Ireland’s James McCollum growing in experience and belief ahead of England test at Lord’s
The serene Thursday morning silence at Shaw’s Bridge is broken every so often by the whoosh of a sidearm thrower and the crunching noise of a bat striking ball through the covers.
This is the sort of work that we don’t get to see very often; the sort of work and time dedicated to a craft that often goes unnoticed by many; the sort of work that James McCollum, Ireland’s latest batting sensation, has been putting in for years.
McCollum takes a break from feeding Northern Knights team-mate Murray Commins to have a chat on the boundary to discuss what has been a whirlwind year so far, which started in Greater Noida before showcasing his skills in fantastic fashion just up the road at Stormont.
The 23-year-old’s international career didn’t get off to the flying start he would have wanted after being dismissed with his first ball against Afghanistan in February - but he has dusted himself off and in the most recent ODI series against Zimbabwe, scoring two half-centuries as Ireland completed a first ever series clean sweep over a Full Member nation.
“It was good just to spend a bit of time in the middle at that level of cricket and have the confidence that you’re good enough to be there and show the guys in the team what you can do,” he says. “I hadn’t really done it before that except for at Ireland Wolves level.
“It was a really good series and it’s our first series win in two years, the lads played really well and the bowlers really stepped up.”
McCollum has been a standout performer for the Northern Knights and Ireland Wolves, for whom he scored a century in victory over a Bangladesh side that have since gone on to record World Cup victories over the likes of South Africa and West Indies.
That May knock came at a crucial time and helped reassure McCollum that he was made to perform at this level.
“I feel like there’s always pressure - especially because I didn’t really take my opportunities in that first block of four games at the start of the season,” he adds. “I did go through a bit of a tough period, but I feel like at the start of my career I’m learning what it’s all about and what I should be doing.
“I just needed those first few games to really adapt and learn what’s required at that standard of cricket.
“There will always be people doubting you after three or four failures. I reckon every batsman is probably lying if they say they don’t have a little bit of self-doubt.
“I hadn’t played at that level before, so you’re thinking ‘are you good enough to play at this level?’ I knew deep down I was - scoring that hundred against Bangladesh and knew if I really applied myself and stayed concentrated on what I had to do, it would eventually come.
“Runs have been a little bit light for me this year, but hopefully this kick-starts my career and I can kick on from here.”
McCollum has forged what will likely be a brilliant opening partnership over the coming years with Paul Stirling, who recently scored his 4000th ODI run - with the fire and aggression of Stirling being complemented by the calmness of McCollum.
“It’s good because there’s genuinely never any scoring pressure,” McCollum says on batting with Stirling. “I could be on seven off seven overs but he will be on 25 at the other end and we will be on 35 going at five an over.
“There’s no pressure on me to play scoring shots and that’s what I learnt after the first three or four games.
“He was smoking it from the other end and I felt I had to do something similar, but after those first few games I realised that isn’t what my role in the team is.
“My role is to bat deep through the innings and whatever ‘Stirlo’ is doing at the other end shouldn’t affect the way I played. I definitely did let it affect me in the first few games.”
For anyone that has followed McCollum’s career to date, whether that be at the age of 14 playing in the NCU Premier League with Lurgan or more recently in his role as number three in Waringstown’s all-conquering side, you will know that he thrives in big games.
Just take last season for example - 73 in the Challenge Cup final. 54 in a historic sixth Irish Senior Cup for Waringstown against Merrion - there’s just something about the big occasion that gets McCollum going and tends to bring the best out of him.
There is perhaps no bigger occasion than a four-day Test match at Lord’s against England at the end of this month which will be a landmark event for Cricket Ireland and is yet another sign of just how far they have came.
McCollum will almost certainly be in the XI and is adamant that Ireland aren’t just there to take part.
“If you’d have told me two years ago that I could be playing in a Lord’s Test match - it’s pretty crazy,” he said. “It’s a huge event and will be one of the biggest days in my life. We are still very much going over there to win a game of cricket.
“We don’t want it to just be some marquee occasion and just enjoy the four days we have there - we are very much looking to win.
“It’s a huge day for Irish cricket and not just the players but the supporters of the team since that 2007 World Cup campaign.
“Cricket Ireland has came a seriously long way over the past 12 years. It’s great to see everyone’s hard work being rewarded.”