Northern Knights head coach Simon Johnston believes the squad has never been in a stronger position during his time in the role than it is now ahead of the 2020 Inter-Provincial Series.
Johnston was appointed in October 2016 and helped the Knights pick up their first piece of silverware in six years when they won the Inter-Provincial Trophy last season.
In the 13-man squad that was released by Cricket Ireland on Friday, there are no fewer than 11 senior Irish internationals, including captain Gary Wilson and Paul Stirling, who will be available for the opening game on August 20 against the North West Warriors.
With the calibre of player at his disposal, it is no surprise that Johnston feels this is the most talented squad he has been involved with.
“As long as everybody pulls up fit, it’s as strong as we’ve been since I was involved,” he said.
“I think we have all of our bases covered so as long as everybody can pull up fit, which I’m confident they will, then we should be in really good shape.
“I’m very happy with the balance and we have a few new faces in so I’m excited to see what happens.”
The new face that was named in the 13-man squad is Ross Adair, who has started life in the top-flight with CSNI in blistering form.
Adair moved to the Stormont club from Holywood during the winter and most recently smashed 92 from 38 balls in a league victory against Carrickfergus last weekend.
The 26-year-old played for the Emerging Knights last season and scored 129 runs in two innings during the recent intra-squad practice games.
“He adds a couple of things but for anyone that has watched him it’s just the cleanness of ball-striking,” added Johnston.
“It’s a bit of an x-factor and I know some people think he’s smashing it at the start of the year and that’s why he’s in but he played two Emerging games last year and smashed it.
“He trained with us over the winter and we were all so impressed with him. It’s not just a flash in the pan from him.
“When we brought him into the Emerging games I know there was some surprise because he was playing in Section One but he was getting a hundred every other game nearly.
“He is a modern T20 player. It’s raw but the ball-striking is brilliant, he’s a really good fielder and he bowls some handy spin.
“If you’re coming in from the cold and looking at a guy who hits a big ball, fields well and bowls good spin, you’ve got the makings of a very good player there.”
Adair is just one option that Johnston could go with at the top of the order alongside Stirling in the opening game before a new combination will be needed for the remainder of the Twenty20 matches due to Stirling’s T20 Blast commitments with Northants.
With James McCollum, Shane Getkate and Ruhan Pretorius also named in the squad, the competition for a spot opening the batting is fierce.
“With James McCollum and the changes he has made to his white ball game – I think people forget that he opened for us in the competition last year and did a brilliant job striking at 140+,” said Johnston.
“Gets can do it, Ruhan could do it, I’ll tell you that Mark Adair can do it and a guy that we haven’t named that’s scoring a lot of runs that could do it is Chris Dougherty.
“It’s a credit to the boys that there is a real competition for places there and it’s a great problem to have.”
McCollum and Wilson were named in the Ireland squad that travelled to England recently for a three-game ODI series but neither were called upon on matchday.
Getkate was unfortunate to not make the touring party and while they have nothing to prove to anyone, Johnston believes there is an added fire burning inside.
“They’ve nothing to prove because they are quality performers and are where they are, but you can see a bit of fire in their eyes.
“They always have been hungry but I think if they needed any motivation then they have it even more. It’s great to see.”
On the bowling front, the Knights appear to have every base covered with the raw pace of David Delany mixed with the skill of Mark Adair, control of Graeme McCarter and two classy spinners in Jacob Mulder and James Cameron-Dow.
You can often tell just how strong a squad is by how good the players that have been left out are and by that measure the Knights are in a fantastic spot.
“The good thing is that everyone we’ve picked wants to play at a higher level,” said Johnston.
“There are a lot of guys scoring runs at club level who are available if we need them and we’ve had good conversations with them that they mightn’t be looking to play for Ireland so the priority should go to the guys that really want to be professional cricketers.
“I’ve watched Ally Shields bat beautifully so it’s a nice problem to have when you have guys playing well.”
The overriding emotion for Johnston is one of excitement after the amount of time he and his squad of players have had to wait to get back onto the field of play.
“We are excited about it.
“Myself and Wilson have had a good chat about the way we want to play and we are looking to build on the smart, aggressive cricket we played last year and I’m excited to see where it goes.
“Most teams try to be aggressive in T20 cricket but Gary brought in a real edge of playing smart cricket as well.
“I’m excited to see where we can go with it.”
- T20 squad: Gary Wilson (capt), Paul Stirling, James McCollum, Harry Tector, Shane Getkate, Ruhan Pretorius, Mark Adair, Jacob Mulder, Graeme McCarter, David Delany, Ross Adair, Greg Thompson, James Cameron-Dow.
- 50-over squad: Gary Wilson (capt), Paul Stirling, James McCollum, Harry Tector, Shane Getkate, Ruhan Pretorius, Mark Adair, Jacob Mulder, Graeme McCarter, David Delany, Marc Ellison, Neil Rock, James Cameron-Dow.