The reaction was predictably cynical in many corners of the NCU when Justin Kemp was announced as CIYMS’ new overseas professional last autumn.
Never mind what entertainment the 38-year-old former South African ODI and Twenty20 star could bring to Ulster cricket, many concluded he would only be in Northern Ireland for a big summer pay-cheque at Belmont.
In the course of one photograph, published on Twitter last Sunday night, a matter of minutes after CI had beaten Derriaghy, those preconceptions about Kemp should have been shattered.
There was Kemp, standing in the middle of a now deserted ground, doing maintenance work on the pitch. How many overseas professionals have done that over the years? Not many, if any..
It wasn’t a one-off either. Kemp is religiously at Belmont most week-day mornings, preparing the Belmont pitches, ensuring the CI and their opponents have the best possible cricket wickets.
“I have been brought up like that, I love the game and take particular pride in it, wickets are massive for me, to produce good cricketers you need to play on good wickets, if you play on wickets that are going all over the place you are never going to produce good cricketers,” said Kemp. “I have tried to help the groundsman, I have some free times in the mornings and I enjoy being there and making sure on a Saturday we have a good cricket wicket so that if you play well you score runs and take wickets. My pet hate is a game decided on the toss. Also, I am not the kind of guy who sits at home at 38 years of age playing Playstation.”
Adjusting to cricket in Northern Ireland wasn’t plain sailing. CI were humbled in their opening game of the season at Derriaghy and Kemp admits he took a while to find his feet in a “hostile environment”.
He continued: “It’s taken me a bit of time, but as I have said to a lot of people, the cricket here is good. The wickets are a bit challenging at times and when I arrived I was a bit behind.
“I hadn’t played much cricket and as a team we had lost seven players from the year before, when they had won two trophies, and we needed to find our feet.”
At a time when the tendency is to be negative about the standard of NCU cricket, Kemp is positive.
“You have got some challenges, the weather is a challenge, in the whole world club cricket is facing challenges, finding guys who want to play at the weekend is tougher, people want to go away and do stuff, there’s more to do these days. When I was playing club cricket it was the thing to do, you just did it, your father before you did it, and your grandfather, that’s pretty much what it was like here too,” he said. “I think the standard is very strong, yes there are times when you take one or two players out of the team, it can be quite weak, but there are seriously talented young crickets here, and some older guys like Jonesy (Nigel Jones).
“I just think for me that Northern Ireland, and Ireland as a whole, needs international cricket. I think a young guy who is at school at eight or nine years old needs to be able to switch on the TV and see Ireland playing cricket, not just rugby or tennis or whatever.”
Kemp identifies Shane Getkate, Greg Thompson, CSNI’s Challenge Cup final hero Jason van der Merwe and CI’s own Chris Dougherty as proper talents, but they all need exposed to more, quality cricket.
“Every team has got one or two really good players, but they need to be full-time and not have to worry about not being able to play the rent at the end of the month. Everyone here fights for every run and every wicket. It’s a great trait you guys have got.”
The towering all-rounder isn’t without his criticisms and queries the number of cup competitions.
“The league has got to be very important and one or two cups, but to have five cups, you are juggling competitions and you don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “These cups have been around for a long time so which one do you let go? In South Africa we only have six first-class teams and it’s hard cricket all the time.”
Kemp hasn’t minced his words with his team-mates when performances haven’t reached the expected levels.
“I have to be careful, I come from a professional environment, and if you play poorly you get told. But I would never say it (criticism) if I didn’t believe the guys could play better cricket.
“As a club at times we have played poorly, me included, and it’s the guys who learn from their mistakes who do well. When I was 18-19 I had Kepler Wessels on my back, that’s how I grew up. I will only pick on the guys who I know can do better.”
So what does the future hold? Kemp has a fishing business back home, but refuses to rule out a return to Belmont, pointing out how the club have been “absolutely unbelievable to me”.
“I would have said at the beginning that this was going to be our only year but we have loved it,” he added.
“I can see what CI are trying to do at the club and I buy into it completely. I have tried to help in every single thing I can and if I can do it in the future then happy days.
“If it doesn’t work out I will leave having really enjoyed myself. I would never have thought I would have found myself playing club cricket at 38, but it’s something I have really enjoyed.”