Category: Feature Interviews

Nikolai Smith ‘looking forward’ to Italian opportunity

Instonians all-rounder Nikolai Smith will depart Belfast later this month for Muscat in Oman as he prepares to meet up with the Italian national side for the first time.

The 26-year-old has been a mainstay in Instonians side since 2013, helping the Shaws Bridge outfit to three Premier League titles and four Challenge Cup finals.

He scored 668 runs in the 2019 season at an average of 33.40 and high score of 106* in the Irish Senior Cup against Cork County.

Smith will leave for the ICC Cricket World Cup Challenge League B campaign with Italy in Oman next week where Bermuda, Hong Kong, Jersey, Kenya and Uganda all await.

All teams are looking to take one step closer to qualifying for the 2023 World Cup in India, with a second round of fixtures being held in Uganda between 27 July – 9 August 2020.

Italy kick off their tournament, where all matches have List A status, against Kenya on December 3 and Smith explained how it all came about.

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Nikolai Smith celebrates a half-century. ©CricketEurope

“My mum’s side of the family are from Italy so we have had Italian passports for ages,” he said.

“A couple of months ago I got in touch with Robbie Humphries from World Sports Xchange because he initially helped get me to Belfast. He got me in contact with one of the guys and I emailed them.

“They never really came back to me but then came back to me a couple of weeks ago and it went from there. It all happened really quickly.

“They asked me if I would be interested and I said yes. I didn’t know it would all be happening so soon but they said they have a tournament in November so I chatted to my boss in work and he told me to go for it. I’m very thankful for that also.”

Smith has played in five First Class matches for the Northern Knights since making his debut in May 2017.

His last List A outing came in June 2018 and he is excited about the prospect of testing himself in the Middle East.

“The goal has been to play at high of a level that I possibly can,” he added.

“That’s why I was over here playing for the Knights and possibly play for Ireland if that ever came about. This opportunity has come and I’m going to take it with both hands.

“I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know what to expect really but I watched a couple of the teams playing in the World Cup qualifying tournament against Ireland.

“It will be interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.”

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Smith batting for the Northern Knights. ©CricketEurope

Since the 2019 season ended in September, Smith has kept himself busy training with Instonians coach Gavin Rogers and a couple of sessions with the Knights, so he won’t be heading into the competition cold.

“I’ve been with Gavin Rogers a couple of times at Shaws Bridge which I’m very thankful for,” he said.

“He’s been a great help and the Knights started last week so I’ve had a couple of sessions there.

“When we arrive there’ll be a couple of warm-up games so I should have a good bit of cricket under my belt before we start.”

The Knights had a successful 2019 season and won their first piece of silverware since 2013 with Inter-Provincial Trophy success.

Their squad is as strong as it has ever been with eight players starring for Ireland throughout this calendar year, and Smith will have his eye on turning out in the Inter-Provincial series in 2020.

“Every cricketer that’s involved in the set-up wants to improve and get into the Knights,” he added.

“It’s just about pushing yourself to score more runs and take more wickets to force your way in with the weight of runs and wickets.”

Wear It With Pride – Ryan Haire

In the first installment of the new ‘Wear It With Pride’ feature series here on JMSport, former Ireland international Ryan Haire discusses his life in cricket from boyhood club North Down right through to his time with the national side.

The idea behind ‘Wear It With Pride’ is to do a deep dive into a player’s career and the times that were most important and significant throughout their playing days, with certain episodes set to focus on the playing shirts that are most sentimental.

Haire has won nine league titles and seven Challenge Cup winners medals during his time with North Down to date and also picked up a Section One title with Muckamore.

Sit back, relax and enjoy this 4000 word feature with Haire, who talks about growing up at The Green, his move to Muckamore in 2015 and he speaks with honesty about his time with Ireland.

NORTH DOWN – 1ST SPELL

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Ryan Haire batting in the 2007 Challenge Cup final. ©CricketEurope

What was it like growing up at North Down?

“It was super. It was all about cricket and there were a bunch of us that grew up with our fathers still playing. Thinking back now, we were all between 7-9 and we were all running round at the club from no height, but in terms of formalised cricket we played for the Under-11’s, our dads were playing and we were always around the club after the men played and before with our short pitch set-up.

“It was our playground. They always seemed like better summers back then and that was all summer long and you just always seemed to have a bat or ball in your hand. To develop those early skills, there is nothing better than just spending time playing the game in whatever form it is.

“Everyone encouraged each other. There was a group of about 12 of us around the same age and we always just seemed to spend the summers together playing, competing with other teams. Playing school cricket started at 11 for me at Regent House which made it even bigger again.

“That was the very early days. I can remember in 1995 North Down played in the Irish Cup final against Bready and it was a super crowd and sun-drenched. A gang of 20 of us sat at the side of the pitch and memories like that of watching Charlie and Paul McCrum.

“We always trained with the firsts even from an early age and there seemed to be more men at practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and everyone wanted to play up the teams and practiced hard. You were bowling against the likes of Charlie and Paul who were Irish internationals long-term and just lived cricket themselves.

“That really brought us on alongside some really good coaches. We had some really inspirational cricketers that we wanted to emulate. You need to see guys live or on the screen doing things you want to do, and I suppose it makes you want to try and practice harder.”

Progressing through the youth system and into the first team, what do you remember about breaking in to the senior team?

“There were a number of us who were in around that 1st/2nd XI. I played my first 1st XI match from memory when I was 14 and it was alongside Charlie and Paul and my dad might have been captain of the team.

“We were short and I can remember only playing a handful of games around that period. I got a bowl and I don’t know if the scorebook has it in black and white, but I got 7/20-odd against Bangor in Section One which was the top league then. I was bowling leg-spin so I must have landed a few and bamboozled a couple of guys!

“Leg-spin isn’t something you see very much of in local cricket and that came from watching Shane Warne on TV.”

Were you nervous going into 1st XI cricket at that age?

“I suppose I didn’t really know any different. It was just a chucked in at the deep end sort of thing and from there I played half the matches in the next season and into the team full-time at either 16 or 17.

“They were the early memories playing alongside those days. Either sitting watching them or on the same field as them. They inspired you to try and emulate their feats.

“I was also playing a lot of youth cricket. Alongside that, we were playing schools cricket. Andrew White is the same age and we were right up through school winning cups at 12-14 age groups and then up to medallion and Schools Cup – we seemed to be unbeaten the whole way through with a great side.

“We won the Graham Cup at North Down for the first time in years in 1995. That was a big day out and we all met up for breakfast and had our school shirts and North Down ties on. Those sort of things are the real drivers for young lads and it keeps you for life.”

The team you were part of was so dominant in the NCU. Why do you think that was?

“Back when that started, we were relegated in 1997 from Section One. We were mainly a young team and there were quite a few of us around 16 or 17. A guy called Michael Quinn was captain and we were unlucky to be relegated that year.

“We came back the next year and won the league in 1998. From then on in that decade we won seven out of 10 leagues. A couple of guys said that relegation can do you well and you can bounce back. We all wanted to play and enjoyed playing together. I suppose it was like the Waringstown side five or so years ago where you had guys in early-20’s coming through who enjoyed each others company, practiced hard and did well.

“Back in the early-2000’s there were no overseas guys. There were no Kiwis or Australian guys with Irish passports. You had your professional and that was it. Everyone else was local and in a real local sense. We had guys like David Kennedy from Ballymena wanting to come and join North Down to win trophies. You were able to attract guys as well as having a core of dedicated guys and a top pro.

“We landed Taimur Khan who came in 1999 and stayed right through that period winning those leagues and Senior Cup’s. Unfortunately there is no Irish Cup to show for those years which is the real shame looking back now. You had the likes of Trent Johnston, Jeremy Bray, Andre Botha who had joined North County and they were winning Irish Cup’s.

“There were strong teams in Leinster and they had a scattering of Irish passport holders to come up against. We were unlucky and we didn’t even make a final.

“Those local years of success was built on four or five guys coming through and I can’t underestimate the impact of Taimur. He was a Pakistan A international and was picked to captain that team one year in the early-2000s when he was with us. He bowled at good pace moving the ball both ways and scored runs at a canter. He was the best pro by a mile and was back year after year, whereas other clubs were bringing guys in and out.”

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North Down – 2005 Challenge Cup champions. ©CricketEurope

Having the time to sit back and think about it, how special was that period playing with family members and winning trophies?

“My brother was at North Down and my dad was in that team in the 2000’s still playing and it was great. It was good to be around guys you grew up with.

“Sometimes it can be awkward playing with family members I have to say! I remember for example in the early-2000’s that my dad was at Downpatrick playing for a year and he came back mid-season with Billy Adams. They came back and I was off the team all of a sudden and we got to the semi-final of the cup. It just shows you that it isn’t always sweetness and light!

“They are special memories and it was very enjoyable. It was always for me a hobby and it makes me laugh a bit when guys talk about ‘careers’ in local cricket. It was always a hobby, always fun and I think that element has always stayed with me and allowed me to keep playing.

“I’m 38 now and the fun is still there for me now which is great. It hasn’t gone away and I’m always looking forward to the new season so long may that continue.”

MUCKAMORE (2015-2017)

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Haire bowling for Muckamore in 2017. ©CricketEurope

Did you fancy a new challenge when you moved to Muckamore?

“I had been involved in the youth set-up with North Down from the age of 18 as a coach. Back in 2001 I got my coaching qualification. North Down were struggling for youth teams so I restructured and got Under-13 and Under-15 teams back.

“We actually won the All-Ireland in the mid-2000’s at Under-13 then the same bunch with the likes of Peter Eakin and Alistair Shields won the U-15 title. That group were similar to the one we had back at our age group.

“I always enjoyed the coaching side of it. North Down made a decision over the winter that they weren’t going to remunerate. It was a big thing for me in the summer and I coached around other clubs as well.

“Muckamore said they wanted me to come and do some coaching with them and I started doing that and they said it would be great to have me there long-term so if I was interested in playing there too. I got chatting to them and fancied the challenge.

“They were in Section One and looking to get up. They are an ambitious club and they are very passionate. They are similar to North Down in the sense they are a non-Belfast club out of the city who are passionate about the game and looking to promote it in their city and around schools.

“I helped with their restructuring of the youth and development. We brought in some grant funding and I played and coached there for three really enjoyable seasons. We got back up and managed to stay up which had been Muckamore’s problem.

“For me, it was mission accomplished and I was only there for the three seasons. Even from the start, I told them that I wanted to go back and play at North Down before I stopped playing. It was a matter of time and I wanted to go back to play on the 1sts. I didn’t want to be totally past it. I wanted to contribute and win something.

“It was a no brainer to come back with living five minutes from the ground and having a young family. Thankfully, the guys have been very welcoming of me back to my home club and there’s been no animosity. It’s went very well and I’ve settled back in to helping with coaching and playing.”

Would you look back at that period with Muckamore as a success?

“I definitely would. I was coaching twice a week going straight from work and working with guys for a couple of guys before senior practice. Sam Gordon, Aditya Adey and Jamie Magowan – guys who had real talent but were maybe thinking about where they could go with the game.

“I said to them that they’ve got a chance to make a go at cricket that I didn’t have. It’s now professional and you can make something playing for the Knights now. Bringing those guys through and them playing a part of getting back to the Premier League, where you need to be to develop as a cricketer, was great for them and the club.

“We progressed off the field too with some local grant funding and getting into local schools. There were a few programmes that got their youth up and running and now their youth from what I hear is very strong. They’ve taken that to a new level now.

“I suppose that was the whole package of what the guys contacted me about and it’s great to hear that it’s bearing fruit now.

“They were very unfortunate to go down this year. With a better professional they would have stayed up. You need to get the best guy you can afford and he will keep you up. The rest you can sort out and their choice in the last few years probably hasn’t been as clever.

“Hopefully they can get back up to the Premier League because they are a great club and are very passionate.”

From a playing perspective, was it difficult going from winning trophies and Premier League cricket to Section One?

“It wasn’t too difficult. Everyone says there is a massive gulf in standard but almost every team had an overseas player from what I can remember.

“We played in the Irish Cup for a couple of years and did rightly. I remember beating Coleraine who had won the North West league the year before and us winning a couple of T20’s and winning the league to get back up.

“The pitches were the main difference. Going from decent batting wickets to completely bowler friendly wickets certainly didn’t help any of us, but we had a decent bowling side and personally I enjoyed bowling a lot more than I had in the previous five or six years before that.

“Getting some runs and wickets was still really enjoyable at that standard and I always said to the guys that it’s a battle every week because you aren’t just battling with your opposition but with conditions in that league. You’re not turning up to a road and probably need to be better prepared than you are at The Lawn or North Down where you know there’ll be runs scored.

“I enjoyed that side of it and it balanced out the difference in playing standard and filled that void. It’s all about how you approach it. You have to want to be there and have to want to play.

“You could have very easily threw your head up and blamed this and that, but it was just about winning at the end of the day and we got back up eventually. We lost our professional Avdoot six games into the season in the first year and we would have got back up with his runs then.”

NORTH DOWN – 2ND SPELL (2018-PRESENT)

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Haire bowling for North Down in 2018. ©CricketEurope

It sounds like going back to North Down was always the plan. Why then (in 2018) and what were the reasons behind it?

“I was around the club over that winter and I told Muckamore I would be there for the three seasons and that I always wanted to go back and play on the 1s at North Down while I could.

“I didn’t want to go back as a 2nds player or to hobble around the pitch. I wanted to try and contribute and I chatted to Alistair Shields who was taking on the captaincy and he thought I could contribute, so that was enough for me.

“Personally, I live so close to the ground and I was still keen to train and stay fit during the week so getting to training was a lot easier. With the kids now, it made sense just to be closer to home I suppose.

“I intend to play as much as I can next season and hopefully we can do something because I this side now with a good professional in Ruhan who has had a good few seasons is probably at their peak.

“I can’t see the guys improving much so it’s all about application and next season is our year to make the most of it. It’s a lot harder now and all the other clubs recruit and bring players in. It’s a lot more competitive but that makes it even more enjoyable when you roll over a so called ‘bigger’ side.

“That competitive element is still there which helps week on week to get you to training and keep you playing.”

IRELAND (capped seven times)

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Haire batting for Ireland Credit: CricketEurope

Was going on to play for Ireland always an aim for you?

“It was. I always wanted to even back as a teenager growing up when cricket wasn’t a career. I knew of very few guys coming out of the Ireland U19 side that I played in that wanted to or did go across the water to get trials.

“The guys that did played well and got County contracts and were off into the sunset. The likes of William Porterfield but I suppose I was the generation just before that. Some of the guys were lucky enough and got contracts but I suppose the structure and format wasn’t there.

“That’s not making excuses personally for myself, but guys with exceptional talent were signposted and others that could maybe improve there wasn’t a structure in place to help them improve.

“For me personally, it was about going to university and working. I had two or three part-time jobs to fund university and have a roof over my head, so that’s what it was all about.

“I stayed on and trained with the squads ahead of the first World Cup in 2003 so I was in and around the side after making my debut following the U19 World Cup playing for Ireland. I was around for a few years and in training squads but even training back then was sporadic.

“It didn’t have the structure and format of the winter programme now. I found myself driving to Dublin to throw tennis balls for three or four months in the middle of winter on Sundays and I have to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it. Other guys could enjoy it and stick it out but I couldn’t. I needed to work on Sunday’s.

“There was no pay so it wasn’t as if you were there getting a salary. Very quickly I exited the scene after playing a few games. I only came back and played a couple of games when I was employed by Cricket Ireland in 2008 when half the team was missing and they needed someone to go to Scotland.

“That’s the snapshot of my international career if you want to call it that. I do regret not sticking with it a bit more.

“I was a scholar at the university and myself and Andrew White did training sessions and fitness training. It just didn’t work out. I knew Jeremy Bray, Andre Botha and Trent Johnston would be in the XI for the 2003 World Cup and you feel like a bit-part of the training sessions.

“I was in my early-twenties so could have stuck with it but it was a fine line for me and I needed to earn money and get a job. That very quickly swayed my opinion unfortunately.

“You never know what could have happened or what could have been, but that’s for another day.”

What do you remember about making your debut and how special was that moment?

“I remember I played up at Eglinton against the MCC. It was a damp day and they were a touring side full of ex-County players and Ireland always played them.

“I can remember John Wright, who was a great guy and was Irish Cricket Union president and managed the team back before Roy Torrens I think. John gave me a call that I was playing and I think it was a Sunday game and said they’d love me to play for Ireland.

“It was brilliant. I was made up to do it. I felt like a little boy walking into the changing room and you have guys like Angus Dunlop, Kyle (McCallan) was in the team already, a young guy himself and a lot of other guys who had senior caps and experience.

“The only downside for me was that I got 30* and then the rain came when I was going rightly and eyeing up a fifty! That’s the way the game goes and you can’t have everything. Making the debut was enough.

“It was just a great experience to get that cap. I had grown up with Ulster Schools, Ireland Schools, Ireland Under-15 to Under-19 and all these age groups in preparation for it. I went to the U19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000 which was a real experience for us.

“It was just fantastic to make my debut and it was the culmination of all those youth squads and those Sunday training sessions. It was a great experience and day.”

When you came back into the squad in 2008 you got a half-century against Scotland. Did that ever make you think about having another crack at it?

“We played a tri-series with Scotland and New Zealand at Aberdeen. From memory William Porterfield and Kevin O’Brien were missing, and there were three or four guys who were regulars not involved.

“I got a call while I was working in the cricket office at Stormont, we had just moved there working as a development manager for the NICA (Northern Ireland Cricket Association) and then Cricket Ireland came into existence. They said they were short and if I would be interested in going the following week with the team.

“It took me by surprise and I asked who they had asked to play and they gave me a list of guys and I said OK. I went over to do a training session a day or two before it and I really enjoyed the buzz and atmosphere.

“It was enjoyable. I got a few runs against Scotland. I remember batting with Andrew White and Andrew Poynter and the guys were saying I was going well. I just played it as if it was a club game and not allow it to go to my head. I didn’t try to over-complicate things,

“I really enjoyed that knock against Scotland but New Zealand’s bowling was on a different level. I remember facing Jacob Oram and the ball coming up past my gloves and off the seam a few times and thinking I was going to really struggle.

“It was a brilliant experience and the team were going to Holland for an Inter-Continental Cup match the following week or week after that and I didn’t get any leave off work to go with Ireland.

“I was 27 at the time and knew I wasn’t going to be a regular in any team. I had decided before getting the call that I had no ambitions for Ireland. I wasn’t training with the squad over the winter. Inter-Provincial cricket obviously wasn’t there so you were straight out of a club match and onto the pitch for Ireland. I just knew it wasn’t a goer.

“That was that basically. I couldn’t get away for the next game and the rest is history. I didn’t get a call or invite to any squad again. There was a coach change around the end of that season as well and that was the end of that.”

When doing some research for this, I see a couple of things that suggested you preferred club cricket over international cricket and you’d give that precedence. Is that true?

“No I wouldn’t say that’s true. Any time I was asked to play or invited to join a squad I did. I had gone right through those youth squads and into the senior side, so i think that line or opinion comes from me saying I know I’m not going to make this team so I need to get a job and get a roof over my head.

“I remember staying on guys sofas when I was a student and it wasn’t fun. There wasn’t the support at that age and someone to say just go and train and do your best. It was an easy choice to opt out of those early Sunday mornings when you know you’re not getting into any team and you want to go and work.

“That’s probably where that comes from. Club cricket is on a Saturday and you’re always going to play that.

“Back then, there was no remuneration for your time and it was a lot easier to say I can’t go because I’m working.

“Now would be a different story from what I know now and seeing how cricket is. Players can make it now if they try, have the dedication and talent to stick with it. I always encourage young guys to stick with it. It was just a different era.

Very few people get to play for Ireland so I suppose you just look back at that period with immense pride to get that far?

“Very much so. I was very proud to do it and proud of myself also in 2008 to say yes. It’s like when a second or thirds player steps up to pull a team out of a hole – it felt like that funnily when they guys said they needed me to play.

“I could have easily said I don’t fancy going to Aberdeen and to try someone else, but I thought I may as well go and see what it’s like. I was really proud to score runs against Scotland that day.

“It felt good being out in the middle. It was a lovely pitch and place to play. It was great to be around the Irish guys and see the change those few years later from when I made my debut when we hardly did a warm-up never mind train two days before.

“It was great to see how Irish cricket had come on from the World Cup. I have no regrets in terms of that and I’m proud to have got on the pitch with an Irish jersey.”

Jason Maxwell: Charity run brought back my interest in cricket

After raising £3238 in total for Action Mental Health through a two-day, 100km run around cricket grounds in the Northern Cricket Union, Jason Maxwell has found a new love and interest for the sport.

The 38-year-old was inspired to raise money having suffered from his own mental health issues throughout the majority of his adult life.

It came to a head last year when he didn’t leave his house for three months outside of going to work.

Anxiety was also an issue for Maxwell, who started receiving counselling after his mother booked an initial GP appointment last September and he has been on the road to recovery since then.

His own journey, which also included the death of childhood friend Darren last year, inspired him to start a fundraising effort to help those that have been in a similar situation to him, and he couldn’t be happier with how the event went and the support shown by the cricket community.

“I’m very, very happy with it,” he said.

“The girl from Action Mental Health said I was in the top 1% of solo people who have raised money for the charity.

“I definitely didn’t expect it because the highest I had ever played was one year at Section One, so it wasn’t like everybody would have knew who I was or anything.

“The likes of Muckamore donated £100, Drumaness, who I’ve always been friendly with donated a good bit, Dundrum got behind it. Saintfield really got behind it and I think they are sponsored by a guy who does talks about mental health with cricketers in England.

“Cooke Collegians were playing Cliftonville Academy that day and Bryan Milford was there and he did a speech and the guys really put their hands in their pockets.”

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Maxwell with his two children during the summer.

Maxwell, who was quick to give thanks to Lawrence Moore for his help during a fundraising day in the North West, reflected on the two day event that saw him run a marathon on both Friday and Saturday while he took in the grounds and says the encouragement from people around the grounds kept him going.

“Friday I started at 8am and I finished at 10:30pm,” he added.

“It was starting to get tough at the final few grounds. I got to Lisburn and I was getting it tough and then I went to Waringstown, which was really easy for some reason!

“Then I went to Victoria and that was absolute hell. It was a nightmare and I struggled to get round it. It wasn’t pretty!  It was pitch black and I didn’t get to Laurelvale so I had to do that on Saturday.

“I got up in the morning and went to Bangor, and I was as stiff as a poker. I waddled around there and then waddled around Holywood. I headed to Dundrum and loosened up a bit.

“Dundrum and Ards were off for rain and I had some craic with them. I started getting it tight again at Downpatrick and the boys were giving me some abuse! They had came off for rain and they kept me going. It takes those wee bits of banter to keep you going.

“Cregagh were really good to me and their president was very pleasant. I got my photo taken with the boys and Mark Adair was there so I got my photo with him too. I remember playing against Holywood and Mark was 15 bowling at me and the ball was whistling past my nose!

“The Armagh boys were really good to me and I know the likes of Harry Doyle and Gareth McCarter and they gave me a nice donation and some craic. It went downhill from there and when I arrived at Lurgan the dew had started to come down and my feet ended up in bits.

“I did Laurelvale and Millpark in the pitch black and I had to walk around Millpark because of blisters on my feet. There was a wedding on in the house on the hill and in the final two laps the fireworks started going off, so I got my phone out and took a picture of that!”

The effort and energy exerted by Maxwell over those two days left him in the hospital a few days later after he fainted at his home.

“I ended up in A&E on the Tuesday night after fainting in the house,” he said.

“After I fainted, I got a bag of wine gums and a bottle of Lucozade Sport, and my dad is diabetic so mum did my sugars and it was still only at 2. The normal is 7-9 I think.

“Monday was fine and I went to work. Tuesday I needed to go home early because I was going up a ladder to take a stand down and I started getting dizzy. Tuesday and Wednesday was a total write off and my energy levels were in the dust.”

The process of getting fit for the challenge has now inspired him to keep exercising and he has started refereeing local football matches once again – his 8th year in total on the field.

Football has been an interest throughout his life having played for Donacloney and managed Lurgan Town’s reserve team, and he feels exercise can certainly help those suffering from mental health issues.

“It did help and I was out training with my mate Michael Patterson who does the refereeing with me and the appointments,” he said.

“He wasn’t as interested in doing the run with me, but he was keeping at me to keep going and he started on me to get refereeing again. I hadn’t much interest in going again, but I started again and I’ve done five games this season and I’m feeling good.

“Last week I got assessed and I was doing an Intermediate game so I’m really enjoying it.

“This is my eighth year but I’m still at junior level. If I had have passed a fitness test two years ago I would have got up to intermediate, but maybe in the near future.

“I wouldn’t mind to keep going and see where I end up. I only played up to junior level so it doesn’t really bother me.

Maxwell played for Millpark Cricket Club before their amalgamation with Donacloney in 2017, and he turned out for their 3rd XI on occasion last season.

While maybe not having the desire to play on the field any longer, Maxwell says the charity challenge has reignited a love for the game and he wants to give back to those that helped him so much.

“I was playing a bit last year and I don’t want to play anymore, but I wouldn’t mind going to watch or getting involved in another way,” he said.

“It’s brought back the interest of cricket to me with the way everybody got behind me. It definitely has made me want to give something back the other way.”

Andre Malan set for 2019 CSNI return

CSNI have confirmed the re-signing of South African professional Andre Malan for the 2019 season.

Malan made a massive impact in his first campaign in the NCU in 2018, hitting 940 runs at an average of 47 (including four centuries) and picking up 43 wickets.

The 27-year-old also played a major role in helping the Stormont-based side reach the Challenge Cup final, and hit a brisk half-century in what was ultimately a losing effort against Waringstown at Comber.

With the signing of Irish international Gary Wilson also confirmed for next season, CSNI will undoubtedly fancy their chances of competing on all fronts.

Malan has been captaining Western Province in his homeland in recent months, hitting two half-centuries in October.

Speaking to JMSport, Malan said: “I am very grateful to the club and Ivan McMinn for inviting me to join them for another season of top Northern Ireland club cricket.

“I am looking forward to being on the field with all of my mates at CSNI again and also looking forward to see the progress made by some of the juniors I have been coaching as well.

“I am also very happy to return to Belfast, the McMorran household and the beautiful surroundings.

“I’m very excited for the 2019 campaign!”

CSNI also recently held their end of season awards, where the club donated £4000 to three local charities – Northern Ireland Pancreatic Cancer (NIPanC), Sport Changes Life and Cancer Focus NI.

Marc Ellison was awarded 1st XI Player of the Year for his 1087 runs at the top of the order, which included three centuries.

Bowler Matthew Foster was named Young Player of the Year after an impressive season that seen him collect 20 wickets.

Zimbabwe international and former Lisburn player Craig Ervine hoping for another season in the NCU at some point

Having played in 15 Tests, 80 One Day Internationals and 16 Twenty20’s for Zimbabwe, Craig Ervine goes down as one of the most high profile players to have competed in the NCU in recent times.

The 33-year-old played for Lisburn in 2009 before returning for substantial parts of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and was also part of the Northern Knights.

Ervine topped the NCU run-chart in his last full season in Northern Ireland, hitting 863 runs at an average of 61.64 in 16 innings, including 200* against Donemana.

He is still an important part of the Zimbabwe national side, and has registered two Test centuries (vs New Zealand and Sri Lanka).

Here, he speaks about his time with Lisburn, his international career and about the desire to potentially return one day to the NCU.

Thinking back to your move to Lisburn, how did it all come about and were you excited about the opportunity?

From what I remember my younger brother had played before me and I only heard good things about the place so I was very excited for the opportunity.

How does the standard of cricket in the NCU rank compared to other domestic/local cricket you’ve played in?

The standard is good. It’s a little difficult to compare to other domestic cricket I’ve played because the conditions over there are very different to anywhere else and that’s the challenging side of it.

The standard can only get better with the attitude and passion the guys I played with put into the game.

Did you enjoy your time with Lisburn? What were your highlights?

I definitely enjoyed my time there and one day I’ll hopefully have another season there. It’s always a pleasure visiting when I’m in the UK for a trip. Playing golf up at Lough Erne with good friends was definitely a highlight.

2) I’d say the game down at Donemana on that postage stamp was a cracking days cricket, and although we lost after I scored a double century, it was great to be apart of such a unique game of cricket.

3) End of season fines is always an enjoyable sight and all the humour that goes with it. All in all it was a great experience to play cricket in Ireland both club & domestic.

Do you keep up to date with what is going on here? Are you happy to see they’ve been promoted back to the Premier League once again?

Yes I speak to the Simpson’s quite often and I was fortunate to have a few come over to my wedding in early-May which was special.

I’m very chuffed to see them back in the Premier League. It can be tough to stay up if you haven’t got the development coming through.

What are you up to now in cricket?

I’m still playing for Zimbabwe and we have two tough tours coming up in South Africa & Bangladesh so preparations are in full flow at the moment. I’m looking forward to the tour to Ireland next June if all goes to plan.

IN REVIEW: Instonians captain Andrew White has ‘mixed feelings’ about 2018 season

Instonians suffered from a plethora of injuries during the 2018, with many key personnel missing at different points throughout the campaign, but they still finished fourth in the Premier League.

The Shaw’s Bridge side also reached the Challenge Cup semi-final before losing out by 72 runs to CSNI.

Here, captain Andrew White reflects on his first season in the job.

How do you look back on 2018?

I suppose I have mixed feelings, as do many of the guys in the squad. Generally at the start of every season you set out to try and win trophies, and we were certainly no different this year. Those best laid plans were quickly changed from an early part of the season when injuries to key players happened.

When you sit back now and reflect on how your season has gone, you look at the opportunities it gave to young players, and in some cases very young. When you see them do well, it gives you a good lift and all the senior guys really enjoyed watching the young players perform in the way they did.

It was your first season as captain. Was it tough with all the injuries?

It was my first season as captain and I couldn’t have done it without Gavin Rogers, who was a strong man behind the scenes and the support from the committee was outstanding.

They were fully supportive of playing the young guys. We could have kept turning to the likes of Eugene Moleon, who has been a great servant to Instonians over the years, but it got to the stage we knew there was a long-term benefit in playing the young lads, and they certainly didn’t let us down.

It feels as though you will be much improved with these young players getting a season under their belt?

The great thing about the guys who are pushing for representative honours, and that’s not just at senior Knights level – you have the likes of Oli Metcalfe, James Hunter and younger guys, and that’s really exciting to see them pushing themselves to achieve those targets.

The environment that we are trying to breed at Instonians is one that we want to see our club players achieve their potential, and that is at representative level as well. We are mindful of that.

The competitive edge of all of us wants to win trophies though, and that won’t be any different next year.

Nathan Smith returned to action late in the season. I’m sure as an Ireland selector and also Instonians captain you’re delighted to see him back?

He had a nasty injury, but the Irish medical staff and Nathan himself in terms of his attitude to getting back fit were great.

He went through a lot of hard yards behind the scenes with the medical staff and he certainly has the right attitude. Hopefully he can winter well and come back stronger next season.

You were the only team in the Premier League without an overseas professional this year. Would you look to get one in next year?

The last two years we have done it. We were in winning positions against Waringstown twice, we were in a good position against Civil Service North in the Senior Cup semi-final, and it’s in times like those that teams rely on their professional. We have been no different in time gone by in terms of those critical moments where the experience of a professional can be the difference.

I don’t know what the plans are in terms of looking ahead to next year and a professional. That decision might be dictated by the number of players we have lost through injury or representative honours.

You want stability, especially around the coaching side of things. A lot of guys who are in the Knights do a lot of coaching, so if they are missing midweek for one reason or another, it puts a strain on the coaching side of things. Those are all areas we will have to look at.

Looking to 2019, it sounds like you want to get back to winning trophies?

I suppose that is why we play at the level we do. We want to be competitive and we want to win. If anything, this year has probably demonstrated to us that when we are at full strength, we are more likely than not to be at the challenging end for trophies.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still quite a lot of pressure on the Knights guys to deliver in the club game and make sure they are putting in match-winning performances. There should always be a pressure on those guys to help us win trophies, and nothing will change from that point of view.

There was a lot of good cricket played around the country this year. The batting was certainly stronger than the bowling across the country, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that CIYMS won the league because they have the most well-rounded bowling attack.

IN REVIEW: Carrickfergus captain Michael Gilmour reflects on the 2018 campaign

Carrickfergus again finished inside the top four in the Premier League in 2018, ending the season behind CIYMS and Waringstown in third.

Their record of seven wins, six losses and one no result seen them collect 28 points from 14 matches – finishing ahead of Instonians due to having a healthier run-rate.

A first round Challenge Cup exit to eventual finalists CSNI and a second round defeat to Leinster in the Irish Senior Cup meant they didn’t get much of a run going in either competition.

From a player perspective, captain Michael Gilmour top scored with 573 runs in 21 innings, while new signing Matthew McCord took 27 wickets.

Here, Gilmour reflects on the seasons that’s been and looks forward to 2019.

How do you reflect on the 2018 season?

Overall, I think we have to be happy. The main part of that is the finish in the league. We didn’t compete in any of the cups this year, which is something we would definitely love to improve on.

We want to have a couple of cup runs each year while also focusing on the league, but this year it was only the league that was very positive. Next year, we will try and focus on being more consistent throughout all competitions.

You have had a couple of top four finishes now in the league, so it seems you have established yourself as one of the top teams in red ball cricket?

I think finishing in the top four in the league has been the aim of ours in the last few years, and you want to make sure you keep that going.

The fact we didn’t slip away was very promising. At the same time, I don’t think we looked like challengers at any stage of the season. We want to really push on and compete for the title. It’s not very interesting just finishing in the top three or four each season.

At some stage we have to be ruthless and really push on to be competing for the league title.

You beat Waringstown twice this year. Does that show you have the potential to compete for the title?

When you look at how good Waringstown have been this year in all formats, to beat them twice and show that it wasn’t just a one-off gives us great confidence to see that’s the team we have the potential to be.

As I say, I don’t think we are consistent or clinical enough throughout the whole league season to push on at the minute. We definitely have confidence seeing where we are in terms of the standard.

We need to make sure we have a bit more self-belief and push on.

Matthew McCord signed from Cliftonville ahead of the 2018 season. I’m sure you’re happy with how he performed in his first season in the Premier League?

Yes, absolutely. I think he was pretty nervous at the start of the season to see how he would go, but that was quickly put in place.

He started off very well against Waringstown and has just grown in confidence the entire year. He has been one of the main players this season.

His bowling average and his contribution in the overall statistics this year speaks for itself, and I think he has really enjoyed it and he is now challenging for more.

When you get a player like him who isn’t only producing but is striving to get better as well, it’s outstanding for me as a captain to have someone like him in the team.

You scored over 500 runs yourself and got a great century against Armagh. Are you happy with the season you had?

Personally, I am pretty happy with my own performance. Maybe it was the pressure of having the captaincy as well made me knuckle down and focus more on my own personal game.

When you are captain, you try and lead from the front, so as long as I am able to contribute, it’s the least I can do. Hopefully it’s something I can build on to go even bigger next season or at least keep it consistent.

You captain quite a young side, with the likes of Max Burton, Jack Burton and Harry Warke all there. Are you happy with the season all the young guys had?

In terms of kicking on next season, when you look down the list and see you’ve such a young and exciting squad, it fills you with great confidence that we are building something.

When we talk about going on and trying to achieve something, it is a lot more realistic when you have the likes of Max, Jack and Harry coming through, as well as Matty McCord and other young players.

It’s the start of something exciting ahead of us hopefully.

Looking to 2019, what are you looking to achieve?

In terms of improvement from this year, we have to be more consistent throughout all the competitions.

As a young team, we always enjoy playing white ball cricket, and to not go on a cup run in that this year was disappointing.

Hopefully that is something that we can build on for next year.