Forget the ludicrous bias claims, the NCU is making great strides

Ballymena's John Glass (front row, far right) with some of his team-mates at the Andrew White Academy, along with the former Ireland international cricketer.Ballymena's John Glass (front row, far right) with some of his team-mates at the Andrew White Academy, along with the former Ireland international cricketer.
Ballymena's John Glass (front row, far right) with some of his team-mates at the Andrew White Academy, along with the former Ireland international cricketer.
First things first. The allegations posted on a well-known cricket website forum this week alleging biased selections in NCU under-age cricket are plain ridiculous.

Never mind potentially attracting the unwanted attention of libel lawyers, the allegations are a disservice to the sterling work that has been going on to turn around the NCU’s previously languishing youth set-up.

It’s no exaggeration to say that youth cricket here was on its knee three years ago. 2013 really was the nadir. Across all interprovincial youth matches that year, from under-11s to under-17s, NCU teams won just one solitary match.

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After a 3-0 whitewashing by Leinster, which included a 10-wicket humiliation by Leinster’s B team, it was time for revolution.

Alan Waite, the NCU vice-chairman and a driving force behind change, described that summer as the “low point”.

“The revamp of our youth structure stemmed from there. A number of people said, ‘hang on, we have got to try and do something to get the right structures put in place’. Simon Johnston, Michael Hingston, myself and Brian Walsh and Andy McCrea were involved in that initial group,” said Waite.

“The first thing we did was establish a coaching structure indoors at Jordanstown and that has been going for three years. People say about the lack of indoor facilities here but we have a four-bay net down there and we are three winters into it now.”

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The statistics are impressive. Waite describes a team of 35 different coaches working with 317 young cricketers over the winter. Much of the work is voluntary.

“There’s a perception that they earn a lot of money out of this, nothing could be further from case,” Waite said.

In 2010 the NCU was represented by 14 players in Irish under-age squads, but that total was just six by 2013. It had improved to seven by last year, and there is the promise of more this summer.

Of course no-one is pretending that they have cracked it. The NCU’s victory drought against Leinster sides at under-age level goes on but the gap is closing.

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It won’t be for the lack of trying. Just three years ago, the only extra cricket the best of the NCU’s young cricketers were exposed to were the interpros.

This summer, there are 37 youth development fixtures arranged.

The NCU’s under-15s are going to Denmark, the under-17s to London and an under-14 team is going to the famous Taunton festival for five days.

The level of coaching is improving. Formidable former cricketers are involved, with Uel Graham, Regan West and Andrew White all now involved.

“We are beginning to see the improvements,” said Waite.

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“At Instonians you have seen Bradley McNamara opening the batting, the current under-15s are the first group that have been right through the new structure, We have seen John Glass and James McClean at Ballymena.

“The guys are starting to come through. The more games they have and the more exposure they have will benefit us. But we are under no illusions about the amount of work we still have do across the union.”

It’s not all plain sailing. Drumaness were the latest club to fold over the winter and there are concerns about Lurgan, once one of Ireland’s best clubs, but now struggling to stay in Section One.

Already this season North Down, for so long the kingpins of NCU cricket, were unable to field a full 11 players in their second and third eleven.

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Waite added: “Some clubs appear to have been struggling but there are other clubs who are going in the other direction. We have seen over the course of the last winter that the standard of the kids nominated by the clubs is higher than in previous years.

“There are more kids coming to the sessions who have mastered the basic skills.”

Cricket Ireland have undoubtedly missed a trick over their handling of the Irish Cup quarter-final draw.

The delay in staging the second round draw was perhaps understandable to some extent, given the number of first-round ties that had been washed out by the weather.

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But even then, the delay inconvenienced those clubs who were already safely into the hat, who could have started pitch preparations or explored travel arrangements.

Tournament director Simon Dyke is right to point out that there will be a month between this month’s quarter-final draw and the ties taking place in mid-July, and there’s nothing wrong in principle with trying to maximise publicity by having the draw before Ireland’s ODIs with Sri Lanka.

But what do other sports do when are other high-profile cup draws staged? In football’s Irish Cup for example, the draw traditionally happens live on the BBC, within minutes of the previous round ending on Saturday tea-time.

The FA Cup draw is usually on a Sunday once that round is complete, and the League Cup in England? Minutes after the previous round is completed on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. As for European competitions in football? The Champions League draw is on a Friday morning after the previous round ends on a Wednesday night.

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In other words, there is no time like the present, capitalise on cup fever, seize the moment, and don’t wait two-and-a-half weeks to put people out of their misery.

The eight quarter-finalists don’t really care whether Angelo Matthews or William Porterfield is making the draw, or whether it takes place on the top of Slieve Donard, or in some grotty committee room at the back of a pavilion.

They just want to know who are they playing, and they want to know now!

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