NORTH Down have swooped to snap up Paul Stirling in one of the NCU’s biggest ever signings.

The new Ireland vice-captain and hard-hitting opening batsman has moved back to Belfast and although club cricket was not top of his priorities when he chose to extend his international career rather than his county contract at Middlesex, Covid-19 has changed all that.

“If we had a full fixture list with Ireland, the inter-pros and potentially a T20 Blast it would have been full on and I would have been asking myself if I needed the weekend off,” said Stirling last night. “But that question has gone out the window this summer. I haven’t played any cricket for three months so it would be wrong not to take the opportunity to have a hit at weekends.”

Conversations with North Down chairman Peter Shields have been ongoing for the last couple of months and the Comber ground is just a 10-minute drive from his new home in east Belfast.

“It is nice to have a base and when the facilities are passed I’m looking forward to training and meeting my new team-mates.

“Obviously I know Craig Young (his Ireland colleague) very well, but it is an exciting, young team. My memory of the NCU is from 10 years ago, North Down were always up there and I enjoyed playing at Comber, the wickets always brilliant. Hopefully I can play a part when the season gets going and if fixtures fall in certain windows I can get a few games in.”

The sooner it gets going the better for North Down because, at the moment, Stirling could be playing as few as three games for his new club. If the NCU season starts, as anticipated, on July 25, and Ireland’s one-day internationals with England go ahead, he will miss the first two weekends as they clash with, Ireland’s training camp in Southampton and then the three-match series.

Then, there is a provisional starting date of August 25 for the T20 Blast in England and Stirling has already signed up for Northamptonshire which again will take preference.

But while Stirling is at Comber – and he hasn’t agreed anything beyond this season – he will be one of the first to arrive and among the last to leave the club.

“I’m certainly not going to play a game, get in the car and leave,” adds Stirling. “I’ll be playing with my mates and that’s the most important thing for me. Club cricket is different from international and professional cricket, it’s not completely reliant on results, it’s more about playing hard on the field and enjoying yourself off it.”

It has turned out to be quite a week for the 29-year-old, after receiving a call from Ireland skipper Andy Balbirnie asking him to be his deputy and now he returns to Premier League cricket back home for the first time since he played for local club Cliftonville against Carrickfergus at the start of the last decade.

“There are exciting challenges ahead. Being back here full time (after 10 years with Middlesex) is something new and newness gives you more energy, something to prove to people who haven’t seen you bat close up. So there is a lot to be confident and excited about going forward.”