Johnny Morton (www.jmsport.co.uk)
If everything had gone to plan, Jeremy Benton would have had a couple of games under his belt in a debut NCU season at this point.
The 24-year-old was one of the most anticipated arrivals in the local game this summer having spent time with Cork County and captaining Munster Reds in the Inter-Provincial Twenty20 series.
With the current coronavirus pandemic, that debut has been pushed back until at least May 28 and Benton could potentially have to wait until next summer to get a taste of NCU cricket.
His original destination was set to be Premier League side CSNI with the Stormont club making no secret of their desire to acquire his services, but due to not currently qualifying for a Tier Five visa, Benton was going to spend the 2020 season in Section One.
He made the move to Belfast in September with some advice from a couple of familiar names and a desire to challenge himself in the competitive club environment.
“A few things made the move up north an easy one for me,” he said. “Playing against the Northern Knights over the past couple of seasons, they really impressed me by their performances on the field and looked like they had a good thing going off it too.
“Talking with other people like Jonesy (Nigel Jones) and Elly (Marc Ellison) who grew up in New Zealand and made the move over, they highly recommended it. It was great to talk about it with people from a familiar background.
“By what I had seen of the city of Belfast in the short time I had visited there playing with Cork County really attracted me to it and seemed like it would be a cool place to live.
“I also have a Business and Marketing Degree so I am trying to push that as much as I can when cricketing commitments allow and Belfast seemed like a great place to do that.”
It is only a matter of time before Benton makes his way into the Premier League and it seems Stormont will be his home at some point soon. With an ever-improving youth section also in place at CSNI, Benton would have doubled his playing role with coaching and the club’s future plan is one that excited him.
“I was lucky enough to get in touch with Gary (Wilson) last year and I really enjoyed the idea of what CSNI’s goals were as well as their future plans and objectives,” he added.
“The junior section of the club looks like they are motivated to grow numbers and teach kids from a young age. This will not only be good for the future of CSNI but the NCU too.
“Gary was really helpful along with many great people of the club which made the move up north really easy.
“The ground at Stormont is pretty awesome and I loved playing there last year (for the All-Ireland Twenty20 Cup) and hopefully get to play there in the future years.”
Benton had been training during the winter with the Northern Knights with the aim of breaking into a side that won their first piece of silverware since 2013 last season. The hard-hitting batsman will almost certainly play a role with the Knights when cricket gets back up and running, adding another quality performer to their ranks.
“I loved the off season work I did within the Knights set-up,” he said. “I was fortunate to work with a few of the guys in the team as well as Jonty (Simon Johnston, head coach) leading up to the scheduled season.
“The facilities at Ulster University have been great and we were unlucky that we only got to use the new machines for a couple of sessions that were organised just before the lockdown, but it looked like it was all positive signs for what the group was working towards.
“If I get the opportunity to give playing for them a crack that would be awesome, especially with how much success they’ve had in the last couple of years and to be part of that would be pretty cool.”
While the exciting next step in Benton’s cricket career has been put on temporary hold, he is looking forward to getting underway at some point and has been impressed with everything he has seen within the NCU so far.
“From what I’ve seen and heard about the NCU it’s been great,” he added. “It looks like the organisation are planning towards the future and around facilities plus competitions are positive for all involved.
“It was great to get the opportunity to coach a few of the younger lads over the winter and it’s impressive what skill level they’re already at and their knowledge of the game.
“It’s a bit of a shame that we haven’t managed to get any cricket in this year so far as I’m sure it would have been great. but there’s definitely bigger things happening around the world at the moment and hopefully we can get back to normality to enjoy the summer of cricket.”
Currently back in New Zealand, Benton will return to Northern Ireland with aspirations that go beyond both club and Inter-Provincial cricket. He will be working towards fulfilling his childhood dream of playing international cricket, and while he is under no illusions about how much hard work will have to be put in to wear the famous Irish green, he is determined to enjoy the journey.
“It has always been a goal to play international cricket since a young age and that definitely still stands,” he said.
“It was good to play in the Inter-Provincial T20s over the past couple of seasons and was looking forward to pushing towards playing all formats this year. Hopefully there is still a chance to get the season in.
“With the amount of cricket that Ireland are playing nowadays, there is definitely motivation to strive for the higher level. “I think it’s a case of putting performances in as well as enjoying my cricket and then the rest will fall in to place somewhere along the line.”