If there was a halcyon era in Ulster schools’ cricket, then perhaps it was the mid-to-late 1990s.
At Regent House in Newtownards, Andrew White, who later became Ireland’s most-capped international, starred alongside the likes of Ryan Haire and Peter Shields, both of whom also went on to full international honours.
At Lurgan College, the school’s cricket first eleven contained Waringstown’s Jonathan Bushe, Andrew Cousins, Simon Harrison and Peter Hanna, and Lurgan’s Neil Anderson.
That era also saw the likes of Adrian McCoubrey, Simon Johnson, Marty Dalzell and Marty McKeown represent their respective clubs’ first elevens while still playing for their school.
But those days didn’t last and cricket in Northern Ireland’s schools has been increasingly fighting a battle against the popularity of other sports. Frustratingly for the summer game, rugby has encroached on its territory over the last couple of decades to the extent that it has effectively parked its tanks on our lawn.
White remembers the 90s golden era well, but identifies the increase of overseas players in the Ulster game as a factor in why schoolboy cricketers found first eleven berths at their clubs increasingly more elusive.
“It was a really strong time in local cricket because there was not the influx of overseas players, you had an overseas pro in first elevens and that was it. A lot of schoolboys were playing first eleven cricket for their school and their clubs,” he said.
“But there was a period when that started to seep out of local cricket, when you started to see a fewer number schoolboys playing first eleven cricket. It’s starting to creep back into the game again and that’s got to be a positive.”
To cast an eye over some of the names playing senior cricket this season is to confirm that the fightback is under way. White, one of a growing band of teachers with cricket experience teaching PE, enthusiastically lists the names of schoolboys who are already regular fixtures in senior cricket.
“You have Stuart Nelson at North Down, David Robinson at CI, James Metcalfe and Ben Rose who combined to take final wicket for Instonians against Brigade on Sunday, you have James Hunter at our place (Instonians) who goes to Methody, Nathan Doak who goes to Wallace, you have the Burton boys at Carrick,” said White.
“When you look at those pushing for Ulster Schools honours there’s a lot more names that are recognisable now, that’s testament to the NCU as well.”
The situation isn’t perfect of course, and yesterday’s Schools’ Cup final was disappointingly one-sided, which is why the recent appointment of Neil Doak, the former Ulster rugby coach and Ireland cricketer, as head of rugby and cricket at Campbell College, was such a welcome fillip.
There is undoubtedly schools whose the focus is overwhelmingly on rugby and White has no hesitation on calling on them to give cricket a chance to flourish.
“There are schools out there who see the summer term as an opportunity to prepare their young people for the rugby season, which, for me, is madness because you don’t allow pupils to experience different sports,” he said. “There is a crossover between various sports, the crossover between athletics and rugby is strong, the co-ordination skills between rugby and cricket would be strong. I would like to see a lot of schools put their rugby balls away for the summer term. Those pupils who are strong rugby players, get them involved in athletics, get them involved in cricket, and let them experience it.”
While there is White himself at Grosvenor, Neil Hinds and David Simpson at Wallace High School, and Johnny Peake at RBAI, the cricket expertise among teachers isn’t always there. White says in those situations the local clubs can’t afford to sit back.
He said: “Those kind of links have to be worked on in terms of strengthening them. Clubs have to realise that perhaps there isn’t always the number of cricket specific staff so they have to try to bolster those resources, that’s sometimes easier said than done.
“There’s no doubt that when you see the under-12 schoolboys, their enthusiasm for the game is infectious. You see a lot of club shirts now at schools cricket.”
With full member status almost certainly on the way for Ireland later this month, and the funding bonanza that comes with it, cricket is becoming a more viable and realistic career option for young people. But it’s not just about preparing future internationals.
White added: “Our jobs as PE teachers, whether it’s in cricket, rugby, athletics, is to try and make sure when young people leave school they continue to play the sport that they have enjoyed during their time at school.
“I look at a Cregagh scorecard on a Saturday and I see seven or eight former pupils from Grosvenor who are playing first eleven cricket.
“They are playing with their mates and they want to go and enjoy a game on a Saturday afternoon. That is just as important as the top end.”