Andre Malan’s fourth century of the season helped CSNI bounce back from the disappointment of their Challenge Cup final loss with a four wicket Premier League win over Carrickfergus at Stormont on Saturday.
The prospect of batting first with the red ball swinging and overhead conditions favouring the bowlers would have been a daunting one, but Carrickfergus opening batsmen Michael Gilmour and Ian Parkhill made it look easy as they raced to their fifty partnership in the 12th over.
Captain Gilmour was acting as the aggressor and he was hitting boundaries with ease and regularity, taking multiple boundaries off the bowling of Andre Malan and Alan Blain.
Matthew Foster was bowling tight lines from the other end, and was trying his best to create a breakthrough, but the opening duo kept motoring and Gilmour reached a classy half-century in the 15th over to move Carrick onto 75-0.
Parkhill was first to go when his patient innings of 23 was brought to an end by spinner Morgan Topping, who has improved remarkably this season, showing time and time again that he can stand up and deliver when captain James Kennedy calls upon him.
Gilmour was continuing in an attacking manner, and he looked in such good touch that it felt inevitable he would reach a big score from ball one, but Ben Adair trapped him LBW, bringing an end to a great innings on 68 from 72 balls, which contained eight fours and two towering sixes.
When Jack Burton was bowled by Topping, the score was 119-3, and Carrick had to be careful not to falter on what was turning out to be a good batting wicket.
The partnership of Jamie Holmes and Pat Botha was going to be vital for Carrick if they wanted to reach the 280/300 mark, and CSNI had their chances to get rid of the former, missing a stumping on his very first ball before dropping him at mid-wicket.
Holmes would become Topping’s third wicket when he was bowled on 24, and when Botha was smartly caught behind by Archie Johnston off the bowling of Aaron Wright for 35, Carrick struggled big time, losing their remaining five wickets for 37 runs to leave them all out on 226.
18-year-old Foster is another one that has shown his massive potential for the Belfast-based side this season, and his 10 overs were the highlight of the first innings.
The experience of playing a season of Premier League cricket and spending time on the pitch with the likes of Malan will help his progression massively.
Matthew McCord, who has recently made his First Class debut for the Northern Knights, opened the bowling and was unlucky to not have Marc Ellison caught second ball after he was put down in the slips.
Ellison is in fine form after hitting 139* in the Challenge Cup final last Friday, so it was a massive relief for the away team when McCord created another chance and had the opener caught behind for 13.
Malan has had a brilliant debut season in the NCU with both bat and ball, scoring 819 runs this season before walking to the crease, combining with the 39 wickets he has collected.
He was always going to be the vital wicket for Carrick to secure, but the South African continued in the same vein that he has all season, leading the innings.
CSNI lost two quick wickets when Anthony Martin had Johnston caught at point for five and then superbly caught Wright off his own bowling for 1.
Topping walked to the crease with the score sitting at 98-4, and despite being dropped a couple of times by some slack fielding, he made the most of his opportunity and was more than a supportive partner for Malan.
Malan brought up his century with another 35 runs needed for victory to continue his fine form and amazing 2018 campaign.
The 27-year-old has been a revelation in the NCU, and has been the best overseas professional by a country mile in 2018.
CSNI must do everything in their power to keep him at the club for next season, because he is the perfect man to spearhead the charge of this current crop of talented players, and it is also clear how much the club means to him despite only being in the country for a matter of months.
He was caught for a fantastic 104, but Chris McMorran seen the team home with the help of Topping, who was caught for 47 trying to end the match in style.
Don’t be surprised to see CSNI use this season as a springboard to achieve great things in 2019.
A core of their players remain under the age of 24, and with the experience of Kennedy, Ellison and Cowden, they have the perfect blend of youth and experience to mount a challenge on all fronts in the coming seasons.