Northern Knights head coach Simon Johnston discusses coaching during lockdown

You just have to take a look at the number of Northern Knights players that have made an impact on the international stage in the past 16 months to realise what a great job head coach Simon Johnston has been doing.

Anyone you speak to about him provides glowing reports on the effort he puts in, the time he gives to all of his players and perhaps most importantly, the impact he has had on their careers as a whole.

Going back to February 2019, Shane Getkate was rewarded with his first international cap in a Twenty20 against Oman before a few weeks later James Cameron-Dow and James McCollum joined him in earning their debuts.

In the following months came the emergence of Mark Adair, the recall of Greg Thompson to the Ireland ranks after a run of blistering performances and the breakthrough of both Harry Tector and David Delany who have spent time with the Knights.

Jacob Mulder would have also been back in the green of Ireland if it wasn’t for injury and it’s when you go through the extensive list that you truly get a sense of what the Knights are building.

A lot of it comes down to how much a player wants it and ultimately their destiny is in their own hands, but there is no doubting that having someone like Johnston around to motivate and help you become the best player you can be is a massive part of achieving success.

Usually outdoors slinging cricket balls at this time of year, Johnston is having to deal with the uncertainty of when he will be able to join back up with his players and continue the work that they so brilliantly put in during 2019.

“I was furloughed really early so that has obviously been a massive challenge,” he said.

“With me being a physical coach and being out coaching all the time we knew it was going to happen, so what we were able to do a week before was get the Google Classroom up and running before I was put on furlough.

“Charlotte Lyons was phenomenal with all of that setting it up for everybody.

“Basically, I was able to say here is all the information and links you can use and you work away leading it. It gave the coaches ownership because I wasn’t there to lead it.

“I’ve been there as a friend if they need me but legally I’m not allowed to do anything so I haven’t.

“Callum (Atkinson) has been running it brilliantly. If you know enough about me you know I’m very hands on so that has been a real challenge not being involved, but the guys are doing great work.”

Simon Johnston. ©CricketEurope

Coronavirus has resulted in coaches utilising other methods to get their message across and the NCU have been putting on Zoom calls and webinars for club coaches and players at different age groups.

With the innovations that have come about due to this enforced break and technology that is available, Johnston believes it could have a lasting change on coaching.

“That has probably changed the face of coaching forever,” he added.

“Over the winter months there will be a lot more Zoom calls and it’s cost saving.

“I know Northern Ireland isn’t a big place but there can be a lot of travelling involved. Going forward, we will probably implement Zoom a lot more.

“With my coaching style, I’m a social person and very big on building relationships and trust with my players, so I would class a lot of the players as friends.

“I would be chatting to them every day or every couple of days anyway. I speak to Wilo (Gary Wilson) as captain a lot and most of the boys I would be chatting to at least twice a week.

“The majority of time it isn’t about cricket but just staying in touch and making sure they are alright. The stronger you can build your relationships the better.”

A major part of being a successful coach is knowing your players extremely well and having the knowledge of what each individual requires.

Lockdown has heightened that even more with usually active cricketers now not able to do any sort of meaningful training and personal interaction limited.

“You treat them all individually,” said Johnston.

“I know enough about the guys to know some would struggle on their own.

“Some weeks I’ve been ringing them to pick me up because there can be some dark weeks.

“You know the guys that can get on with it and you know the guys who need the social contact. That’s just about me knowing who needs more attention.

“The contracted boys are very well taken care of with their S&C programmes and their calls with Fordy (Graham Ford, Ireland head coach), so for me, I can let them go.

“It’s the tier below of what I would call the semi-pro guys. We have provided them with S&C too.

“While the Classroom is great for young guys because you can give them drills and stuff to do, the majority of senior boys are shadow batting and doing their S&C work – there isn’t a lot of technical stuff they can do.

“Someone like a Marc Ellison will be shadow batting in his apartment and James McCollum will have his sister throwing tennis balls out the back to him.

“It’s very hard for a lot of people. It has to be tailored for different people. I know at youth level the guys have been posting drills to do but at senior level you just have to trust them.”

50 over
Northern Knights. ©CricketEurope

The main message that Johnston has been getting across to his squad is one of opportunity.

“The one thing I did say to them when this all kicked off was that this is an opportunity,” he added.

“It’s an opportunity for guys who have been injured to rest, for guys who have been on the international circuit like Wilo for 10 years to take a bit of a break for a few months because it’s probably the only chance you’ve had in that time.

“For other guys like Elly, it’s about reading up and going deeper into your game. Shane Getkate is very similar to that.

“The one thing I told them we can control and that there is no excuse for is our fitness.

“If people come out of this and they rock up with a wee belly on them, you know they haven’t been doing anything. Even I’m out running twice a day just to get out of the house!

“If anyone comes out of this not fit that would ring alarm bells for a coach. It’s just how you take it.

“It’s going to be interesting when I get back in to see what the Knights guys have been doing but I think they are going to be grand.

“From a youth level, I think we will learn a lot about our players in underage squads and see the guys who have been putting in the hard yards and those that haven’t.”

As captain and with his experience, Gary Wilson plays a big role in the Knights set-up both on and off the pitch.

It was clear the impact he made during his first full season back in Northern Ireland last year and Johnston’s relationship with the Ireland international has been vital to their progress.

“I remember doing an interview with you just over a year ago saying my biggest challenge was getting to know him and making our relationship strong,” said Johnston.

“I can’t speak highly enough about the bloke. He is a real people person but is determined and knows what he wants.

“He will bring people with him to what he wants and it was like a breath of fresh air him coming in with the stuff he said and did for the guys.

“He is very motivated about his own game and wants to get back firing being that number one in all formats in the Irish team.

“People talk about an extra 5% someone can give you but I reckon he gives us an extra 20%. The impact he makes as a captain is phenomenal.

“People are always judging runs and this and that, but it’s as good captaincy as I’ve seen. Last year was definitely some of the best I’ve been around and that can’t be underestimated.”

If the 2020 season does get underway, one of the most exciting things for local cricket fans will be seeing Paul Stirling in action.

The hard-hitting batsman will be playing for the Knights after returning from his time with Middlesex and his addition will further enhance their chances of winning more silverware.

Just like Wilson, Johnston says Stirling has bought into what they are trying to achieve.

“Every fan in the country would have been excited to see him play this year – I know I certainly was,” he added.

“A bit like Wilo coming in, he has been a breath of fresh air at training.

“They are two completely different characters but it’s fascinating to see the way he goes about it. It will probably take me another year to work out his dos and don’ts.

“Just to have him in your changing room is a massive thing. I know he is one of the guys that people look to in the Irish changing room, so the value he is going to add on and off the pitch is phenomenal.”

This break has meant many people have developed a deeper appreciation for the sport and felt a new drive to improve when it returns.

Johnston is no different and says he can’t wait to be back on the training pitch once again and is confident the feeling is similar within his group.

“The boys all wind me up saying at least my shoulder is getting a rest because it’s usually killing me!

“The positives for me personally has been getting myself fit and recharging the batteries but I can’t wait to get back.

“It has give me a wee buzz again about how much I love coaching and I can’t wait to get out there.

“Hopefully it is the same for the guys and hopefully all injuries are cleared up so the guys are ready to go with a real passion.”


Shane Getkate looking to carry the positives with him when cricket returns

In recent times, there would rarely have been a summer’s day that went by where Shane Getkate didn’t partake in some form of cricket activity.

Making his Ireland debut in February 2019, he has played in the likes of a Twenty20 World Cup qualifying campaign while travelling the globe competing in the sport he loves and enjoying a position he has grinded towards over many years.

Add to that his commitments with Ireland A, Northern Knights and Instonians, a large majority of Getkate’s time is spent on a cricket pitch.

That was until this year when the country, and most of the world, was forced into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving athletes across the globe unable to participate or put in any meaningful practice to their craft.

Getkate has experienced that from both a player and coach perspective, with his SG Coaching business moving all practice online while facing the task of coming up with productive drills that can be done in the confines of a back garden.

Although tough at the beginning getting to grips with what was now the new normal, the 28-year-old believes he has learnt lessons that will help him become a better coach in the long-term.

“It has obviously been very difficult and I think it’s just about adapting and being as proactive as you can,” he said.

“It did take a few weeks to come up with ideas and I feel it has helped my coaching and helped me to communicate better, be creative and come up with new ideas.

“Most of the kids and guys that I work with are at the age groups where we have been drilling it since November time, so it’s about doing that while bringing in little games to keep it fun and engaging.

“I’ve been learning from my contacts in Ireland, England and all over the world really to see what has been working for them and trying to learn off each other.

“I’ve had to be more creative and come up with a new way of delivering a message through social media, email, phone calls and Zoom sessions.

“We’ve all had to adapt to it and there won’t be many coaches that have used this method in the past.

“It has definitely helped my skills and made me more proactive and creative.

“I also feel it has given me confidence when I’m still playing that I can keep my coaching business going alongside my playing career.

“If I am away on international tours I can still help people online and that has give me a lot of confidence.

“It has taken the pressure off the cricket nearly which has been a big eye opener.”

Getkate batting in the Challenge Cup final last season. ©CricketEurope

Coaching is something that has always interested Getkate, starting in his mid-teens while still living in Dublin.

With his move up north, he continued to learn and grow as a leader and it’s a role he can see himself fulfilling throughout his own playing career and beyond.

“I started coaching when I was 16 living down in Dublin,” he added.

“Brian O’Rourke would have introduced me to coaching and he was a big mentor back in the day.

“I used to coach on Friday nights with Leinster age groups and I kept building on it that way.

“I did a lot of one to ones at different clubs I’ve been at and I worked with Belfast Community Sports Development Network two or three years ago for an eight-month period.

“That was great to be involved with coaches in various different sports.

“Unfortunately the funding got reduced by Sport NI and I got let go but that forced me to set up my own business and do things by myself.

“I felt less restricted then and I could go all over Ireland and not just certain areas in Belfast.

“I enjoyed that freedom and I enjoy passing on my knowledge and helping others improve their game in all aspects.

“I would like to continue doing it while playing and then after my career.”

Matchday is the most important part of any cricketer’s schedule but another crucial aspect to the sport is the camaraderie and relationships built up with team-mates.

Losing that over the last couple of months will have been disappointing for cricketers at all levels with contact having basically been limited to Zoom calls and more recently socially distanced activities.

Despite the hardships that lockdown has brought, Getkate has tried to find the positives from the situation and is hoping he can carry certain aspects into a time when cricket is back up and running.

“It has been quite tricky,” he said.

“It was a shock to the system for the first week or two but it has helped me to realise that getting into a routine and staying patient is key.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of my team-mates and guys outside of cricket and keeping that communication open, helping others and learning from others what is working for them so that I can learn from them to help us stay together as a group even if we aren’t together.

“We have been chatting with each other as much as possible and keeping the team morale has been really important.

“We are on a strict regime fitness wise so I’ve been working out six to seven times a week and it’s very good for the mindset.

“Hopefully I can continue these good habits when things go back to normal.

“Missing the competitive side of the game has been frustrating and the weather has been superb in May so it has been frustrating not getting out there but it’s about being patient.

“Most of us have been away to countries where we are stuck in hotels for long periods and not allowed to roam about, but those times have given us a few tools to work on and reflect on what you did then and bring that into the times we are going through at the moment.”

Getkate after making his ODI debut. ©CricketEurope

It can be easy to take a lot of things for granted in day-to-day life but it feels like the current period has helped bring a lot of things into perspective for many people.

You only have to pick up your phone or switch on the television to realise the impact that coronavirus has had worldwide with a rising death toll, people losing their jobs and businesses closing.

This enforced break has provided Getkate with a new clarity about the path he wants to be on and a deeper appreciation for what he gets to do for a living.

“I’ve learnt a lot during this time but the main thing is getting into a good routine, staying active and communicating with people on all levels as best you can,” he added.

“I think that is something I can bring into life when things do go back to normality.

“It will be a bit more difficult with distractions around but this time has shown that if you slow things down, reflect and take a bit of a back seat you can see where your life is going.

“This period has helped me get clarity on where I want to go in terms of cricket, lifestyle and coaching career. I have definitely learnt a lot that way.

“You look at a lot of people and situations on the news which makes you appreciate just how lucky we are to still be contracted and still have jobs.

“Millions of people have lost their jobs and lives around the world so it makes you appreciate the small things a lot more.

“Cricket is really important but there is so much more to life so it’s about making sure I’m grateful and have a clear perspective on where I’m at and how lucky we are to be playing full-time cricket and travelling the world for free.

“It has made me appreciate the small things and hopefully I can try to continue that as much as I can.”

Lockdown coaching Q&A with NCU Cricket Development Officer Callum Atkinson

Lockdown has thrown up a number of challenges for people in cricket and coaches have had to adapt the way they communicate with their players.

Callum Atkinson has been at the forefront of development coaching in the NCU for the past few years, working with a variety of age groups and in the community.

Along with his own playing commitments for Premier League side Lisburn, Atkinson is usually busy all week long during the summer coaching sessions and working alongside his colleagues to provide the best training possible to the young NCU and Irish stars.

Coronavirus has meant that coaching and the way practice is done has drastically changed and Atkinson has had to deal with that experience first hand.

Here, he answers questions on the issues he has faced, how he has found this time and much more.

How has this time been for you as a coach and what have the main issues been?

CA: “I suppose more than anything mentally as a coach this is the time of the year where you’re out in the sun and working with your squads. Especially from a regional point of view and an Irish youth view where we have been working with those squads from October last year until the start of lockdown. A lot of that has been technical and tactical training. To do that all winter and not get an opportunity to play has been frustrating. There has been ways around it and we have adapted quite well. At the start of lockdown we were looking at how teachers were going to educate their pupils and Google Classroom was one of the main platforms. We have a NCU Google Classroom where squads and clubs can go on to find drills that our coaches are creating and we are getting stuff from coaches across the water as well.”

Have you found that you’ve had to adapt how you’re getting your message across with everything moved online?

CA: “The main challenge for us that we are finding is the two-way engagement that you would get with players face to face. There is a lot of work going on with the Google Classroom, webinars and things like that and it’s a lot of us talking at people and getting other coaches to talk at people. It’s the engagement that has been the struggle, especially for young players. You may put a link up to a session on Google Classroom but mightn’t get a response. In coaching, it’s a two-way relationship where you work on something together. If you don’t get that engagement or response it can be difficult to know what stage players are at.”

We have missed a big part of the early summer now so are participation numbers a concern for you?

CA: “I think for all sports but especially for us being traditionally a summer sport and missing that school phase where we would have went in to deliver programmes and worked closely with clubs to signpost children to clubs we have missed. It’s definitely a concern but there are ways around that. The first point of call is to retain current members when we get cricket back up and running and I think we need to look at winter options. If we can if possible, get indoors and start indoor cricket with schools and clubs on a regional level to get cricketers playing matches but also to make the season longer. That is maybe one of the positives that will come out of this is that we do create programmes throughout the winter that will be sustainable rather than just not seeing our kids for six months during the winter.”

Atkinson batting for Lisburn last season. ©CricketEurope

Has it been tough coming up with drills to suit everyone because there are limiting factors such as space etc?

CA: “We are trying our best to find drills you can do in other areas of the house. Not everyone has a big back garden or garage that they can work in, so even at the side of the house there are drills for catching and batting. When we are putting drills onto the Classroom, as coaches we are looking for drills in different parts of the household so we aren’t just targeting the kids with the garden or garage.”

Has there been a good response to Google Classroom?

CA: “There has. We have about 400 kids on the Classroom from regional squads to club teams. You even see the likes of North Down who have created their own Google Classroom which has been great to see. The response has been good. There’s just that challenge of getting the two-way engagement that has been difficult. We can put everything out there for kids but it’s hard to know who is participating in the sessions.”

Right through the age groups I suppose the coaches are putting trust in their players that they are doing the drills and getting what they need out of it.

CA: “Absolutely. There is probably no way around that. One thing that the team worked on at the start of lockdown was a self-evaluation form. For players at club and regional level and generally this has been a good time for staff and clubs to do a bit of planning. The players filled in forms and will work with club coaches or us as regional coaches to discuss their game and once we get out of lockdown we can work on areas they need to improve.”

Keeping morale up must also be crucial because there’s a chance players put all this work in and don’t get rewarded with cricket this summer.

CA: “100%. It’s about keeping morale up but it’s about keeping the habit up as well. There’s a habit that cricketers have at this time of year of playing cricket, so it would be wrong of us as a development team not to continue cricket at this time of year. Hopefully they have had that opportunity and can continue the habit so that morale and motivation is there when we come back.”

In a way, has this helped improve coaches? You’ve had to think outside the box and evaluate what you’re doing so has it helped in any way?

CA: “There has been some positives to come out of this. We have certainly had to think outside the box in terms of the learning platform, webinars and Zoom calls. From a coach development perspective, coaches are working all year round and don’t often get a chance to look at our own personal development. Andy McCrea, who is our coach development mentor, would be big on learning opportunities and developing yourself. For example tonight (Thursday) we have Darren Thomas, an ex-Glamorgan fast bowler delivering a webinar to our club coaches. It has given us a chance to take a step back and look at our own development as coaches and players.”

Atkinson alongside his Section One winning team-mates in 2018. ©CricketEurope

We have a lot of good coaches in the NCU so have you been able to bounce ideas off each other?

CA: “We have almost become closer during this time. There has been plenty of Zoom calls and chats amongst all of our coaches and bouncing ideas off each other. I think everyone at this stage during lockdown is happy to share experiences of their development so that has been a big positive.”

From a general view over the past few seasons and looking towards the future, are you happy with how everything is progressing on the development side?

CA: “Definitely. We have a good system now in terms of school and club development. We have staff members focusing on clubs and staff focusing on schools and working closely together. The school-club link is crucial for us to gain new members and hopefully we will start seeing the benefits of that in the next couple of years from having those focused staff roles. There is plenty of new programmes out there. We are targeting new schools who traditionally don’t play cricket, we now have a walking programme for older people and we have a disability programme up and running. There are a lot of new programmes that have been piloted within the last year and we will see the benefits of them when we sustain them over the next couple of years.”

What have the numbers and participation been like in them?

CA: “The numbers have been good. The kids are loving the new schools programme. For example, one school that has worked really well with us in Our Lady’s in Knock. It’s a Catholic school and they’ve absolutely loved it. What we have found is that in schools like that they aren’t aware of what cricket is. They are really into GAA, basketball and other sports and sometimes aren’t aware of what cricket is. They think it’s standing around for five days in whites but that’s not necessarily cricket and we need to modify our formats for schools to try and get more engagement. Numbers have been good and I’m really looking forward to seeing the disability programme progress as well.”

It must be very exciting as a coach to be involved with such varied programmes?

CA: “It has certainly been exciting for the last few years that I’ve been involved. It’s moving quite quickly and in cricket in Ireland in general there seems like there’s always change going on and we are moving at a hundred miles an hour which is great. One of the positives of the past few months has been taking time to take a deep breath and work on your own game as a coach.”

James Cameron-Dow on the challenges of coaching during lockdown

After being announced as new head coach of the NCU Women’s side earlier this year, this should have been James Cameron-Dow’s busiest summer to date.

Mixing his new role with CIYMS, Northern Knights, Ireland A and potential senior international playing commitments, Cameron-Dow will be leading an ever-improving women’s team alongside club team-mate David Miller.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a wide-reaching impact on sport and society in general and it has thrown the chance of any local cricket season taking place into doubt, but it has also changed the way coaches have had to go about their business.

Swapping net sessions for Zoom calls and regular training turned into online content, Cameron-Dow and his fellow coaches have had to think outside the box in order to provide their squad of players with worthwhile drills and constructive practice with many limiting factors.

As Cameron-Dow explains, total trust has been passed onto his players to try and do what they can during these unprecedented times to keep sharp for the eventual return of cricket.

“Everything has obviously gone online and we have been using Google Classroom, but to track players and keep tabs on them is impossible,” he said.

“The responsibility all turns onto the players now and how much they want to get done. We can’t track them at all so it’s very difficult.

“I also understand as a player that it’s very difficult to keep motivated yourself, to do these sessions and feel like you’re making progress and working towards something.

“From a coach’s perspective, you have to trust that each player knows what they can and can’t benefit from and that when the season comes around they are motivated.”

Cameron-Dow batting in last season’s Twenty20 Cup final. ©CricketEurope

Cameron-Dow would have had a general season plan in mind on what he wanted to achieve with the women’s side in 2020 but the enforced break has made him truly focus on the fine details moving forward.

Any session has had to be planned in advance and to great detail due to the limited interaction between coach and player in the current climate and there is also the requirement of making sure that the group are progressing towards their targets.

“It’s quite easy to sit down and plan a pre-season or sessions going into a season with a progressive plan and structure, but now you’re literally looking at anything that you can do at home that is going to be semi-constructive and add benefit to the players,” he added.

“You’re taking those things and trying to put a session together but there’s no real structure to it.

“For me, the real difficulty at the start was sitting down and planning out a six to eight week programme and making sure we were progressing through the levels and working towards something as opposed to just throwing everything into one session and going random but doesn’t make sense.

“Putting that together was actually quite difficult. The big change is obviously that everything is done online.

“I’ve been posting once a week onto Google Classroom and then sending a couple of extra sessions to the girls who want to do more.

“We did seven or eight sessions like that and I had a chat with the girls last week so we are going to do a session every second week now.

“We try the likes of a Zoom quiz where we can talk nonsense and get some team building and a Zoom fitness call.

“It’s really the difficulty of having a progressive plan and having a target with everything you set out.”

While a coach’s main job is to improve their player’s technical ability and their all-round game, another important requirement is to make sure that morale within a camp remains high.

That will have taken on every more importance for cricket coaches in general around the country with the season being thrown into doubt and players potentially losing motivation due to not being rewarded for their hard work on the pitch.

Cameron-Dow is in the prime of his own playing career and will be able to relate to those concerns and worries that his squad will have but says the motivation must come from within.

“That was one of the main things I felt we needed to discuss when we had a chat last week because I felt as time was going on the responses were getting less and less and the enthusiasm wasn’t there,” he said.

“It was quite easy early on when we were in lockdown for three weeks and everyone was buzzing to start fitness programmes and there were videos everywhere online, but as the light at the end of the tunnel so to speak was taken away and you didn’t know what you’re working towards, motivation can go out the window quickly.

“That motivation has to come from within a player and I’m speaking from both the perspective of a player and coach because I know what it has been like.

“That can be very difficult when you don’t know what you’re working towards and there’s not too much a coach can do about that motivation to be fair.”

Cameron-Dow helped CIYMS win four trophies last season. ©CricketEurope

An extra challenge that Cameron-Dow has faced is the lack of training time he had with the group before lockdown came into place.

He is still getting to know many members of his squad while trying to keep everyone occupied with relevant content.

“I’ve only met probably 10 of the players in the team out of a squad of 16 or 17,” he added.

“There are quite a few of the girls that I’m not too familiar with.

“I’m trying to put together a programme, keep them semi-busy and make sure they are still switched on and not thinking that cricket is done basically.

“That can also be a difficult thing if you go 18 months without cricket. All of a sudden you come back into season and there will be questions of who will play or if that’ll be the end of cricket for some people. I think that is the really alarming thing.

“We have been trying to tick over but planning sessions for a team that is very new to you makes things very difficult.

“You can’t track players at home and see how they are progressing so it’s tough making sessions that are relevant to the team and making sure they can learn and progress.

“One or two wasting time videos and it’ll be the last time they watch! It is difficult with a new team and not knowing the girls as I don’t yet.”

Coronavirus has brought problems aplenty, but it has also handed people the opportunity to improve certain aspects of their profession and chance to put time into areas that they wouldn’t have been able to normally.

In Cameron-Dow’s case, he has had to work hard on the planning side of his coaching efforts and is hopeful that it’s something he will be able to carry forward with him.

“One thing that I’m not fantastic at is sitting down and planning coaching programmes and this has forced me to do it as opposed to thinking on your feet most of the time,” he said.

“You have a rough idea what you want to do in a session and are able to adjust if it’s not going well and add in something else.

“Now, I’ve had to sit down and make sure there is some sort of structure to everything which has helped me a lot.

“Not only are you coming up with new ideas but for me personally it has made me spend a bit more time on organising and planning which hasn’t been a strength of mine in the past.

“Johnty (Simon Johnston) has been sending me different coaching social media accounts to follow and I have 10/15 new coaches or academies I’m following that I wouldn’t have been and getting little drills and learning a lot from that.

“The emphasis on having to be organised and switched on in planning will hopefully serve me well.”

Gill excited for new challenge with Carrickfergus – whenever it begins

It would be fair to say that Neil Gill hadn’t been this excited for a new cricket season to roll around in quite some time.

Getting ready for another Premier League campaign has been standard practice over the last few years with Gill leading Muckamore to one of their longest sustained periods in the top-flight in decades.

With his boyhood club being relegated in the final game of their season, Gill still had a burning desire to test himself and play against the very best that the NCU has to offer.

So, for only the second season in his career, Gill will be playing his cricket away from Moylena after signing with Carrickfergus – one of the most exciting teams in the league.

Speaking to Gill, you get the sense a fire has been relit inside of him with the move. The thought of fresh beginnings has restored his true love for cricket and he has been putting in the work during the winter to make sure he hits the ground running at Middle Road.

Cruelly, it looks like that new start is going to be taken away from him – well, for at least a few more months–due to the coronavirus pandemic.

When Muckamore’s final Premier League game, which was ironically against Carrickfergus, was washed out and their relegation fate sealed in the harshest of ways, Gill would have known there was a big decision to make.

It was a season of near misses for his side. Three-run and one wicket defeats to Waringstown and Lisburn respectively in the space of two weekends would set the tone for what was to come before the former would return to haunt them once again, winning off the very last ball in the third last game of the season.

Being at Moylena that afternoon, an eery silence fell over the ground when the reality of what had just happened sunk in. Muckamore had came within a bat length of surviving. They had come so close yet were so far away still and it felt like that blow would eventually see them down.

It proved to be the case and in the following weeks, Gill confirmed his departure.

He has provided a lifetime of service to Muckamore, but this time it had to be about looking after himself and fulfilling that desire to be the best cricketer he can be.

Gill bowling against Instonians last season. ©CricketEurope

“Getting relegated with Muckamore and the way it happened with the close games against Waringstown and Lisburn was really hard to take, especially for someone who has been there since they were eight and been captain for nine years,” he reflects.

“We kept them in the Premier League for three years which is probably the longest since the team in the late-sixties and early-seventies. To go down the way we went down was hard to take.

“I did ask a few boys around the club and I do think the right thing to do is for Muckamore to rebuild, get the youth structure in place, do a bit of work on the ground and take the pain of Section One for a few years.

“Me being 33 now, I just want to play as long as I can at the top level and I wanted to go to a club at the top end of the Premier League.

“I moved to Derriaghy (in 2006) and we won six but went down, so I thought it would be great to play in a team challenging at the top end of things.

“Carrick are a team I believe can win something because they have all aspects covered. It definitely wasn’t an easy decision to leave.

“I had been there since I was eight and I did leave once, but that was because I was told I wouldn’t go to the U19 World Cup if I wasn’t playing Premier League so that encouraged me to go at that stage.

“I will miss Muckamore – there’s no doubt about that.

“Sometimes you have to look after yourself and I don’t want to look back where I played most of my days in Section One and not in the Premier League. That’s basically what drove it and there were a couple of other things as well.

“I had been captain for nine years and going on titles, was probably one of the most successful they had.

“I think about 75% of the club are happy to have a cricket team and don’t really share my aspiration to be up there. When I came into captain, driving the team forward was always my aim.

“I brought in a more professional approach with regards training. Some guys didn’t like it around the club.

“I lost my dad suddenly and then Lucy was born within the space of two days, and even the year that happened I was rolling the wicket and cutting the grass. I did come off committee because I was on it for seven years and took a backseat that way. It’s almost taken for granted.

“I have a busy job and am a family man and was giving hours of my time. There are people slagging you off in the background and I just thought I can’t be bothered with the negativity at this stage of life.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in the future but I want to give Carrick a real good go and win things. The Premier League is getting tougher and more competitive while Section One is going the other way.

“There’s a lot of boys that want to challenge at the top and there are a lot of guys who are happy playing social cricket, which is fair enough but I didn’t fancy that myself.

“I’m a traditionalist and have grown up playing cricket – it has been my life. I’m always 50-overs and old school in my thoughts!”

Gill being presented with a Challenge Cup man of the match award. ©CricketEurope

The transfer was settled quickly over a spot of lunch in Carrickfergus with it not taking much to persuade Gill that this was the right place for him.

Over the years he has got to know the players well and when it comes to the club itself, he has a deep admiration for the way they’ve been able to establish themselves as one of the best teams in the top-flight.

“I’ve always got on well with a lot of the Carrick boys like Parky, Eagy. Michael Gilmour and all of them.

“It has always been a club that I’ve got on really well with and the way they have built their club, I used them as a model at Muckamore because they have built it up and now have everything in place to challenge.

“I had a bit of craic with Eagy on the last day of our season and he said ‘Giller, will we just get this transfer form out?’ and I spoke to him after that and went to have a chat with them.

“I don’t want people thinking I’m going there for money because I have turned down money four times. I’m not getting a penny and have gone here for purely cricketing reasons. It’s purely because I want to play at the top for as long as possible.

“I spoke to Eagy, Parky and Jim Nelson in the second week of September over a bite to eat at Carrick and within a couple of days I had signed. I wanted to get it pushed through and get it all done and dusted.”

Gill has been in the role of captain for the last nine years – the sort of timeframe that isn’t too common to hear of when it comes to the leader of a first team.

Generally a player will give it their all for a few seasons before handing the reins over to someone else, but Gill has been trusted to lead the club through thick and thin, through relegation and promotion.

With the obvious love he has for the club, he wasn’t about to leave the captaincy to someone he didn’t feel was capable or ready. He wasn’t about to hand the keys over to someone he couldn’t trust to do a good job.

That is no longer the case though. Sam Gordon, the new captain, has been a protégé of sorts for Gill over the past couple of seasons, grooming his team-mate for captaincy and getting him ready for the day when all the responsibility would be given to him.

The day is now here, and Gill is confident that the 22-year-old will do a stellar job, even if it will be initially tough with so many winter departures.

“Part of the reason I did captaincy over the last few years because there was no one else to do it.

“I didn’t want to come into the Premier League and make some young guy do it because it’s tough. Captaincy is hard enough, but when you’re in the Premier League trying to set fields to top players and professionals is very tough.

“I thought I would do it for another couple of years and blood Sam a bit. I got Sam a job in our place and I have a lot of time for him. He was the obvious choice to do it looking at the team.

“It’s going to be very tough for him with the number of players who have left.

“I will always love Muckamore. Some of the best days of my life have been down there. There are a lot of people in the club I love to bits.

“I will be down there having a pint during the summer and will always be looking for their result. If we aren’t playing and they are, I will be watching them.

“Who knows what will happen in the future, but as I say, this isn’t a one or two year thing at Carrick – I want to give it a really good go.”

Gill appealing against CIYMS back in 2017. ©CricketEurope

Gill had been training with his new team-mates in the nets over the winter period, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses while also improving himself as a bowler.

When you look at Carrick’s team, it isn’t hard to see why many fancy them to make a big breakthrough soon in terms of winning a trophy, and Gill has been particularly impressed with one individual.

“We started in the third week of January up at Jordanstown.

“It’s great for me running in against the likes of CJ (van der Walt) because you can bowl a ball that’s hitting the top of off and he can walk down and hit it over extra cover.

“The better batsmen you bowl against, the better you become. He looks unbelievable and I was looking forward to playing with him.

“There are so many strengths in that Carrick team.

“I have to work hard because there are guys in the seconds who could take my place. I’m not going here thinking I’m a shoo in.

“I love pressure and I know I’ll have to work hard, bowl well in matches and if I don’t then there will be others taking my place. It’s great to have that competition in the club.

“The seconds are very strong and won Junior One last season, and I know they lost a couple of guys, but they still have a really good team.

“If you look at the seamers you have myself, (Ashwin) Shetty, Alex Haggan, Matty McCord, Anthony Martin and then big Michael Armstrong who looks a top bowler. Batting wise, who is to say I won’t be batting 11. They really have all bases covered.

“I’ve gone up for five sessions and went for a drink with the boys at Christmas and it feels like I’ve been there for years. I won’t need a settling in period or anything because I know I fit in with the boys.”

With the season now delayed until at least May 28 (and most likely way beyond), it’s just a waiting game for every player in the NCU to see if any cricket will be played in 2020.

As if chosen by fate, Gill would have been taking on former club Muckamore in the Gallagher Challenge Cup first round, but it remains to be seen if that competition will even go ahead.

If we do get some cricket in, Gill will be hoping his experience can help push Carrick from contenders to champions and fulfil their potential.

Carrick have a knack of turning up in the big games, as shown by their success against Waringstown and ending CIYMS’ winning run of 20 Premier League games last season.

It can sometimes be the teams lower down the league where they slip up and Gill believes if they can eradicate that from their game then sky is the limit.

“I said this to a few of the guys at Cariick; if you look at their results, they lost to Muckamore twice, but beat CIYMS and seem to always beat Waringstown. It’s a complacency thing.

“If they are going into every game and aren’t complacent, but it’s also adapting to slower wickets because at Muckamore 220 wins you a match and 180 you’re in the game.

“It’s about the local players putting their hand up and not relying on the pro too heavily. He will naturally win you games on his own.

“They are so close and that’s another reason why I joined Carrick. They are one of the best teams in the league.

“It’s so competitive but there’s no reason if they perform against the big teams and stop the complacency and knuckle down against the teams lower down in the league, it’s all they are missing.”

Jacques Snyman reflects on first NCU season and playing against England

Jacques Snyman is hoping he will get the chance to return to Carrickfergus at some point this summer and help the club pick up some silverware.

The 26-year-old marked his first season in the NCU as an overseas professional by racking up 1,085 runs at an average of 54.25 and also chipped in with 24 important wickets as Carrick made it to their first ever Irish Senior Cup quarter-final and a third-placed Premier League finish.

Snyman had enjoyed two previous stints in England but believes 2019 marked his best season yet in the most competitive league he has played in during his time in the United Kingdom.

“It was one of the best seasons I’ve ever had going overseas,” he said.

“People always ask what the toughest league you’ve played in is and for me it would definitely be in Northern Ireland. For me, there is no such thing as an easy game there.

“I got to the club and people made me feel comfortable and the likes of Eagy, Holmesy and CJ helped me a lot.

“It was one of my best seasons ever with breaking some records and I really enjoyed it.”

Snyman batting against Instonians. ©CricketEurope

Snyman understandably didn’t know an awful lot about the NCU or Carrick when he received the offer to ply his trade in Northern Ireland but he had the right people around him to talk to about a potential move.

Pat Botha, who had spent the previous three seasons with Carrick and has now signed for Woodvale, was able to offer some advice while he also shared a Knights changing room with Shadley van Schalkwyk who was at Armagh in 2018 and originally scheduled to join Warinsgtown for the 2020 season.

Through his own research he found out that AB de Villiers had been at the club and says it’s an honour to play for the same team as one of biggest stars of this generation.

“I spoke to Shado and to Pat Botha and they both said it was a great club,” he added.

“They mentioned the names of the likes of Roger, Iain Parkhill, Eagy, Jim Nelson and said they were all really good guys.

“When I signed, CJ (van der Walt) texted me and just told me a bit about the background of the club.

“I went to read up about the club and seen that AB de Villiers had played there and one of my best friends used to be at the club.

“For me, it was huge playing for the club that AB had been at.

“Everyone in South Africa looks up to AB so to have that opportunity to play at the club he played at was a great opportunity and I was so excited to get over and see what it was like.

“The guys accepted me with open arms and I had a really good time.”

Carrickfergus have found themselves consistently in the top half of the Premier League table without being able to mount a serious challenge on the title yet.

With someone like Snyman in their team supported by a host of quality players they might not be too far away from that and the South African is desperate to get back and help the Middle Road men fulfil their potential.

“I really want to get back,” he said.

“I’m a loyal guy and I’m looking to get back to Carrickfergus this season.

“If not, I’m not sure what the future holds and maybe they’d want me back for the season after.

“I don’t want to have started something with a club and then leave them. I want to help the club to win some trophies so it would be my goal this season.

“I obviously want to perform well on my side but I would love to help the club win some silverware.”

Snyman celebrates a century. ©CricketEurope

Snyman’s blistering form carried over into his season back home and he was really impressing with his performances before the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the campaign ending prematurely.

The highlight of that was his 65 against England for a South Africa Invitational XI before following it up with scores of 38 (from 16 balls) and 29 the following day.

That experience helped him enormously and his run of consistent performances meant he picked up a Knights franchise contract, where a certain Allan Donald is head coach.

“I came back from Carrickfergus with some form,” he added.

“For Northern Cape I did really well and then getting exposure to the franchise season was just great working with the coaches.

“I played half of the franchise season and now have got a franchise contract.

“I’m really happy and what helped me a lot was playing for the Invitational team against England.

“That helped me a lot because getting the privilege of speaking to the likes of Ben Stokes, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and all those guys afterwards you learn so much about the game.

“It was a dream come true to play against the World Cup champions.

“The reality kicks in when you walk onto the pitch on the morning of the game and you see the England squad warming up.

“You see the likes of Ben Stokes warming up and the reality kicks in that I’m going to be playing against them.

“The night before I didn’t know if I would be in the playing XI and then when you walk onto the pitch knowing you are playing – the excitement was overwhelming.”

His hard-hitting batting ability didn’t go unnoticed by the stars of England’s touring side and comments from Jonny Bairstow particularly stood out.

“Afterwards, Jonny Bairstow made a few good comments that I heard again last night that he hasn’t seen a guy hit the ball as clean as me and I’m one of the best talents he had seen in South Africa, so that automatically drives me to work even harder,” he said.

“With those comments he was saying that he didn’t think I was too far from international cricket so for me it’s just about putting my head down and working to achieve those goals.”

Snyman bowling against Waringstown. ©CricketEurope

Playing international cricket is Snyman’s ultimate dream and there has been more than one country inquiring about his services.

While representing the Proteas is the ambition, Ireland and Scotland both showed interest and although it isn’t something Snyman is ruling out in the future, right now his full focus is with his homeland.

“Cricket Ireland and Scotland were after me asking to come over and play for them,” he added.

“It was great for me that other countries seen me and wanted to give me recognition for my performances and try to qualify on that side.

“Always in my heart I’ve had the goal of playing for the Proteas, so I’m keeping my options open at the minute.

“I want to play for the Proteas but if not then in a few years time I can move over and pursue my career on that side because cricket is everything.”

The pause in any cricket action will delay those lofty ambitions for a while but Snyman is trying to have a positive outlook on the break and is eager to push himself in order to achieve his dreams.

“This is tough and a big eye-opener,” he said.

“It’s difficult to train cricket but it’s a great time to work on your fitness and work on some personal fitness goals.

“You can’t just forget about cricket so I’m still reading up on the game. I’ve been reading articles and watching a lot of Instagram videos, especially the Indian ones because they are so technical.

“I’m thinking about how I can change my game here and there and then doing some drills with a tennis ball to keep my eye and not losing it.

“The question is how will you do after it? You can sit back and just relax but others are working harder than you on their fitness, whereas you can be the one working harder and taking over a few players who aren’t working as hard.

“I’m one of those guys and I’m working really hard at the minute.”

Only time will tell if he gets the chance to make it back to Carrickfergus at some point in 2020 but if he does, Snyman is confident that the current crop of players are capable of achieving something special.

“At the minute, we don’t what’s happening,” he added.

“I’m speaking to the club every week. I feel like last season we had a really strong team and a good chance of winning the league.

“The club can achieve a lot of success because we have a well-balanced side.

“It’s difficult because you don’t know what’s happening yet.

“In my mind, I’m thinking that I’m going but there is also that part that says there’s a chance you won’t be.

“If that happens, sooner than later I will move back to my province for this year and get things going there.”

Ruhan Pretorius not leaving any stone unturned in pursuit of international dream

Since arriving in the NCU in 2015, there has been few more consistent performers than Ruhan Pretorius.

Playing with Waringstown for one season before joining North Down in 2017, the 29-year-old overseas professional has scored 3,529 runs in all competitions and also picked up 118 wickets across four campaigns with the two clubs.

The 2019 season was one of his best yet with the bat as he reached 1,006 runs and topped the averages list with an astonishing 67.07, finishing marginally ahead of CSNI’s Andre Malan.

Soon, Pretorius will shed the overseas tag and will qualify as a local player after making the decision to relocate to Northern Ireland on a full-time basis from South Africa.

Living a stone’s throw from The Green, Pretorius has enjoyed getting to gather new experiences and wasn’t even too put off by the weather!

“I have really enjoyed it,” he said.

“I have been doing a lot of coaching and training with the Knights which has helped a lot. I’m keeping myself busy and I’m living with my girlfriend.

“It has been really good in terms of the cricket aspect and it hasn’t been as cold as everyone said it would be!

“It’s been surprisingly good and it was my first time experiencing things like the Christmas markets because we don’t really have that in South Africa.

“It was great to see the festive things that you guys have so it hasn’t been too bad.”

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Pretorius batting against Lisburn. ©CricketEurope

The decision to permanently move across the world wasn’t one that was made quickly or lightly and has been something in Pretorius’ mind for the past couple of years.

Despite putting in impressive performance game after game in his homeland, a big breakthrough opportunity never came his way and he knew within that something had to change in order to satisfy his ambition of playing at the highest level.

“Probably about two years ago, I spoke to Johnty (Simon Johnston) about moving here full-time because I never really got a breakthrough at the higher levels in South Africa,” he added.

“I kept being one of the top performers and always had promises but it just never happened.

“I want to play at the highest level so I spoke to Johnty about it a bit and once I started dating my girlfriend, it just made it a lot easier.

“I would average fifty at home and one of the leading wicket-takers and still nothing happened, so I thought it was time to go and change.

“It is (frustrating).

“I had been putting in hard work for six or seven years. I can understand that the first one or two years in First Class cricket back home did damage to my career because I didn’t really do a lot of good stuff.

“I was young and trying to bowl as quick as I could and trying to hit the ball as far as I can. I didn’t really care about my career in the way I have over the past four years or so.

“From my stint at Waringstown, my whole cricketing mindset and career turned around and I became a batting all-rounder and really tried to fix it.

“My stats in terms of one-day and T20 cricket has really come through and shown. After I got my first hundred in First Class cricket, my batting has really turned around.”

His year with Waringstown was a catalyst for the way Pretorius thought about his own game and what he thought was possible.

He will be well remembered for blasting six sixes in an over during their Irish Senior Cup victory over Clontarf where he finished 101* and ended the season with an average of 64.09.

Pretorius always had a feeling he would turn into more of a batting all-rounder during his career but that campaign seemed to give him extra confidence to fulfil his potential.

“I always knew growing up that I was going to be a batter that could bowl,” he said.

“For the first few years, I batted at six and seven and always came in during situations to finish games and was more of a bowler, opening and at the death because we didn’t really have many bowling options at that time in KwaZulu-Natal.

“My main focus was more bowling than batting and I think I neglected my batting a little a bit.

“After Waringstown where I did pretty well, the coach back home gave me opportunity up the order and in the next game I scored the fastest fifty in the African Cup. From there, it turned around and I started to get opportunity.

“I was the second highest run-scorer in our team and then I came back over here and have done pretty well in every year since.

“In terms of mindset, I want to be a batter who can bowl. I want to be a guy who scores a lot of runs but is also able to take wickets at crucial times.”

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Pretorius bowling. ©CricketEurope

With the news that Pretorius is set to qualify as a local player at the end of next year, a number of clubs reached out to him with an offer to acquire his services.

He says a move back to Waringstown was something that was on the table but he is set to stay firmly put with ‘second family’ North Down.

“The guys here are like my second family,” he added.

“As soon as I mentioned it to the club, there wasn’t just North Down that wanted to jump onboard. There were three or four clubs that made an offer.

“I had a meeting with Greg and Waitey as well and they were very eager to get me back at Waringstown to stay here full-time and work in the schools and do basically what I’m doing at North Down.

“I definitely do (feel a sense of loyalty). They’ve been very good to me in terms of the way they have treated me and how they have looked after me in the four years I’ve been there.

“It’s an amazing club. We might not have put the performances in which are needed to win trophies, but I don’t think we are that far off. The players train hard enough and there is no lack of effort or ability.”

2019 also marked the first time in nine years that Pretorius hasn’t returned to South Africa to play domestic cricket.

With the coronavirus pandemic, he hasn’t been able to fly back to visit family members and the whole situation left Pretorius wondering if he had made the right decision.

“There was a period about two months ago when they had announced lockdown that I really struggled mentally and emotionally – I really went through a bad dip,” he said.

“There was a stage where I was thinking if I had the made right decision and done the right thing.

“I was really struggling and I couldn’t fly back home if my parents get sick or anyone passes away. There was a point where I thought this was a wrong decision and I needed to go back home.

“Luckily, my girlfriend works in mental health in the NHS and she helped me massively through this and my parents have played a big role.

“I live next door to Neil Dalzell, who plays a massive role in the club youth cricket, and he has been a massive help as well in terms of that. There was a two-week period where I really struggled.”

Through the struggle, Pretorius had to remind himself why he is making these sacrifices and knows that achieving his dream of playing international cricket is going to come with some hardship.

“I’ve made the sacrifices and knew from the beginning it wasn’t going to be easy,” he added.

“It’s a whole different culture and English is my second language but these are the sacrifices I have to make.

“Giving up family back home, the Afrikaans culture, the sunshine – all of those things you’ve to give up.

“Fingers crossed if I get to play higher up, put in performances and win matches it will all be worth it.”

Pretorius batting in the Challenge Cup. ©CricketEurope

Pretorius isn’t about to leave anything up to chance while striving towards that dream and is doing everything within his power to make sure he is in the best position to strike.

Success is often achieved when hard work meets opportunity and Pretorius is certainly putting in a lot of the former so he can capitalise if and when the latter comes around.

“Mentally, it is good to take a break, especially after nine years,” he said.

“My body has now got a proper rest and I’m now on a strict diet along with strength and conditioning and running,

“I definitely think there are a lot of things I’m going to be better at in terms of my body. I will be the fittest I’ve ever been and it will definitely benefit me when cricket starts again.”

On the subject of opportunity, Pretorius made the most of the games he got with the Northern Knights last season, scoring 96 in his first List A game against the North West Warriors and also scored a half-century during Ireland’s inter-squad games ahead of the Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers at the backend of 2019.

Pretorius is confident that working within the Knights set-up and alongside head coach Simon Johnston will help bring the absolute best out of him.

“I was down at Knights training about three or four times a week and with North Down we started training twice a week,” he said of his schedule before lockdown.

“I was probably training six times a week and then sometimes there was a Sunday group session with the Knights so there were some weeks it was seven days a week depending on the bowling workload.

“I know people praise Johnty a lot, but he needs to get all of the credit because he’s a brilliant coach.

“He worked with me at Waringstown and he definitely brought the best out of me. He knows people individually and spends time not just as a coach or sportsperson but as a human.

“He tries to be there for you in all facets of life, not just as your coach. He tries to invest time as a friend and works out what makes you happy or angry and he stays that person throughout.

“When it comes to work, it is time to work and then after we can settle down and have a chat. You can trust him and I like that he’s honest and straightforward with you.

“They are a great bunch of guys and it’s a great set-up.

“Every first cap that you get for any team is an honour. Even though I had played 50+ First Class games, it was a real honour getting my first Knights cap.

“I was happy with how I bowled and then the first List A game against the Warriors went really well. I opened the batting because James (McCollum) couldn’t play and got 96 and we won the game which helped a lot.”

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Northern Knights. ©CricketEurope

When Pretorius does get back onto the pitch, every performance will be important as he looks to put himself into position for an international call-up when the time comes around.

If he continues in a similar vein of form for North Down and picks up from where he left last season off with the Knights, you could see a very clear path for him to achieve higher honours.

“Every sportsperson will be as determined as anything to get back.

“I also think there is a fine line with being over-determined because it can break you as well being too eager.

“Being ready in all aspects will give me the best success because I know my game. I’ve been playing for a lot of years so I won’t be overdoing it but will be more than ready for cricket season.

“I qualify at the end of next year. I have to first put in all of the performances in order to get there.

“I have had a good start in making a fifty on one-day debut and bowling pretty well in the First Class game.

“Fingers crossed there will be a cricket season and if we do get games for the Knights I want to put in the best performances I can.

“At club level, I want to keep putting performances in and knocking the door down.

“Hopefully next year everything is back to normal and once cricket starts I can put in performance after performance.

“I want to be first in line because of my performances at club and Inter-Provincial level.”

CJ van der Walt more than making up for lost time

It is often said that patience is a virtue and it was certainly something that CJ van der Walt had to have a lot of upon his arrival in Northern Ireland.

Moving from South Africa in 2018 to live with his wife, their house overlooks Carrickfergus’ Middle Road ground but he would have to wait another year to get onto the pitch.

He more than made up for that lost time in his debut NCU season as he helped Carrick reach their first ever Irish Senior Cup quarter-final and picked up All-Rounder of the Year after scoring 653 runs and collecting 30 wickets in all competitions.

The 23-year-old enjoyed previous UK stints in Manchester and Glasgow but would come to visit his wife with regularity and there was only one place he wanted to be playing his cricket.

“When I played my last season in Manchester, I used to come over and visit her for a week or two at a time,” he said.

“We stay right at the top of Middle Road – I’m looking down at the club right now while speaking.

“I used to come and visit her and over the weekend they would be playing and I thought it was class. I imagined staying up here and playing for a club like that. I used to go down there and that’s how I started to get in contact with the guys.

“Robbie (Humphreys. WSX Cricket) is my agent so he told me to go down and have a chat with them and when I went down I saw the pictures of AB de Villiers and thought it must have been a good club.

“I didn’t know much about it but I came over the year after and couldn’t play any cricket because they already had Pat Botha, so they couldn’t have me as an overseas.

“I took that year getting to know the people and that’s when I started to train here. Eagy (Ryan Eagleson) got me to some training sessions with the Knights and I trained with the club.

“I went to some games with them and that’s how I spent my time and how they started to get to know me. For a full season I was around without being able to play and they wanted to make it work.”

cjvdw against instonians
Van der Walt playing against Instonians. ©CricketEurope

Van der Walt announced himself in the Premier League with a five-wicket haul in his very first game against Instonians and also finished on 40*.

He went on to record five half-centuries in total and averaged 44.78 in the league but he isn’t about to rest on his laurels and is striving to make even more improvements.

“This year coming in to play for them for the first time was unreal,” he added.

“It was one of the best seasons I’ve had in the UK since coming over. We played against some really great teams and were able to test ourselves.

“I had a pretty good season and everything kind of flowed. That first game kicked everything off for my season.

“It was a lot different from all other seasons I’ve played but I feel I played my part.

“I know there is a lot of room for improvement and I want to get there, but I really enjoyed my first season in the NCU.

“In that first season you set up your own goals on what you want to achieve and what you want to get out of it.

“This was a really good season and I got some of it out of it but there’s still room for improvement. We played against some really class players and it was always a battle.

“You wake up in the mornings and know any game you play isn’t going to be a walk in the park.”

As well as adapting to playing for a new cricket club, van der Walt has also had to deal with the transition of moving to another country on a permanent basis.

Having those from the club around has undoubtedly helped make that big switch easier and he feels right at home.

“Coming from South Africa to here, it has definitely been hard getting used to the weather!” he said.

“I found my feet quite quickly and got a job through Iain Parkhill so I work for him. That set me up so that I don’t have to think what I’m doing with myself during the winter when there is no cricket on.

“It definitely does (make it easier). If you make good friends you can nip down to the club to have a beer or watch some football.

“There is always someone around and that makes you feel like you fit in. It wasn’t like I just play cricket for them and then go home. It definitely made it better.”

One of the good friends he made in the past year or so was Carrick’s overseas professional Jacques Snyman, who just like van der Walt, is from South Africa.

Snyman set the NCU alight in what was also his first season in Northern Ireland, scoring 1085 runs – a tally that could only be bettered by Andre Malan – at an average of 54.25 and blistering strike-rate of 123.86.

Jacques Snyman. ©CricketEurope

He also registered the highest individual score of 2019 with his 190* against Instonians before heading back to his homeland where he hit a half-century against England for a Cricket South Africa Invitational XI.

Having Snyman there helped bring the best out of van der Walt and he says having someone to bounce ideas off is priceless.

“I made contact with him before he came over so we had a big chat,” he said.

“With him coming over, more than 50% of my time on training evenings was spent with Jacques hitting balls in our own time and I was getting to learn from his experience. He played a massive role.

“He has a really good thinking mind and a fantastic cricket brain so I tried to absorb as much as I possibly could.

“We used to go to the gym and socialise together as well, so it was class to have someone like that around.

“When you bat with him, he has a good cricket mind to tell you how to deal with the situation and that definitely helped.

“Someone like that definitely makes your day of cricket much easier. Everything that he says make sense.

“From now on, I know that him and I will be friends forever and I have someone to help me. Even though he is in South Africa right now, we still talk about cricket a lot.”

Van der Walt spent most of last summer and this off-season training with the Northern Knights, working with head coach Simon Johnston to help further hone his skills and get his game to where he wants it to be.

It is no easy task breaking into a Knights side that is packed full of international and quality, but van der Walt was feeling positive heading into the 2020 campaign and that he was ready to level up.

“I trained with the Knights for nearly the whole summer last season on and off and then for the whole off-season this year,” he said.

“The guys worked so hard and I’ve never felt so good leading into a season. The experience and quality of training they can provide to our players in the off-season is unreal.

“You learn so much more playing with people who have had that experience.

“Facing the pace and spin bowlers, they are looking to improve themselves so if you’re batting in the nets you need to really work to get through it.

“If you do, then you know you’re able to get through a guys best because he is really working to improve.

“It isn’t like you’re going to a session just to hit a few balls – there is always something to think about coming out of it.”

When cricket does get back underway, van der Walt will be striving towards making a First Class debut and seeing where that can take him.

He has lofty ambitions and goals he wants to become reality and is certainly ready to put the work in to achieve it.

“I will qualify next year as a citizen so I’m focusing on that and seeing where that could take me,” he added.

“That would make the paths forward easier for me and being able to work my way towards squads and things like that.

“I just want to see where this can take me and I want to keep going higher and higher. For now, I’m striving to get that First Class debut and then see where it can take me.”

Chris Dougherty on his best ever season with CIYMS

At the core of everything that CIYMS have achieved over the past few years has been wicketkeeper-batsman Chris Dougherty.

The glue that holds the batting order together, Dougherty produced something a bit extra special in 2019, hitting 919 runs at the top of the order as the Belmont club went on to record their best ever season by collecting four trophies.

That tally put him top of the run charts outside of overseas professionals and resulted in him being crowned Premier League Player of the Year at the NCU Annual Dinner last year.

“It was a great season for me – it’s always great to be scoring runs,” he said.

“To have four trophies at the end of it was fantastic. We had a great season and we went into every game believing that we could win.

“With the strength in depth we had, I can’t remember playing in a better club team. I just enjoyed playing with so many good players and having that confidence to believe you’re going to win every game.

“Club wise, there aren’t many teams you play in and you look around that there is so much depth in both batting and bowling departments and we were great in the field as well. We had every area covered.”

His runs return in 2019 was over one hundred better than his previous best since arriving at CIYMS from the North West in 2012 and ironically came at a time when he couldn’t commit himself as much to training as in previous campaigns.

Dougherty strikes a boundary. ©CricketEurope

The arrival of his first child in July meant much of Dougherty’s focus lay away from the pitch but it was that which helped to bring out the best of him on it.

“We had our first child in July so I didn’t have the same sort of time to commit to training,” he added.

“Before, I was involved with the Knights and Irish stuff and was training a lot but last year cricket wasn’t the number one priority.

“Lewis being born took my mind off cricket a bit but that might have helped me as well. Cricket wasn’t the be all and end all and I had something else to think about.

“I probably felt a bit more relaxed going into my cricket to be honest and it was something to enjoy a bit more.”

CIYMS had been building towards a special season like the one they produced in 2019 as they retained their Premier League title and added another Challenge Cup, a Twenty20 Cup and first ever All-Ireland Twenty20 Cup crown to their ever-growing trophy cabinet.

A harder challenge than winning all those accolades in one season is the task of having to sustain that level of performance as every team tries to improve and knock them off their perch.

It is their strength in depth that makes them favourites for most competitions they enter with international experience and quality littered throughout their squad, but Dougherty also credits a simple-thinking process for their success.

“We won four competitions but it was always one game at a time and that’s the way we looked at it,” he said.

“Whether it was a league or cup game, we took it game by game and at the end of it we had the success.

“We knew if we broke it down and were able to take it one match at a time that we wouldn’t be far away at the end of the season.

“We made a few good signings and strengthened up in the areas we felt we needed to. Once we had done that, we knew we had everything covered.

“We had won one or two trophies leading up to last season but with the likes of Sparky (Mark Adair) joining us and having a top professional like Obus (Pienaar), we had everything there we needed to win trophies.

CIYMS won the Challenge Cup in 2019. ©CricketEurope

“We just had to work together as a team and we knew we would get the rewards at the end of it.

“It wasn’t as if three or four players won us the competitions – it was one to eleven at some point during the season winning us a game.

“That’s great from a team perspective that we weren’t relying on the professional or a few players. It was great to see everybody contributing.”

The Irish Senior Cup now remains the only trophy missing from this current group’s CV and they came close to making their first final last season, losing out in the final over of what will be remembered as an all-time classic semi-final to rivals Waringstown.

That desire to pick up the biggest prize in Irish club cricket is no secret and although they may have to wait another 12 months to even get a crack at it with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Dougherty admits that remains a massive goal.

“With this year possibly being a write off or going to a Twenty20 competition, we will get back next season and go again,” he added.

“The players will be a year or two older and it’s how they come out of it. Hopefully their fitness is still there and some guys might be feeling a bit rusty!

“We will have the experience and same group of players that we have had, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t be up there competing again.

“The Irish Cup is something we have set our sights on. The players have won most competitions, but the Irish Cup is the big one that everyone wants to win, including myself. I would love to add that one.”

A key component to any continued success could be the opening partnership of Dougherty and John Matchett.

It absolutely thrived in 2019 with numerous big stands (including two one hundred partnerships in the same day at the All-Ireland Twenty20 Finals Day) and seemed to reach another level entirely.

The pair have been walking out to bat with each other for quite some time now and a deep understanding of each other’s roles has allowed the duo to flourish.

“Matchy and I have been playing with each other for quite a long time now,” said Dougherty.

John Matchett. ©CricketEurope

“He was at the club when I first moved in 2012 so we have a good relationship and know our games really well. He is more of the aggressor and I try to bat throughout the innings.

“Nine times out of 10, if I’m there at the end we are going to win the game with the players that we have. Matchy is great to bat with and takes the pressure off me.

“He plays his natural way and I do my thing. It’s a great partnership.”

Matchett’s own game improved dramatically in 2019 and a red-hot end to the season meant he surged to 838 runs – the eighth highest total of any NCU batsman and over 300 more than what he posted in the previous campaign.

He appears to be the natural successor as captain when Nigel Jones decides to walk away and his form, especially in the shortest format, will have put him in a good position to further push for more Inter-Provincial honours.

“Matchy has all the talent there and it’s up to him really,” added Dougherty.

“If he puts in the time and effort, I think he could go all the way with the Knights and push his cricket on a bit more.

“He definitely has the talent and it would be great to see him play at a higher level more consistently.”

Dougherty will be entering his ninth season with CIYMS when cricket eventually gets back underway.

The 32-year-old has no plans of going anywhere soon and is determined to keep enjoying the good times while they last.

“It was a good move for me at the time and CIYMS have been very good to me and I’ve enjoyed every season,” he said.

“We have had a few difficult seasons in the middle but the team we have now is great. We have that confidence so I can see myself playing there for the foreseeable future.

“I just keep telling myself that you’ve to make the most of it when you’re winning because it doesn’t last forever. You have to appreciate the success you have.

“It really does make you appreciate winning because you know it can’t last forever.”

Mark Adair reflects on his first year in international cricket

It has been quite the 12 months for Mark Adair.

Sunday marked exactly one year since he made his Ireland debut in an ODI against England at Malahide – the day he became a well-known name and one that will carry the Men in Green forward for the next decade.

There had always been hope within the Irish cricketing community that Adair would turn out to be a special talent with his ability recognised by English County side Warwickshire, but what he produced over the past year would have surpassed even their lofty hopes and ambitions.

Adair never looked back from that debut in Dublin against a team that would go on to win the World Cup a matter of months later, topping Ireland’s wicket-taking charts with 48 – the fourth highest yearly tally of all-time.

It has been a year of firsts for Adair. First ODI cap. First Test match. First Twenty20 game. First Ireland victory. First World Cup qualifying campaign – to name a few.

Through all of that, Adair has been picking up vital lessons and learning, but he also had an ability to take every game in his stride.

“It’s been a year of a lot of learning,” he said.

“The best thing about it was that I came in and wasn’t really scared of anything. I was looking forward to every game I played and there was no pressure or expectation.

“Now, after having a good year, it can sort of lead you that way but you still have to take every game as it comes.”

Adair getting his cap
Adair receiving his cap from Niall O’Brien. ©CricketEurope

There was no doubt that Adair would have been on the Irish selectors radar for a debut at some point soon, but that date in May against England would have came earlier than both they and Adair expected.

Adair travelled to Dublin as a net bowler ahead of the game but when injury struck, he was drafted in to the playing XI and announced himself to the world by dispatching Tom Curran for a couple of big sixes on his way to 32 before being Jofra Archer’s first ever international scalp.

That turned out to be just the beginning of something special for Adair and in a way that might have been the ideal scenario to make his debut in with so little time to prepare and feel those inevitable nerves.

It will be a story that he will surely reflect on time and time again over the coming years and the madness of the situation also helped bring an extra special feeling to the occasion.

“I went down as a net bowler and then two days later getting told you’re playing against England is pretty special,” he added.

“At the same time, it was nice. My girlfriend submitted her dissertation in the car at an Applegreen on the way down the road just so she could be there. I don’t think she knew anything about cricket at the time.

“So it’s that sort of thing looking back on it now it’s all a bit mental and it’s great that it happened.”

Adair batting on debut against England. ©CricketEurope

Even though Adair has only been in the team for a year, he has already had his fair share of big stages and experiences with a Test match at Lords and qualifying for the 2020 Twenty20 World Cup among them.

There was also a tour of the Caribbean at the turn of the year to take on Twenty20 champions West Indies, and while parts of that trip didn’t go to plan before suffering an ankle injury, Adair is still able to recognise how many special memories have been attained so far.

“The Caribbean trip was one of the best opportunities.

“Having six games against one of the best teams in the world was something I really looked forward to and really enjoyed it. I know it didn’t go to plan with the injury thing.

“That didn’t go to plan, but the eight months prior to that was class. Playing against Afghanistan at home was special, getting a first ever win as an Ireland player.

“It was really nice to see a lot of the guys that I’ve played or trained with over recent years really kick on and contribute towards wins for Ireland.”

It is often said that you learn more from your failings than you do when you succeed and it’s certainly true that if you stick around the top level of professional sport for long enough you’re going to fail at some point.

Up until the Caribbean trip, Adair hadn’t really tasted failure at all. Yes, Ireland had lost matches while he was in the team but in terms of performance, he was one of the top players in basically every game.

In the second ODI game, he brought the ball to the stumps in an action that would have secured victory for Ireland in the final over but after a lengthy third umpire review it was decided that Adair had broken the bails with his hand before the ball and the West Indies went on to win with one ball to spare.

The way Adair responds to that situation tells you a lot about him and gives you great hope that Ireland’s senior team is in great hands going forward with people like him in the side.

“Something which is important for me is dealing with failures.

“I didn’t fail an awful lot last year and then the Caribbean came along which was a bit of a nightmare. You never want to fail but you definitely need to experience it.

“Not training for failure but putting yourself into positions to fail will 100% make you improve and more level-headed.

“It’s a weird sort of mindset and it affects me because I would get down on myself and be my own biggest critic.

“You want to go in and hit every ball for six but when you hit one to long-on or aren’t timing it as well or miss a yorker and get hit out of the ground – you’re playing some of the best players in the world and if you can do it to them then they can do it to you as well.

“If we had a game the day after the last over run-out thing in the Caribbean and they asked who wanted to bowl the last over, I would put my hand up.

“I 100% want to be that guy who puts themselves in that position. It’s a bit hero to zero but I don’t care about messing up because every time you mess up, when you do succeed it’s going to be that much sweeter.

“I’ll never opt out or hide when Balbo offers me the ball. I’ll always say I have a plan and go for it. I never want to be the guy who hides from those positions.”

Adair bowling against Afghanistan. ©CricketEurope

Adair had a big career decision to make when leaving secondary school with paths in both rugby and cricket available to him.

He captained Sullivan Upper in the 2014 Schools Cup final where they lost out 27-12 to Methody at Ravenhill in a game Adair claims “I was Methody’s best player.”

That final loss didn’t stop Ulster offering the promising out-half an Academy contract, but with a move to Warwickshire already lined up, he opted to pursue a career bowling a round ball rather than passing an oval one.

On the opposing team in that Schools Cup final was a substitute scrum-half by the name of James McCollum (you might have heard of him).

Adair and McCollum have switched being on opposite sides to becoming two of the most exciting talents as team-mates in Ireland’s cricket team as they help to lead the next generation alongside the likes of Harry Tector and Gareth Delany.

“I played with James since we were about 10.

“Our parents would be quite friendly and it was nice to play alongside him. It’s weird when you’re watching someone play and you’re really looking them to do well.

“Obviously you want everyone to succeed, but there are guys you really root for and want them to do well every time they walk out there. I know how hard he works and want him to succeed.

“It’s the same with Wils (Gary Wilson). Watching him train and how meticulous he is going about things – he has set a standard about how to train.

“He gets a bit of grief over his performances but he has been influential about a lot of things. If you’re judging someone on performance and what he can bring to a team, then there’s no shadow of a doubt that he’s in there.”

That desire to see your peers doing well is so clear within the Northern Knights set-up and the notion of team spirit and playing for one another is seemingly something that coach Simon Johnston has really pushed.

Johnston gets glowing reviews from any of his players that you speak to about his impact in the local game and Adair is no different, saying it’s no coincidence that five players made their senior international debut last year under his guidance.

“He knows his player very well.

“For example, he knows I’m a bit grumpy when it comes to training or Gary needs to have his own time and James doesn’t want sling he needs balls thrown to him and video. He knows everyone’s needs and does his best to make sure it all happens.

“If you look at the Irish team there’s myself, Gets, Gary, Prince, James Cameron-Dow and then some of the North West boys coming down as well – he has to facilitate it all.

“People forget how much work he does and fair play to him for doing it. I’m less sympathetic because he loves it!

“All the Knights really appreciate him and end up buying in. We trained on grass wickets last year and you would have had Johnty or Gary going the night before to pull covers on or getting there early to take them off and roll the wicket.

“There’s a lot that goes on and I don’t think people realise how much effort people put in.

“In my opinion, there’s no coincidence that Gary has come back and him and Johnty have put training methods together and within a year there’s five lads making their Ireland debuts while playing for the Knights. It’s no surprise to me that it comes down from the likes of Johnty and Gary.”

50 over
Northern Knights. ©CricketEurope

Adair is no stranger to injuries having suffered broken fingers to a fractured pelvis and back breaks.

Although only 24, he has had to deal with a lot when it comes to his body and professional cricketers continue to put in such a huge workload throughout the year whether that’s with club or country.

In 2019, Adair played 27 matches for Ireland while bowling 171.1 overs (only Boyd Rankin and Tim Murtagh bowled more) while also playing for the Knights and helping new club CIYMS win a record four trophies in a season, including his man-of-the-match performance in the Challenge Cup final.

It can be a lot, especially on a fast bowler, and Adair has had to manage his own schedule in order to preserve his best for the international stage.

“At the end of the day you love playing cricket.

“There are guys in place who do a great job in managing bowlers. You see boys get a bit of stick on the club scene because they aren’t bowling enough, but you’ve bowled those overs in May and are still bowling in November when everyone else has hung their boots up for the year.

“We aren’t looking to bowl 10 overs every week in club cricket, we are looking to last the full year in international cricket.

“Club cricket is really important to me and I enjoy it. It’s the sort of place where it doesn’t matter if you scored 100 or nick off first ball, you still get to go into the clubhouse with your mates.

“Club cricket in England was really beneficial for me because I was injured a lot and didn’t play a lot of County cricket.

“I was basing myself in club cricket and those are the guys who when you’re doing well text you and come to watch you.”

Although the coronavirus pandemic has stopped the sports world in its tracks for the foreseeable future, Adair would have been using this time to rehab from ankle surgery needed after the Caribbean trip.

When he does get back onto the field, Adair will be looking to pick up from where he left off with just a bit of added appreciation for the career that he is able to lead.

“I’m just trying to get back into the best physical condition possible.

“The cricket prep will take care of itself when we are back as a squad. We can’t hit balls right now so there’s no point working on my sweep shot.

“What I can do is stay physically fit and everything comes easier when you’re fit. That’s something that I’ve struggled with for a while – maintaining fitness and my weight. I’m very up and down and it’s something I would like to get better at.

“I think I went about things the right way last year with my practice and I got a bit of extra hunger there before Christmas and really worked hard with Johnty and Fordy on my batting.

“I just want to dive back in again and be appreciative of being able to do these things again.

“Those 1.5 or two hour drives to North County to go hit balls will be exciting because it gives you a bit of perspective. You might be a bit tired but you’ll appreciate it more.”