I was lucky enough to witness some brilliant innings during the glorious Irish summer of 2018. Here’s my recollection of them, starting with number 10.

#10: Andrew Poynter (Clontarf) 53* (29) v CSNI, Irish Senior Cup Quarter Final

In July, we travelled to Dublin to play Clontarf in the third round of the Irish Cup. We’d managed to beat Bready away in the first round and then cruised past Balbriggan at home in the second round. We could only muster 160-odd batting first which was probably 50-60 short of where we needed to be on a slow and low wicket. However, we were lucky to get to 160 and had it not been for a handy 65-run stand for the 7th wicket between Morgan Topping (47) and Andrew Cowden (44), we wouldn’t have got close.

In reply, Clontarf took a positive approach. Bill Coughlan gave the chase early impetus with 54 off 47 balls, with eight fours and a six, before Andrew Poynter mopped us up with an unbeaten 53 off 29 deliveries. What it was about this innings that impressed me most was the quality of the technique and the power of the striking. Despite the fact that it was a beautifully warm summer’s day, he barely broke a sweat and whacked our bowlers all around the park with five fours and four sixes. It goes to show how important positive intent can be when chasing a middling total. The hosts surpassed us in the 27th over with seven wickets in hand. While it was a relatively small score in the context of the season, this innings showed me just how good a player ‘Poynts’ still is. It was a pleasure to watch; not such a pleasure to captain the opposing team, however.

#9 Greg Thompson (Waringstown) 66 (30) v CSNI, T20 Cup Group Match

At the end of May, we played our third T20 fixture of the Cup competition away at the Lawn. We came into the game unbeaten after solid victories chasing against Instonians and Armagh at home. We arrived to a festival atmosphere at the Lawn on a warm day with the sound system playing some cracking tunes. Rather quickly, we realised just how good the pitch was as the hosts raced out to 71 for one after seven overs. Pace on the ball seemed to make it easier to score and Adam Dennison (31 off 17) and James Hall (36 off 21) had made it look very easy before skipper Thompson joined James McCollum at the crease.

44 balls and 82 runs later, Ben Adair changed his pace nicely and beat Thompson in the air and Archie Johnston removed the bails. In between times, Thompson controlled the game, hitting eight fours and four sixes. He swept, lapped, reverse swept, reverse-lapped as well as using his power by lofting and pulling the ball in front of the wicket. As soon as the field was changed, Thompson set about picking out the only place we didn’t have a fielder, regardless of where we bowled. I’ve missed out on seeing the very best of Thompson, having spent 2013-2017 seasons back home in New Zealand, but it was great to be able to witness just how dominant he can be in white ball cricket.

#8 James Shannon 75 (85) v CSN, NCU Premier League

The first premier league game of the season got off to an impressive start as we watched James Shannon bring an international-class intensity to the crease. His running between the wickets and execution of stroke was notable. He communicated clearly with his partner as to which of our fielders had a weak arm and therefore who they could target. It worked a treat and he turned dot balls into ones, ones into twos and twos into threes.

He had very quickly taken the game from in the balance to giving Instonians the clear advantage, adding seven fours and a six to his speed and cunning between the sticks. One particular stroke stands out – he came down the track to Andre Malan (the most successful bowler in the League up until his slightly early departure in August) and lofted the ball straight back over the bowlers’ head for a maximum. It was nonchalant and showed that Shannon is at a completely different level to most other batsmen in the League. Here’s hoping from a Northern Knights’ and Ireland perspective, we see more of the same in 2019.

#7 James McCollum 73 (77) v CSNI, Challenge Cup Final

While it was another player who stole the headlines on the day, McCollum’s innings at Comber was a major contributing factor in the men from The Lawn claiming yet another white ball trophy. In pursuit of 286 to win, McCollum joined Adam Dennison at the crease at 14 for one in the fourth over when Andre Malan had his tail up following the early loss of James Hall for just 6.

Number three is often considered THE most crucial position in the batting line-up and McCollum played a superb hand, which in my opinion proved to be the difference between the two teams. Waringstown’s first-drop added 142 with Dennison for the second wicket, essentially killing the game off on such a fine batting track. Had McCollum let the nerves of a final get to him, the outcome could have been different. He actually outscored his partner during their time together and it was his crisp orthodox stroke-play which brought a real sense of calm around Comber during the chase.

McCollum makes batting look easy with the way he plays the ball so late and rarely takes a risk – as he adds a little more flamboyance and variety to his white-ball game in the coming years, he’s going to go to the next level. His contribution got the Villagers ahead of the chase which took the pressure off Dennison and allowed him to play with more freedom, which is why I rated it so highly. I look forward to watching him at Lord’s this coming summer.

#5 & #6: Shaheen Khan 103* (53) and Greg Thompson 78* (43) v CSNI, T20 Cup Group Match

We won the toss and opted to bowl first on a Friday night at Stormont. Andre Malan produced a brilliant opening spell and should have claimed each of visitors’ top three, had it not been for me putting down the simplest of chances from Dennison at first slip – instead he bowled his four overs up front, finishing with two for 18. At 32 for three in the fifth over, we were right in the hunt. 92 balls later, we walked off the pitch having witnessed surely one of the most destructive partnerships in NCU history.

Thompson and Khan added 197 runs in that time, with a combined 13 fours and 14 sixes. Once the pair got into their groove, they appeared impossible to stop and the sixes weren’t just dropping over the rope, they were sailing well into and over the trees at the city end. It almost became a competition between the pair as to who could hit the biggest home run. It really was one of those unusual days where not one, but two players found their hitting rhythm, and gave our bowlers a very small margin for error.

Once again, while not necessarily enjoying collecting the ball from the bushes, I marvelled at their play. The other thing to consider in terms of the significance of the partnership, was that Waringstown could well have been knocked out of the Cup had they lost the match – this partnership certainly ensured that wouldn’t happen.

#4 Ruhan Pretorius 124* (102) v CSNI, Premier League

This innings was impressive for its simplicity and ease. Now, it must be said that our professional Andre Malan felt rather aggrieved not to have a decision fall in his favour very early on against Pretorius, but the latter certainly made us pay for it. Batting first on one of the best wickets of the season at Stormont, Pretorius basically had fun for 39 overs, hitting the ball where he wanted.

The feature of his innings from my memory was the way he jumped into position against the spinners, giving himself room to hit into and over the off side, often against the spin. He became difficult to pin down and it felt as though anytime he hit a boundary (18 fours and two sixes in all), he either followed it up with another, or a single. If anything, his partners failed to give him the strike as often as he would have liked, otherwise we would have been chasing more.

Rain mid-way through North Down’s innings meant the match was reduced to a 38-over affair, and I thought Pretorius did well to manage the rain delay and still come out and hit the ball cleanly after a long break to set up an imposing total.

#3 Andre Malan 130* (119) v Instonians, Premier League

What struck me about Andre Malan’s first season in the NCU is his ability to accumulate through the middle overs and maintain a high strike rate without relying on his boundary hitting ability. This was a wonderful example of a craftsman at work. Having entered the fray from the third ball of the innings, on a wicket that offered the bowlers a little assistance early on, Malan took complete ownership of the innings.

He shared in partnerships of 118 for the second wicket with Archie Johnston (56), 67 for the third wicket with Aaron Wright and 67 for the fifth wicket with Morgan Topping. Only at the death did he open up and look to play with any risk, otherwise he managed his resources superbly against a weakened Instonians attack to get us up to an above par 284 for five which proved to be plenty.

#2 Andre Malan 140 (134) v North Down, Challenge Cup Quarter Final

Much like the innings above, once Andre gets through his first 20 balls, he’s very difficult to stop. So far, he hasn’t shown us a genuine destructive streak, but perhaps that’s just the weight of responsibility and expectation as the overseas pro. What he does bring to the table is a rare kind of consistency to his performances that plays out in the way he bats. Rarely do you see moments of headline-grabbing attention-seeking options taken, most often just the most assured route to a large and match-winning score.

On this occasion, without one of his partners hanging around long enough to make 30, Malan guided us through to 278 as he was last out with one ball remaining in the innings. Despite the lack of a significant partner, he featured in stands of 77 for the third wicket with Irish T20 captain Gary Wilson and less sizeable contributions of 36 for the sixth wicket with the reliable Corin Goodall and a significant 34 for the 10th wicket Alan Blain.

With 17 fours and two sixes, both struck towards the end of the innings, Malan had turned an average team performance into a match-winning total. He then went out and claimed the first four wickets to fall to leave North Down teetering at 72 for four, a position they would never recover from. This was a true Man of the Match performance from Malan.

#1 Adam Dennison 145* (130) v CSNI, Challenge Cup Final

As far as momentous performances go, surely few will top this as far as Dennison’s career goes and as far as Challenge Cup Finals go. To chase down 286 with relative ease to break his family’s scoring record in a final, to become the highest scoring player in a 50-over one day final and to lift the trophy aloft, it’s going to be hard to beat.

Dennison was immense. To do this as a 21-year-old on such a meaningful occasion shows just how mature he is and, as I’m sure many fans from the NCU and the island of Ireland hope, it shows just how much he has to offer the game. Dennison took few risks to begin his innings as he enjoyed watching James McCollum stroke boundary after boundary in their 142-run stand for the second wicket.

However, as his innings progressed, the diminutive right-hander worked his way through his gears, culminating in a devastating flurry of sixes after he reached his hundred to finish the game in a hurry with 27 balls remaining. Who knows he many he would have finished on if we had to bowl the remaining four-and-a-half overs.

With 12 fours and seven sixes, he provided some dashing stroke play to keep even the purists happy as he led his team to their first Challenge Cup title in five years.

2019

While the weather we had this summer and therefore the wickets we played on are going to be hard to better in 2019, I’m certainly looking forward to watching many of this country’s young players strut their stuff.

There’s plenty of talent around the traps and no doubt we’ll see someone new come to the fore next season. I hope we see another youngster begin to realise their ability just like Adam Dennison did this season. 2018 will be forever remembered for the genius he showed time and time again.