James Kennedy reflects on his return to Ballymena
James Kennedy had just finished a pre-season nets session at CSNI when he took a step back, looked around and had a feeling within that it was time to leave.
The 42-year-old joined from Ballymena – a club he had played all of his senior cricket at up to the point of heading to Stormont – prior to the 2017 season and captained them to the 2018 Challenge Cup final where they lost out to Waringstown.
Kennedy had already relinquished the captaincy he held for three seasons with former Irish international Gary Wilson taking over for the 2021 campaign, but when he watched the array of young stars practicing, there was something telling the batsman that it was time to head back home to Eaton Park.
The original plan was to stay at CSNI for three years but his love for the club meant he extended that by an extra season and as Kennedy explains, he came very close to making it a fifth.
“I always said that I would go back to Ballymena at some point before I stopped playing,” he said.
“The wrench of trying to leave CSNI over the last few years has been tough because I haven’t wanted to leave and I really enjoyed my experience there.
“I had intended to leave after three years but they got stuck with me for a fourth year because I was enjoying it so much and they very nearly got stuck with me for a fifth year, but I made a last-minute decision based on a few things that I should stay true to my word and return to Ballymena before I have no cricketing ability left!
“I stood down from the captaincy in November and was very happy with that decision. It was a very last-minute decision to leave.
“CSNI are a very strong club with a strong youth structure and after a couple of pre-season nets I stood back and had a long conversation with Gary, who tried to twist my arm but just couldn’t in the end!
“The number of young players coming through will get so much value from playing with experienced players like Thommo (Stuart Thompson) and Gary.
“Although I still might have been able to offer something – which is maybe debateable in itself – I felt it was a great chance to get some of these young lads into the team who will become good CSNI players in the future if not at a next level up.
“I just felt all in all that it was the right time.”
One of the driving factors behind Kennedy’s move to the Belfast club was his desire to win a Challenge Cup title and he came within a game of doing just that.
It was the temptation of having another crack at achieving his main goal that almost made him stick around for another year.
“There were a few factors to why I went to CSNI but ultimately it was to win a Challenge Cup,” he added.
“That was a big draw in going to CSNI and it’s my biggest regret in my time there.
“We got to a final which was a superb experience but just didn’t get our hands on the trophy.
“What a final it was with two brilliant hundreds from Elly (Marc Ellison) and Denny (Adam Dennison).
“There are probably very few weeks go by where I don’t wonder if that result could have been different if Grum (Graeme McCarter) hadn’t been sick but there are more important things in life than cricket and that’s something we will never know the answer to.
“That was a big disappointment and it’s why I hung on for a fourth year and considered a fifth year.”
He will now focus all of his energy on trying to help Ballymena reach the pinnacle of NCU club cricket once again.
They were last in the top-flight back in 2015 and suffered consecutive relegations to Section Two before promotion back to the second tier in 2018.
Ballymena have started this season with two defeats to Saintfield and Derriaghy but the club remain ambitious and Kennedy’s experience could go a long way to helping them achieve their goals.
“It’s quite refreshing to go back to Ballymena and hear the young lads talking about wanting to get promoted to the Premier League,” he said.
“I suppose the older hands are slightly more cautious about that because they know just how challenging that can be.
“Ballymena probably punched above their weight for a long time and we probably stayed in the Premier League longer than we needed to in terms of bringing our younger players on.
“The young players that haven’t been there before are keen to do so and hopefully we can challenge at the top of Section One in years to come.
“That’s the club’s goal and it would be great to be a part of that again.”
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