Simon Johnston relishes leading the Northern Knights into T20 Festival battle

Simon Johnston
Simon Johnston
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All eyes will be focused on Pembroke this weekend with the Test Triangle Inter-Provincial T20 Festival set to get underway today.

The Northern Knights will contest three matches in as many days, starting with a clash at 11:30am against the North West Warriors, before taking on Munster Reds on Sunday, and rounding their tournament off against home favourites Leinster Lightning.

They have named an incredibly strong squad for the three fixtures with the majority of the side now international players in some capacity, and coach Simon Johnston is excited by the squad they have compiled despite losing former captain James Shannon and David Delany recently.

“Losing ‘Shanno’ and David Delany at the same time was a bit of a blow for us,” he said.

“I call James an x-factor batsman and we have been really excited about David’s extra pace. We were absolutely buzzing a week ago but that’s the nature of cricket and of the Knights. It wouldn’t be a season without a few injuries!

“We have had to do a little bit of tinkering because it affected our plans, but we have a really nice mix and balance.

“There are a few guys I’m really excited about and I just hope for them that they play the way they can because there is Irish selection coming up and I would like them putting their names forward for higher honours.”

Upon his return from over a decade in the County game in England with Surrey and Derbyshire, Gary Wilson was named captain of the side combining with his role as leader of Ireland’s Twenty20 squad.

He has added a tremendous amount of experience to the group and it’s occasions like this weekend that the CSNI batsman will be looking to step up and lead by example.

“It’s been a big change,” added Johnston.

“Shanno and I had a very close working relationship and got to know each other very well, and that’s what I’m getting to do now with Gary.

“He has his own ideas of how he wants to play cricket - and that’s brilliant - so my job as coach is to offer the captain support and facilitate what he wants to do as much as possible.

“The guys are really buying into it - a bit quicker than I thought they would - so that’s credit to Gary and his captaincy skills. It’s a working progress but I’m excited about his ideas and where he’s taking us.”

The likes of Shane Getkate, Mark Adair, James Cameron-Dow and James McCollum have all made their Ireland debuts in 2019 and Johnston says it’s always been his aim to have as many NCU players as possible competing at the highest level.

“For me taking this on, the goal has always been to get guys into the full Irish panel and it’ll make us stronger in the long-term,” he said.

“We’ve taken our time and it’s been a long-term project, and for them getting rewarded for their hard work is brilliant. I want this to be a Union that are producing quality Irish cricketers and we are getting there.

“It’s only the start and we need to keep producing and ticking on. There are a few more that are capable of getting full Irish honours in the next year or two and when that happens, you hope you become more competitive with the better standard of cricketer being there.”

The newest addition to the Knights squad this season has been batsman Murray Commins, who joined Instonians during the winter and hit 48 in their Clear Currency Irish Senior Cup victory over Rush last weekend.

Much has been said of the 22-year-old’s ability and potential, and Johnston is confident he is going to have a massive impact this summer.

“He maybe hasn’t got the runs he thought he was going to get in club cricket with the weather and different things,” he added.

“He came over in the first week of January and has been training with us four times a week. I hope he gets the chance to express himself over the next few months with us because he’s a quality cricketer.

“He’s really classy and adds massive value to us. The important thing for us since he has been with us is that he’s a brilliant bloke and bought into everything.

“Sometimes you can struggle when guys don’t totally buy in, but he’s been fantastic and all the guys enjoy the value he adds to the whole squad.”

When the Knights and Leinster meet on Monday, Johnston will be coaching against someone he knows very well - CIYMS captain Nigel Jones who will be taking charge of the Lightning for the first time since his appointment as Head Coach and Pathway Manager last week.

The pair worked closely together in the NCU over recent years before Cricket Ireland made all six Development Officers in the country redundant towards the end of 2018, and Johnston is confident Jones will have a big impact in his new role.

“We were both in the same situation with the redundancy and I have worked with him for the past seven years,” he added.

“I would call Jonesy one of my best friends in cricket so I was over the moon when he got the job. He was our assistant earlier in the season and asked for my opinion about going for the job, and it was an absolute no-brainer.

“They’ve got an absolute gem there, and unfortunately for us, he will do really well for them! He’s a brilliant guy and I think they’re going to love him.

“If they give him a chance, he’s a long-term fix there because he gets it. Importantly for him with a family, I’m happy to see him back in employment and doing something he really enjoys.”