title back in 2011, but the signs in the past season are very positive for their chances of breaking that lean spell in the near future.
The form of both Ruhan Pretorius and Peter Eakin was particularly impressive, and Shields says the improvement in results was down to everyone stepping up to contribute at different points.
“It’s difficult to put it down to one thing,” he added.
“We were able to give opportunities to some younger guys and a couple really stepped up to the plate. I thought our bowling this year throughout was excellent.
“The one area we probably missed out on was another guy really pushing that 600-800 run mark and if we had that then we may have got over the line in the end.
“Our bowling was tight and we had a lot of options. Everyone really contributed. Other than Ruhan, everyone played what you would say is a bit part.
“Ruhan is a star but everyone contributed at some point during the season which is pleasing.”
Their league form was in stark contrast to performances in the major cups, exiting the Gallagher Challenge Cup at the first round stage after being bowled out for 85 by Instonians.
They went one step further in the Irish Senior Cup before an Andre Malan century helped CSNI progress, while they were left kicking themselves after missing out on a spot in the Twenty20 Cup final after a tight loss to Waringstown.
The Challenge Cup is always a special competition for North Down, who have lifted the trophy on more occasions (32) than any other club, but their last triumph came in 2010.
“Certainly our worst performance came against Instonians at The Green,” said Shields.
“These things happen in cricket and I think the important thing was how we bounced back from that. We didn’t dwell on it.
“We tell ourselves at the start of every season that we don’t want to see two teams play at The Green again, and unfortunately that was the day we turned in a bad performance.
“These things happen and you have to be realistic that teams can bowl well.”
Pretorius averaged over 50 for the fourth consecutive season in the NCU and topped that specific chart in 2019, finishing with an astonishing average of 67.07.
He scored 1006 runs throughout the campaign from 21 innings – the third most behind Andre Malan and Jacques Snyman – and the South African is set to stay in Northern Ireland on a permanent basis.
The 28-year-old would potentially qualify to play for Ireland in 2021, and if he continues to perform at this sort of level, it is almost certain he will gain international honours in the not so distant future.
“I know there is a lot being written about his plans to stay permanently, and that’s great news for us,” added Shields.
“Not just for his contribution on the field and his influence in the changing room, but the work he is doing off the field as well with our junior section.
“I can’t say enough about the guy to be honest and he has been a revelation since he has been with us, so long may that continue.”
Eakin was handed the Sonny Hool Trophy for Bowling at the recent NCU annual dinner after collecting 25 of his 32 wickets in the Premier League.
He was undoubtedly the most impressive homegrown all-rounder in 2019 and it could be the sort of form that pushes him closer to Northern Knights selection once again.
“I think everyone in the NCU appreciates the natural talent that Pete has,” said Shields.
“I think if Pete is honest with himself, he would say that he should have been turning in performances like that in previous seasons.
“It was really pleasing to see him finish on the total of runs he did and with as many wickets. He has always been capable with both bat and ball.
“I think the turning point for him was that we gave him a promotion up to three against Waringstown at The Green and he got a score there and never looked back”
Having had a couple of seasons as skipper in the T20 format, this was Shields’ first campaign as club captain across all competitions and it was an experience he thoroughly enjoyed.
“There is a lot more to captaincy than turning up on a Saturday and picking your bowlers and a batting order.” he added.
“I enjoyed the challenge and it was something that I wanted to do for a long time. On the whole, it was a really good experience and hopefully we can build on what we did this year next season.”
North Down brought in Nathan Burns, Jamie Magowan, Craig Young and AJ Moor ahead of last season, and while it didn’t work out for the latter, the other three all chipped in at different points.
Young’s form for North Down and the North West Warriors was enough to get back into Ireland’s T20 squad for the World Twenty20 qualifying campaign currently being held in the UAE, while Magowan finished the season with 23 dismissals behind the stumps.
“Jamie would say to himself that he didn’t get the amount of runs he wanted but he kept beautifully throughout the year,” said Shields.
“He was a really positive influence in the changing room and gets on with all of the guys, so he was a real good signing.
“A lot has been written about the kind of x-factor Craig brings when he is available. We didn’t have him as much as we would have liked but that’s a win-win for Craig due to his international and inter-provincial commitments.
“He is a great bowler and it’s great to have him on board. He turned in performances, especially against Carrick at The Green where he ran through them in a 10-over spell.”
They haven’t sat still and have already moved to sign all-rounder Aditya Adey from Muckamore for next season, who will give Shields yet more options with both bat and ball as they look to stop CIYMS winning a third consecutive league crown.
“He is a guy we have played against for a number of years now,” he said.
“He is a talented guy with both bat and ball and he will give us more options in both departments.
“He is also a really good athlete in the field, which was one area we maybe fell down in as well.
“I think it’s a really good acquisition and we are delighted to have him on board.”