Are Northern Knights losing their NCU identity with misguided selections?

Lee Nelson
Lee Nelson

For a while on Thursday afternoon at Stormont, the much-maligned Northern Knights were poised to end their miserable record against Leinster Lightning.

With the Dubliners 78 for seven in their second innings, an unlikely win was beckoning but the Knights were frustrated by a stubborn unbroken partnership for the eighth-wicket between Andrew Poynter and George Dockrell.

But had they taken those final three wickets, and then knocked off a small fourth-innings target, would anyone in the NCU, outside of the Knights inner circle, actually have cared? And more importantly would a victory have held any significance for the general health of the NCU game?

After all, of the 11 cricketers who took the field for the Knights, just four are NCU-raised cricketers - James Shannon, the captain, Gary Kidd, Greg Thompson and the young wicketkeeper, Jamie Magowan.

Of the rest, there were two north-westers (Chris Dougherty and Graeme McCarter), a Dubliner (Shane Getkate), a South African (Nikolai Smith), a New Zealander (Jamie Holmes) and two Australians, Jacob Mulder and Nathan Smith, the latter who has been in the country all of about five minutes.

During the Lightning’s second-innings collapse, it was paceman McCarter, who only joined CSNI from Coleraine over the winter, Nikolai Smith and Getkate who took all the wickets.

Hardly a cause for rejoicing in the NCU heartlands or delighting in local boys made good, especially as the interprovincial competition has largely provoked apathy in this area since its reconception three years ago.

Then there is the case of one of the union’s brightest batting talents Lee Nelson, who was unceremoniously dropped on the eve of the game.

If anything sums up how the Knights risk losing their NCU identity, it is the peculiar decision to leave out the Waringstown captain, and indeed how Nathan Smith leapfrogged Stephen Bunting in another dubious selection move.

Nelson and Shannon were long considered the cream of the NCU’s best young batsmen, and while Nelson hasn’t managed to emulate Shannon and reach the full Ireland squad, he is still one of the very best that we have.

And that’s not all. In the three years of interprovincial competition, few cricketers have given so selflessly of their time for the Knights cause.

While many players prioritised other aspects of their lives, Nelson has missed just two matches, and one of those was at the back end of a miserable 2015 for the Knights.

The selectors are on shaky ground for justifying Nelson’s omission. He averaged 22 in last year’s three-day matches with a top score of 32 not out. But how disastrous was that in the context of his team-mates’ struggles? In four matches, Shannon averaged just one run more with 23, Getkate 27 and Dougherty just 26. Nelson was part of a largely under-performing batting line-up and was no better or no worse than anyone else.

Getkate is a hard-working, likeable cricketer, but has flattered to deceive during two seasons in club cricket with CSNI. There is no sustainable argument for his selection in front of Nelson on playing ability.

Bunting meanwhile was the logical choice to replace fellow left-arm seamer Phil Eaglestone, who pulled out on the eve of the game. Nathan Smith, with no previous experience of the NCU game until just a few short weeks ago, was picked instead. Bunting is believed to have been furious and who can blame him.

However, it would be wrong to shovel all the blame onto the selectors, or the Knights coaching staff, because our homegrown players haven’t exactly embraced the competition.

The selectors will say they have little room for manoeuvre and have come under pressure to deliver better results given the Knights’ atrocious performances across all formats last summer.

James McCollum, the Waringstown batsman, was understandably unavailable because of university commitments, as was Robert McKinley of Instonians. Both would almost certainly have been selected.

Then there are the cases of Ryan Haire, arguably the most naturally talented young batsman of his generation, who has long since turned his back on representative cricket, and James Hall, who has rejected repeated requests to return to the fold. Another Waringstown player, Adam Dennison, is also currently unavailable for any representative cricket.

The selectors may be in an unenviable position but by axing Nelson, apparently to facilitate an extra bowling option, they are in effect confirming that developing young NCU talent is now a secondary priority behind winning matches.

It’s not as if the Ireland set-up is overloaded with NCU players. Gary Wilson and Paul Stirling continue to fly the NCU flag, as they have done on their own since the retirement of Andrew White.

Shannon will hopefully return to the full squad, but who is the next NCU-born Ireland player?

The chances of more emerging reduces as the interpro shop window is closed in their faces.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect was this week’s crowd, or the lack of it. One well-placed observer calculated the maximum spectators as six on day one, three on day two and just one on day three.

There were more photographers in attendance than actual spectators at times and while allowances have to be made for weekdays, the paltry totals symbolised how the NCU cricketing public feels about its representative team.