Ian Callender (Sunday Life)
WHILE last week’s Ireland Wolves match was going on at Claremont Road, in the nets at the YMCA ground in Dublin the next generation of Ireland cricketers was being coach by Kamal Merchant.
For those with a longer memory, Merchant is remembered as a popular Pakistan professional in the NCU from 1984, for nine years with Downpatrick and the next five at Cliftonville. He was also very good, helping the then Greenisland side to three successive Premier League titles after sharing the crown in 1986 at Strangford Road.
He was forced to leave Cliftonville — and, indeed, the NCU — because a change in work permit regulations meant only first-class cricketers could play in the union’s top section.
“By that stage I was 43 and my main interest was in coaching,” says Merchant.
But the NCU’s loss was Leinster’s gain — and YMCA in particular.
Initially he was there for only two years because he was persuaded by his family to earn money in America with a friend in the food business. When he went back home to Pakistan he took up umpiring but it was coaching which remained his first love and in 2008 current Ireland chairman of selectors and former captain Alan Lewis asked him to return to Dublin.
“The structure was developing slowly. Then we had only 15-20 youngsters, now we have 100 plus on our roll aged nine to 17, boys and girls,” says Merchant who has two sessions of coaching each day plus one on ones, which give him the most satisfaction.
“It allows me to work on different skills. What his weak points are, what his strong points are. One hour sessions become one and half hours because I give them 240 balls. I bowl him different balls, different pace, by hand or from the bowling machine. But I’m not fond of teaching them the reverse sweep — I teach them to hold a vertical bat, that’s my job
“The bowlers must learn to bowl straight first. Once they have command over the ball then we use the seam, then the slower one, then the yorker and then work on bowling the right length.
“And it’s the same with the fielding. If you get the ball in the proper position, even if you misfield, if you are in the right position to throw the ball in, that’s my job.”
And while Ireland under-19 captain and current Ireland Wolves opening batsman Jack Tector is Merchant’s biggest success so far — “I’ve been working with him since he was 11” — he has already identified future internationals.
“Mitchell Thompson will play for Ireland and his brother Andrew is a quality player also. I have eight players who will make Ireland but we have to work. I never let the players out of mind, I have a page for each youngster from 1-100 and I plan my next day when I go home each evening in the car or on my bike.”
As for the best NCU prospect, Merchant instantly gives one name.
“Adam Dennison. He’s a class player. I saw him playing for the University of Ulster in the varsity final. He’s Irish material,” says Merchant.
All of which means he is excited for the future as Ireland enter the new era as an ICC Full Member.
“Getting Test status is great news. We will struggle for three years but by 2020 we will be established in Test cricket and then go higher. Don’t worry about the Ireland team, when they get money to spend on pitches they will be a high-quality team. When they start to play on grass pitches 12 months of the year you will see a big improvement,” he says.
Merchant was one selection meeting away from becoming an Ireland international himself as he recalls.
“In 1990 I got a letter from (then Irish Cricket Union secretary) Derek Scott saying ‘we are picking a team to play New Zealand in the NatWest Trophy. You will not get paid but are you available to play for Ireland?’” he says.
“I replied ‘I would love to play for Ireland, don’t worry about the money’. But Raman Lamba obviously got the same letter and they picked Raman.
"But I’ve no regrets, I’m more than contented with the way my life has turned out. I really enjoy the coaching. This is my life.”