After 14 years as a distinguished overseas cricket professional in the NCU game, you would have thought Niranjan Godbole’s planned return to Lurgan this summer would have gone smoothly.
Indeed, the veteran all-rounder from Pune in India had already been granted a visa when the bombshell landed with the season just weeks away. The NCU advised Section One clubs not to obtain the services of any overseas player with first-class cricket experience.
No matter that Godbole or his long-time friend Indrajeet Kamtekar were well past the first-class stage, both were ruled out of playing for Lurgan and Armagh respectively, despite their impeccable playing and coaching credentials and despite both having been granted UK visas.
Godbole travelled to Northern Ireland for what was a short holiday but has now returned to India, from where he told the News Letter he has not entirely given up on returning to the Province to play or coach.
“It was very sad to find out at the last minute that I was not going to be able to play for Lurgan anymore,” he said. “It was a bit confusing as the British High Commission in India had already granted me a visa to play cricket with Lurgan. I said to myself, ‘it is what it is’ and decided to move on as it was out of my control. As cricketers we are often told to control the controllables. I hope my time in Northern Ireland has not ended and if there is a rule change I still think I have a season or two in me. I said to myself, ‘at least you are going when you are still wanted’.”
Godbole’s Lurgan career was like a roller coaster, at least in respect of the club’s contrasting fortunes. Over the space of 14 seasons, he played in over 300 matches, scoring what he estimates to be around 10,000 runs and hitting 24 centuries. Lurgan were still a top-flight force when he first arrived, but their fortunes have swung wildly since.
“I had a wonderful time as a cricketer and a coach and I have enjoyed each and every minute at Lurgan,” he said. “When I started with Lurgan obviously we were in the Premier League for the first five years (then called Section One), the next few years we went up and down. We went back up from Section 1 and came straight back down twice.
“We have produced a lot of good young cricketers but for some reason we were not able to keep them interested and retain them with us long term. That has been a big factor in why we are where we are at the moment.”
Godbole can reflect on many highlights, not least his first campaign which yielded over 900 runs in the league (professionals were then excluded from cup competitions), while the 2016 campaign will be fondly remembered as the Lurgan escaped what would have been a disastrous relegation to the third tier.
“After my first season I scored 1,000 runs in a season quite a few times,” he recalled. “Last year we were really struggling and had even scrapped a league fixture. Our survival in that league looked bleak but we eventually stayed up even before the last league match, that was a big highlight for my Lurgan career. With 14 seasons I can call it a career now.”
It is four years since Godbole last played in the Premier League so he is reluctant to start contrasting standards between now and his early days in Northern Ireland. However, he does offer opinions on the strength outside the top flight.
“The interest levels are certainly the same if not more in the top league from the time I first came to Northern Ireland, But I wonder if the interest is still the same in the lowers leagues? I am in no position to compare the standard as I don’t play Premier anymore. In Section One though the fourth and fifth bowlers in most teams aren’t of the same level as the first three. Similarly for batting if we get through top five there is not enough after that. But there are a lot of talented players in Section One like Ryan Smith, Andy Nixon, Craig Lewis, Ben Mackey, Neil Gelston, Johnny Terett, Paul Robinson and Mark Irwin. At Lurgan we have Stephen Chambers, Stephen Leckey, Stephen Johnston and Andrew Bingham.”
A return to the NCU in a playing capacity looks unlikely but Godbole, who is heavily involved in coaching back home, hasn’t given up hope.
He added: “I hope it’s not the end of my career in Northern Ireland. If the rules change I would definitely be interested in coming back. Even if there are any coaching roles open I would be interested in those too. I thank each and every person in the NCU and Lurgan who have made my stay there so wonderful and enjoyable.
“I am glad I have made friends for life. If not for cricket I will definitely be back at some point, I hope it’s not my last contribution to cricket in Northern Ireland.”
Best players played with: Gareth Morrison, Neil Anderson, John Guy, Paul Stafford, Stephen Chambers, Stephen Johnson, James McCollum. Best overseas players played against: AB de Villiers, Craig MccMillan, Taimur Khan, Jac Arunkumar, Gerald Dros. Best Opposing players: Kyle McCallan, Mark Hutchison, Andrew White.