Picture the scene. It’s late summer 2025 and veteran Instonians captain James Shannon is holding aloft the NCU Premier League trophy.
It’s an historic moment because Instonians have become the first Premier League winners since the competition reverted entirely to a 20-overs per side.
After years of declining interest in the 50-over game, the NCU had controversially voted the previous winter to trial a Twenty20 league in senior cricket.
The move left the Challenge Cup as the only remaining 50-over competition played in the NCU, with all other cricket played over 20 overs.
The inaugural T20 season had been an unqualified success. Crowds were up, players had a spring in their step and wives and girlfriends were suddenly seeing a lot more of their husbands and boyfriends.
So is this radical glimpse into the future a pipe dream or the inevitable reality of administrators striving to keep interest in cricket afloat in a modern world that demands instant action.
Like this correspondent, Peter Shields, the North Down chairman and wicketkeeper-batsman, is a sporting traditionalist, of solid cricketing stock, and an arch defender and champion of the sport he loves.
But Shields has fears for the future of the game in Ireland, and casts envious glances to other parts of the world which are embracing the Twenty20 game and reaping untold benefits.
Cricket in Ireland has been undeniably late to the Twenty20 party, from the club game to full internationals. Attitudes had been lukewarm towards the NCU’s Twenty20 Cup but in recent years it’s been warming up.
North Down, along with Carrickfergus, have not been afraid to champion Twenty20, and they have seen the commercial benefits of promoting the game’s shortest format. Coloured clothing, music, a beer tent, barbecues and the likes of Pieter Malan and Jamie Holmes hitting it miles – what’s not to love?
“We have had the opportunity to market the games as a Friday night concept and it’s been a big success,” said Shields. “It gives you the opportunity to reach out to people who are not normally coming through the gate and to reach a new audience who don’t want to stay all day and watch six or seven hours’ cricket. People want short, sharp entertainment.”
As Shields point out, 10 or 15 years ago, there was no shortage of people craving an all-day cricketing experience. They simply don’t exist in those numbers any more.
The NCU’s Challenge Cup final is perhaps the starkest example of changing times. Think of last summer and the highlight of the NCU season was arguably the Twenty20 final won by CIYMS at Waringstown in front of the biggest domestic crowd of 2015. Rassie van der Dussen and Ruhan Pretorius kept hitting it out of the ground and the spectators roared their approval under clear blue skies.
We can’t control the weather of course but the Challenge Cup final between CI and Instonians, played over two days at Comber because of miserable weather, was largely pedestrian in comparison, despite van der Dussen’s successive centuries. The crowd amounted to barely half of what turned out for T20 finals day.
As Shields points out, if there is a cup final hierarchy, then the T20 has started to supplant its more illustrious rival. While the Challenge Cup is still played on a Friday when work will deter most neutrals, the NCU has created a closed Saturday for T20 finals day in early July.
The next step should be to create more Twenty20 cricket. Teams can have as few as one home group game in the Lagan Valley Steels Twenty20 Cup. Ally McCalmont, the driving force behind Carrick’s innovative T20 approach, recalls a conversation he had with a casual fan at a T20 game at Middle Road.
The supporter was so impressed with the night that he demanded to know when the next fixture was. McCalmont had to ruefully admit there was nothing scheduled until the following season.
Carrick have promoted each fixture as if it was their last.
Probably the best attended ever T20 fixture in Northern Ireland was their Twenty20 Trophy final against Derriaghy two seasons ago.
“Talking to people, we used a bit of a fishing rod if you like. We promoted the game around the town as much as we could, invited people who had never been to cricket before and make sure all the kids in the under-11s and under-13 were invited,” McCalmont explained. “The difference in crowds from a league game is 10-fold. There are different promotions at different parts of the ground, the music helps and we use the mic to keep people involved. There’s a bit more involvement with people in the game. For that trophy final there were 350-400 people there that night.”
The road ahead has pitfalls though. The demand for more fixtures puts pressure on the fixture calendar but a more regular Friday-night T20 night slot is surely a must for the short-term.
Shields says it is imperative that clubs embrace the new opportunities that Twenty20 presents.
“There are a number of ideas worth exploring, I’ve talked about another Twenty20 competition in September even. We can look to the NCU but it’s the clubs who have to show the enthusiasm,” he said. “I’m not sure who it is but we need someone to take the lead.”