Woodvale have confirmed that former Carrickfergus star Pat Botha will be their overseas professional for the 2020 season.
Botha, who scored 1496 runs in three seasons at Carrick at an average of 41.56, will have a huge role to play as the Ballygomartin Road men step up to the Robinson Services Premier League for the first time since 2009.
They dominated Section One in 2019, winning 14 of their 18 matches to finish 16 points clear of second-placed Templepatrick.
Botha could be viewed as the perfect man for the job at Woodvale having already had experience of the league and the South African all-rounder will know exactly what is required at the higher level.
The 29-year-old is a left-handed batsman and also bowls right-arm spin, with his First Class record showing what a consistent and proven performer he is.
In 101 matches, Botha has scored 5471 runs at an average of 42.08 and scored 106* for Free State on October 10.
Botha, who was hampered by a thumb injury during his last season with Carrick, was due to spend the 2019 campaign in Leinster with Balbriggan but ultimately that move didn’t come to fruition due to another injury.
Woodvale already have Premier League experience in their squad with the likes of Stephen Bunting and Wayne Horwood.
It feels like the 2019 season is one that Instonians will be more than happy to see the back of.
There were contrasting fortunes across different tournaments, with the Shaw’s Bridge side thriving in white ball competitions only to struggle massively in the Robinson Services Premier League before really standing up when it mattered to secure survival.
Reaching the Gallagher Challenge Cup final will be the highlight and they had CIYMS in some early trouble at 12-3 and were ticking along nicely at one point in their run chase, but they would eventually go down to the same opposition that knocked them out of the Twenty20 Cup at the semi-final stage.
Horrid luck and a bowl-out meant they were eliminated by Waringstown in the Irish Senior Cup quarter-final, and captain Andrew White admits the 2019 campaign was ‘full of disappointments’.
“It was difficult.,” he reflected.
“We’ve had two difficult years. Last year, we suffered with injuries to key players and then this year we never really got going or into any sort of rhythm.
“We lost league games at the start which put us on the back foot. We lost to Waringstown in a bowl-out in the Irish Cup, we have been trying for years to get to Finals Day of the T20 and we lost in the semi-final, lost in the final of the Challenge Cup and then fought relegation for most of the season.
“It was full of disappointments. The squad stuck together very well through those disappointments and ultimately we were strong enough to stay up and had the personnel performing at the right times to enable us to stay up.
“It was certainly not something I would be keen to repeat.”
Coming into September, Instonians were shockingly sitting bottom of the league table having won two of their eight league matches at that stage, with White and his men knowing they would need some big results despite the cushion of having fixtures in hand over Lisburn and Muckamore.
They saved their best red ball form for the final matches, beating CIYMS at Belmont to all but secure their top-flight status before triumphing over Muckamore the following morning – a result which would ultimately put the hosts down after a washout at Carrickfergus.
Instonians have long been a club you associate with the top of the table rather than fighting at the bottom of it, but did it ever feel like a true relegation battle considering they ended the season sitting in fifth?
“I mentioned the ‘R’ word back in July time in our changing room and I’m not sure the players actually believed me,” adds White.
“Once we came into August, there was a real recognition that we were going to have to win key games to stay up.
“We’ve heard in sport people say ‘they’re too good to go down’ and people were telling me that we were too good to go down and it wouldn’t happen, but I wasn’t believing that for a minute because I knew we had struggled to get across the line in many games.
“The longer you’re at the bottom, the longer you start to worry about it. It wasn’t an ability thing – it became more of a mental thing.
“I was talking to James Kennedy there, who was at the bottom end of the table with Ballymena for many years and they became very good at overcoming the relegation battle because they were hardened to it.
“For us, it was a new experience for a lot of our players and for me as captain, and knowing what way to turn was quite difficult. We were happy to come through in the end.”
The absolute low point of Instonians season came in early-July at Wallace Park when they were bowled out for 61 by Lisburn with David Simpson ripping through their middle order to claim figures of 5-18 – all of which came in the space of 18 balls where the visiting side failed to score a run.
There are major differences when it comes to playing in white and red ball cricket, and White feels Simpson exposed technical weaknesses that afternoon.
“I think we struggled technically against the red ball,” he said.
“Davy Simpson bowled extremely well at Lisburn one day and exposed our technical deficiencies, and I think that put the frighteners up a couple of the boys because they realised when the ball was moving around that they weren’t as tight as they needed to be.
“In white ball, the guys were a lot more confident, comfortable playing their shots and a lot of the guys are playing white ball now with their provincial and representative cricket.
“They maybe don’t see as much of the red ball, especially the younger guys, as they once did. We came up against some really good sides as well that were in-form.”
Murray Commins really showcased his brilliance towards the end of the season, finishing his first full campaign in the NCU with 844 runs and an average of 44.42.
Three of his last four innings resulted in at least half-centuries with his last knock being a 64-ball 110* against Waringstown.
“Murray is an outstanding young cricketer – I think that’s evident to anyone that has watched him play this year how technically gifted he is,” said White.
“He has a flair about him which makes him very easy on the eye to watch play. He struggled injury wise – he has hip injuries which he is hoping to get sorted during the winter.
“He at times showed his class and probably didn’t score as heavily at the start as he would have wished. When you’re young and coming from overseas, it can maybe take a season or two before you really find your feet.
“We would be hopeful that fitness permitting, he will kick on again next year.”
17-year-old opening batsman Ollie Metcalfe took another step forward in 2019, going past the 500-run mark and recorded a century in the Irish Senior Cup against Cork County.
He is certainly one of the most exciting young players in Ireland, and White was pleased to see yet another season of progress.
“At the start of the year, we sat down with him and his dad and we talked about where the best place for him was to bat,” he added.
“He had a year opening the batting, struggled a bit but myself and Gavin felt the best place for him to bat was at the top. He took that challenge on again this year and we are glad we stuck with that.
“He was rewarded with some excellent performances, hitting a hundred in the Irish Cup at 17 and he played really nicely in the Challenge Cup final. To score 550 runs on top of what he did last year was really encouraging.
“He’s hungry, wants to do well and he has a unique talent. He has the ability to play aggressive cricket but he is going to have to work really hard to continue his improvement.
“When he comes up against that higher quality of bowler, they are quite clever and can work out a batter quite quickly. He is going to have to try to play to his strengths and work on his weaknesses to make sure he progresses.
“In the overall scheme of things, it should give a lot of people confidence to give young guys more of a role.”
Perhaps the star of Instonians season was fast bowler Josh Manley, who took 22 wickets in just eight matches and had the best strike-rate (15.86) of any player in the NCU.
He was rewarded with a call-up to an Irish Academy side for a fixture against Gloucestershire 2nd XI towards the end of last season and White was full of praise for their new addition.
“He had agreed to come around this time last year,” he said.
“He was always going to be late into the country, but when you talk about someone bringing a breath of fresh air to a squad, he was magnificent. He has great energy, great enthusiasm and really bowled superbly throughout.
“You just need to look at his stats, and in particular his strike-rate – he took a lot of wickets for us. You could argue that without him we would have really struggled.”
2019 marked White’s second year in charge of Instonians and with his ever growing demands as Chair of Selectors at Cricket Ireland alongside work and family commitments, does he fancy continuing for a third season?
“My two years have been really challenging in different ways,” he added.
“The captaincy side of things was fine it’s just more the energy is draining. At the age of 39 I didn’t need those energy levels to be drained!
“I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of boys to captain in terms of the effort they gave. They supported me the whole way so that was magnificent. That made avoiding relegation quite an achievement for us because it could have quite easily gone the other way.”
“I have to sit down and make sure it’s the right thing in terms of the Cricket Ireland commitments and I have a young family as well, so it’s making sure I’m not spreading myself too thin.
“Club captaincy takes a lot of time and the players no doubt need someone that can deliver when you need to deliver from a captaincy point of view and on the pitch too.”
After starring in the Robinson Services Premier League last season, the majority of overseas professionals have returned home and are right into another busy campaign.
It’s always interesting to see how they get on in their respective countries and leagues, so with the help of ESPNCricinfo we look at the performances of the Class of 2019.
Pienaar won’t be returning to CIYMS, who he helped win four trophies in 2019, after it was announced he will be plying his trade in the Lancashire League with Lowerhouse CC next season.
The South African scored 858 runs for the Belmont side last season at an average of 53.62 and also took 38 wickets, which put together a very solid season that perhaps went under the radar.
Back in his homeland, he has played six matches so far for Northern Cape, with four of those being Twenty20’s, one First Class fixture and the other List A.
The highlight so far was an innings of 107* in a losing effort against Eastern Province at Port Elizabeth, and he followed it up three days later with 41 against the same opponents.
Three of his innings have ended in single figures while he has only bowled in two matches, picking up figures of 0/17 and 0/19.
Snyman took the NCU by storm in 2019, smashing his way past the 1000 run mark and ended the season with 1085 runs, which he scored at an average of 54.25.
The 25-year-old will be returning to Carrickfergus again next season after scoring five centuries for the Middle Road outfit, and he has wasted no time in showing that sort of blistering form again for Northern Cape – the same team as Pienaar.
He scored 117 on September 14 from just 58 deliveries with eight four and nine sixes – the sort of form we are used to seeing him in here in the NCU.
Another half-century came on Sunday as he scored 59 in a List A fixture against Eastern Province as his side successfully chased down 221 with six wickets in hand.
He tends to bowl more back home than team-mate Pienaar, with Snyman picking up five wickets in the five matches he has bowled in.
Malan has been consistently brilliant in the NCU over the past two seasons for CSNI and he topped the run charts in 2019, hitting 1238 runs at an astonishing average of 65.16.
While it is still unknown if the South African will return for a third campaign in Belfast, he continues to perform at a high-level back home for Western Province.
In the four T20 matches scored on Cricinfo, Malan registered three half-centuries (53*, 52, 82*) in games against Border, North West and Limpopo, which were all played at Potchefstroom.
Malan is one of the best bowlers in the NCU – as shown by his 41 wickets in 23 matches last season – but he didn’t bowl at all in those four matches in September.
It seems to be a regular occurrence for Malan not to bowl, but his First Class batting statistics are top notch as he averages 42.53 and has scored 2467 runs in 69 innings.
Azam enjoyed his first NCU campaign with the ball but it was clear his ability with the bat was well below what was required at Waringstown.
He still played some important innings, like the one that got the Villagers over the line in the Irish Senior Cup semi-final against CIYMS, but undoubtedly Waringstown will be looking elsewhere for someone more in the mould of Shaheen Khan, who had to depart The Lawn in 2018.
Back in Pakistan, the 33-year-old has played two matches for Bloch 2nd XI, starting with 13 and bowling figures of 1/25 against Centr 2nd XI in Lahore.
His second match went much better with the bat, following up a first innings score of 8 with a knock of 45 while also taking three wickets in the match.
You’d think it’s extremely unlikely he will be back in the NCU when the 2020 season rolls around despite picking up 37 wickets in 20 matches – a tally which put him 5th in the standings.
Indian international Fazal is another that was very impressive in his first NCU campaign and will be back in 2020 with Lisburn already confirming his return.
The 34-year-old has been extremely busy back home playing for an India Green side as early as August before moving on play for Vidarbha in seven List A matches.
He started the season where he left off in Northern Ireland, hitting 72 against Punjab on October 5 and followed it up with further scores of 30 and 38* in the following days.
Another half-century (92) came on October 11 against Delhi in Vadodara before two consecutive ducks on the 12th and 14th.
Tuesday brought a return to form for Fazal after that blip, notching 58* against Baroda.
Iqbal struggled throughout a large majority of the 2019 season with Muckamore, scoring 523 runs and taking just 14 wickets in 19 matches.
He has been playing for the same Bloch 2nd XI side that Azam has been turning out for, with Iqbal playing six times for the outfit in various formats.
Iqbal has scored 203 runs in nine innings so far this season with a high score of 80 coming in the second innings against Kyhber on October 8.
It has been a leaner time with the ball, picking up three wickets in the six occasions he has been introduced into the attack, but with figures such as 1/6 and 1/11, it suggests he hasn’t been given many overs.
The last game he played was on October 14, where he scored two in a T20 fixture against Sindh.
8. That’s the number of Northern Knights cricketers that have turned out for Ireland throughout 2019.
It would have been increased by one only for Jacob Mulder’s unfortunate back injury that ruled him out of Ireland’s upcoming World Cup Twenty20 qualifying campaign, while the likes of Marc Ellison, Josh Manley, Neil Rock and Matty Foster all played for either an Irish Academy or youth side.
Taking into account that talent pool and the depth that has been created at the Knights level, it isn’t hard to figure out why they broke a six-year wait to win some silverware when they were crowned Inter-Provincial T20 champions in August.
2019 has perhaps been the best year ever for the Knights in terms of development and success, and it will be a campaign that head coach Simon Johnston looks back on fondly.
“It rained a lot!” he said when reflecting on the season.
“I know a lot of people said we made big strides this year but I don’t think that was it – it was all the ground work we had put in for years before that.
“The guys had put in an awful lot of hard work and we were building towards something, and I’m so happy the guys went out and showed what they can do.
“We had talked about it for two years and they were able to execute, so I’m delighted.”
Johnston has never been one to worry about how empty or full the trophy cabinet is – he is more focused on performances on the field and seeing his men progress from regional players to international stars.
There has been no shortage of them this year with James McCollum opening for Ireland with distinction, Mark Adair bursting onto the scene in quite glorious fashion and now the even younger members like Harry Tector and David Delany taking their chances and running with it.
Typically, it wasn’t winning a competition that was most pleasing for Johnston, rather the Knights ability to beat all-conquering Leinster Lightning on more than one occasion and over two formats.
Despite that, his squad won’t be resting on their laurels as the hard work starts once again ahead of another busy campaign in 2020.
“The big thing about that was we went on to beat Leinster twice after that, which we hadn’t been able to do.,” he added.
“That was a big event for us because we’ve done it once and now we know we can do it again. As I said to the guys at the end of the year, it’s done and dusted now and they are going to come back even harder so it’s important we kick on again.
“If we do what we did this year it isn’t going to be enough – we need to kick up another gear again next year.”
The biggest change this season was the full-time arrival of Gary Wilson as captain after his decade-long stay in the English County Championship with Surrey and Derbyshire.
While maybe not performing at his best following an eye injury that threatened to end his career, it is clear how important Wilson is to the Knights set-up.
“I know he’s getting a bit of flack in the press these days apparently, but Wilo coming back with that experience really has been phenomenal,” said Johnston.
“He added real value. I know he didn’t score the amount of runs he wanted to but as I said at the start of the season I was excited to see what his leadership would bring, and we saw it in spades.
“He just makes everyone around him 5-10% better.
“We met at the start of the year in the winter work and I explained where I was looking to take this and asked what he thought. He was very understanding and had his own views as well.
“I had a really good relationship with Shanno (James Shannon) and spoke about how that would take time to build with Gary, but I was surprised at how quickly we were on the same page.
“It probably only took a quarter of the season and then we were firing on all cylinders. Hopefully that will continue. That’s a very fluid thing and we have to make sure we keep evolving and driving the Knights on.”
It isn’t just about the top level for Johnston, who has a very keen eye and interest in continuing to develop players from the grassroots right up to the current Knights crop.
The weather ruined what was an exceptional Emerging Knights programme but Johnston has big aims and expectations with the whole pathway over the coming seasons.
“I was gutted this year with what happened with the rain because we had put such a good programme together, and the weather just totally scuppered us,” he added.
“With the Andrew White Academy tour at the start of the year, I think we will look to do that again this year and maybe bring out a younger age group, and hopefully if we get the funding a Women’s Academy as well. We are always looking to build on that.
“It starts at the grassroots and then we look to filter that up. We brought the Emerging Knights programme in a few years ago and it’s still the most important thing.
“We have to give our better cricketers the chance to play at that level.”
The Inter-Provincial system came in for criticism this season after local club games were cancelled to allow for two T20 Festival’s – one in Pembroke and the other in Bready, which was eventually called off without a ball being bowled.
With Ireland’s Full Member status and the likelihood of more Inter-Provincial matches being needed in the future to keep our national team competitive, Johnston agrees with the overwhelming majority who have called for club cricket to continue irrespective of what is happening with the Inter-Pro’s.
“In my opinion, we are now at a point with professionalism and semi-professionalism that club cricket has got to go ahead when Inter-Provincial cricket is going on,” he said.
“I think something that caught us out this year is that we now have Irish cricketers. For 10 years, Leinster had an understanding with their clubs that their Irish players wouldn’t play but it isn’t something we have had before, so we haven’t had to deal with the problem.
“To be fair to all the clubs, they’ve all came round to understand that and they would rather play without them as long as they know in advance when they won’t have them.
“I’m not the guy who makes those decisions but I can only see that going on and in time Inter-Provincial cricket going on at the same time as club cricket and things like that.
“It seems to be going in the same way as Ulster Rugby, and I think if we treat that in the right way and clubs are well informed, I can only see it as a positive thing going forward.”
Producing Ireland internationals will remain the aim for Johnston, who is currently training for a Level 4 coaching qualification.
With his track record you wouldn’t put it past him providing more in the coming years, but even if it isn’t for the international arena, he wants to keep churning out cricketers that will help improve the club game at a minimum.
“Even with the likes of David Delany, just playing a small part in giving him an opportunity to play up here – it certainly wasn’t our amazing coaching or anything like that!” he said.
“It’s just giving those guys the opportunity to showcase their skills.
“We’ve just done a review of our Junior Knights pathway and the benchmark I always set is how many guys are we getting into the junior Irish squads.
“You’re hoping that most of the guys will want to kick on and play for Ireland, but even if they don’t you’re looking to create good Knights cricketers who will give back to the clubs and make them stronger.”
Allison showed his ability and potential throughout the season, picking up figures of 3-19 against Templepatrick and chipping in with solid performances in other matches.
Lisburn will view this as a signing for the future as well as hoping Allison can have an immediate impact at the higher level, and the youngster will supplement the current pace options which includes David Simpson, Graeme Browne, Mark Berry and Callum Atkinson.
The Wallace Park outfit have already announced that overseas professional Faiz Fazal will be returning for the 2020 season, and they will undoubtedly be looking at strengthening further as they aim to improve on last season’s showing.
CSNI finished fourth in the Robinson Services Premier League in 2019, ending on 28 points after winning seven of their 14 league matches – four points and one league position better than 2018.
When it came to cup competitions, they played the eventual champions in both the Gallagher Challenge Cup and Irish Senior Cup and were more than competitive in both matches, losing by four wickets to CIYMS in the semi-final of the former and by three wickets to Pembroke in the quarter-final of the latter.
The Twenty20 Cup was a bit of a write off, finishing bottom of Group B after winning one of their six matches in a group that contained North Down, Instonians and Muckamore.
With a better league performance but without reaching a major final like they did last season, how does skipper James Kennedy reflect on the campaign?
“I’ve heard a lot of people comment that CSNI are the ultimate under achievers and you don’t know what you’re going to get, which I find is a strange label for us to get,” he said.
“We won seven and lost seven, were middle of the road and finished fourth. We arguably could have done better.
“We lost once against Waringstown, once against North Down and twice against CIYMS, which are four games you want to win and play as well as you can, but there was only one of those that we didn’t play at our full potential.
“Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose them, and we lost a bad one to Muckamore which we shouldn’t have done.
“We lost two games in September in the T20 format when we were playing our younger lads. It’s very easy to pull out of those matches but I think it’s important for the integrity of the league and sponsors that every game is played.
“It was a great opportunity for some of our young lads to perform despite losing. So we lost seven and won seven – hopefully we can improve on that next year.”
As previously mentioned, the Stormont side narrowly missed out on deeper progression in the two biggest cup competitions, and Kennedy believes his squad deserve more credit for those performances.
“Last year we had the Challenge Cup final and were very disappointed to lose in that,” he added when asked if he felt his men progressed from 2018.
“This year, we lost a close game in the semi-final to eventual winners CIYMS, got to the Irish Cup quarter-final and lost a classic to Pembroke, who went on to win it, so you can look at the outcomes of both those matches and say we could have went on to win one of those two trophies, but we didn’t.
“We were a lot closer than we get credit for in those games. The big disappointment this season was that we relied so heavily on Andre (Malan) with bat and ball – he was sensational.
“Elly (Marc Ellison) batted well and Grum (Graeme McCarter) bowled well, but the rest of us, myself included, had a disappointing season with bat and ball.
“That’s something we want to develop more next year and hopefully we can help those guys that do perform.”
Overseas professional Andre Malan was again the best player in the NCU, scoring a region-high 1238 runs at an average of 65.16 and collected 41 wickets.
While it is unknown at this current time if the South African will return for a third campaign in Belfast, Kennedy is disappointed the rest of the squad couldn’t provide more support for Malan.
“Andre was fantastic,” he said.
“You are running out of superlatives to describe his form with bat and ball. It was just disappointing we didn’t step up to support him as much as we could have. He is a superb cricketer.
“He was brilliant and is a great guy to have around. Hopefully he can have a good season back home.”
Opening batsman Marc Ellison collected the Larry Warke Trophy for Batting at Saturday’s NCU annual dinner after scoring 699 runs in the Premier League at an average of 49.93.
The only player that could better that tally was team-mate Malan, so it is clear that the platform for success is there at CSNI.
“He had a good season but he will tell you he could have done better,” said Kennedy.
“He batted well and is a great player. There will be more runs in him again next year I have no doubt.
“Hopefully, outside of Andre and Elly, we can step up and add more runs and be more competitive.”
Ireland’s Twenty20 captain Gary Wilson was back at CSNI for the 2019 season after spending over a decade in England with Surrey and Derbyshire, and while his time with the club was limited due to international and Northern Knights commitments, his influence was still felt in the changing room.
“It was great having Gary back,” added Kennedy.
“He’s obviously a great player, is a great guy and it was great having him around, but looking at the schedules it appears we might not have him too much next year either.
“That’s just the nature of where local cricket is going. It’s already happening with the international players, but I reckon it isn’t too far away where the Inter-Provincial players aren’t available and it’s something we will have to get used to, accept it and play the best we can without them.”
CSNI have gave many young players a chance in the past few years, with Archie Johnston, Matty Foster and Morgan Topping all mainstays in the squad throughout the season.
More were handed opportunities towards the end of the season and throughout the 2019 campaign, and Kennedy believes that will stand the club in good stead going forward.
“We blooded a lot of young people this year,” he said.
“It’s tough coming into the Premier League but they really enjoyed it and they enjoyed being about the squad, and that’s half the battle.
“It’s a massive step up but as long as they can come off that pitch having enjoyed it and learned something from the older players.
“Those two T20’s against Carrick and Instonians in September were the perfect example of giving 13-15 year olds a chance to bat and bowl and they loved it.
“They excelled at what they did and hopefully that’ll be a good grounding for them.”
In what is the first piece of major transfer news ahead of the 2020 season, Muckamore captain Neil Gill has departed the Moylena side to join Carrickfergus.
The 33-year-old has spent the majority of his senior career with Muckamore but will now hope he can help move Carrick closer to silverware after completing the move last week.
Gill, who has spent most of the last decade as Muckamore’s captain, took 26 wickets last season as the Antrim club were relegated on the final day of their season.
He will be viewed as an important piece of the puzzle as Carrick look to build on the momentum created in recent years and provides experience as well as being a genuine threat with the ball.
Since 2006, Gill has taken 161 wickets in top-flight competitions for Muckamore and in his one season with Derriaghy in 2007, which is a very respectable record when you take into consideration Muckamore’s bouncing between Premier League and Section One.
Muckamore will now need to rebuild after losing their inspirational skipper, and without the lure of Premier League cricket this mightn’t be the last of the departures at Moylena.
While making the decision to leave Muckamore was a tough one, Gill is excited about the new challenge ahead.
“I’m absolutely delighted to have signed for Carrick,” he said.
“It’s a great club that have built a really competitive team that I think can challenge for trophies and I hope I can help them achieve that.
“I’m 33 now and I want to play at the top level for as long as I can.
“It’s obviously tough leaving Muckamore having been there since I was 8 years old, but I think it’s the right time for a fresh challenge and for me to start enjoying my cricket again.