Over the course of the season there has been much talk about the future of the game within the NCU. As always the topic of youth cricket comes in for much debate, are we doing the right things to bring the promising underage players through?
The perceived wisdom is that over the last few years the standard of players being developed within the NCU is lagging behind our southern counterparts in Leinster.
However I think that it is fair to say that over the last couple of years we have seen some significant developments in this area.
Since the reintroduction of interprovincial cricket in 2013, the NCU now boasts three squads with the Northern Knights; the High Performance squad, Emerging Players squad and the Junior Knights, the pool from which the next senior Knights will emerge.
Earlier this year the interprovincial team announced a major three year sponsorship deal with professional advisory firm PwC as the gold sponsor with additional support from Connect Telecom and FSS (N.I.)
So fair to say that no-one can accuse the Union of resting on their laurels on that front, with Chairman, Andy Clement and his vice Chairman Alan Waite working tirelessly to raise the profile of the game.
The latest announcement though is by far the most ambitious yet and I would venture to go so far as to say the most forward thinking in many years.
Easter 2015 will see the Union undertaking a development tour to South Africa for a series of fixtures and coaching ahead of the season back home. The touring party will be made up effectively of young players from the Junior Knights.
I spoke with Alan Waite, who will act as one of the Tour Managers about this exciting venture.
“As a Union we are well aware of the fact that Leinster has structures in place where they travel across to England to participate in festivals etc. which gives their talented underage players wider exposure,” he said.
“Some people might say we have gone straight in at a very ambitious level, but for us the timing is right. To do things like this we have to be cognisant of the fact that many if not all the young players have exam commitments.
“Next year with Easter falling early is ideal; we will depart on 25 March and return on 5 April, still well before any potential examination dates. This has enabled us to get the buy in from parents of those involved.
“The touring party will be pitched at two levels; firstly we are looking at the 13 to 15 age group and then the 16 to 18 group. In all we will be taking 30 players, 15 from each group. Actual squads have not as yet been finalised.
“If you look at the senior squad, my expectation is that it will be made up of the likes of Adam Dennison, John Matchett, James Mitchell and Andrew Forbes.”
My next question was around how the tour was being put together and how the format was decided:
“Back in 1998 myself and Andy Clement were out in South Africa touring with the Grasshoppers and we met a guy called Neil Watson. He has a lot of contacts out there and is the former Chairman of Western Province.
“We have kept in touch and he has been across here; so we looked to him to put together an itinerary, together with accommodation and games. The key thing is the level that the tour is pitched at; we want this to be competitive and the level of competition to step up as the tour progresses.
“We will also be staying in a complex called City Lodge, Grand West in Cape Town, which effectively has everything on-site and will serve to keep the whole party together.
“I believe that having it at the start of the season is the right timing. The players will be doing a lot of work at squad sessions throughout the winter and this will give a real focus to that, plus they will be able to take the learning’s from the tour and apply them directly in the new season at home.”
“It is not just the players who will benefit but the coaching staff as well. Cricket Ireland has agreed to release Nigel Jones and his work will be covered in his absence. Others in the party include Eugene Moleon, Michael Hingston, Stephen Johnston, Andy McCrea, Scott Irvine, for video analysis and Artie Campbell.
“We want to develop our coaching team as well and let them see what the best looks like. We will also have Paddy Currie as strength and conditioning coach and Andy Rose will act as a second tour manager.
Obviously all this is very costly and we would be keen and will actively be looking for sponsorship to help defray those costs.”
A quick look at the itinerary should be an inspiration to any aspiring young player. Starting with practice at Western Province Cricket Club, followed by a full day at the Gary Kirsten Cricket Academy, one of the foremost cricket schools in South Africa
First game is against Wynberg Boys High School, with a game on the Jacques Kallis Oval, then on to Western Province Cricket Club, currently club 20/20 champions and with one of the strongest junior sections in the country, fielding 13 teams.
So it goes on, games against the likes of Rondeboch Boys’ High School, who have a number of former pupils who have gone on to play international cricket.
Nor is it just the cricket, the personal development of players will undoubtedly follow adding to their skill sets - a trip to Table Mountain and Robben Island tour.
All highly professionally put together, needless to say nothing like this was available in my day, but equally I would not have had the talent to take advantage!