IT has been a strange winter for most people, sports people in particular, and for Boyd Rankin, the strangest ever.

The 36-year-old Ireland international and former Warwickshire professional has just gone seven months without playing cricket for the first time in his career and although he was probably busier than ever he has been counting the days to his first match of the new season.

“I’ve been back home on the farm (in Bready) since the end of October and there’s always something to do. There’s sheep lambing in February/March but life on a farm is busy all the time.”

Boyd on the farm: Pic copyright Sunday Times.

The reason Rankin was off the sporting field all winter was because he lost his Ireland contract, 17 years and 153 games after his debut - but more of that later.

This year, in another novel experience for the Ulsterman, he is playing cricket for Lisburn in the Northern Cricket Union and “really looking forward to it”.

“I was in the squad for Lisburn’s final match of last season but it was rained off so hopefully I finally make my debut next weekend,” he says.

“All the lads have been working really hard in training, we’ve a really good squad, with plenty of talent, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be pushing for trophies.

“With a 10-team Premier League in 2022, there is no relegation this season so that takes a little bit of the pressure off, hopefully free the lads up and it should, in general, produce better cricket all round and teams have the chance to have a look at a few younger players as well. And there are plenty at Lisburn.”

For Rankin it will be a chance to play against many of his Ireland team-mates – there are no fewer than eight current internationals with NCU clubs, which is about seven more than in his native North West.

“First up is Waringstown next Saturday and it will be good to catch up with James McCollum and Kyle (McCallan) and Graham Hume has moved there from Coleraine this year. I’ve played with him in the Warriors side, a really good all-round cricketer and he will be out to impress as he qualifies for Ireland at the end of the year, I think, so has an incentive to break into the Ireland squad.

Boyd Rankin

“But, yes, there’ll be a few familiar names and with the T20s up first – a wise move – they can go either way, no real favourites. It will just depend how we rock up on the day.

“We’re hoping our professional, Faiz Fazal, will be able to get out of India to join us because he is a great asset and had a really good 2019 season and I believe he was captain of the Ranji Trophy winners this year.”

Remarkably, Rankin’s first game for Lisburn will be his first club game in Northern Ireland for 15 years but he insists he is looking forward to this season as much as his debut for Bready.

“It’s great to be back living here full-time and I’m now looking forward to playing again. I’ve been training quite a bit with the Warriors and am feeling pretty fresh. I didn’t pick up a ball for six months and it has helped the body and mind.

“Once you’ve had that time out you realise how much you’ve missed it so looking forward to playing cricket and meeting the guys again, because the last six months have been non-existent for meeting or socialising with people. It’s been a long winter.”

Speaking for the first time about life as a non-contracted Ireland player, Rankin believes he still has plenty to offer.

Wicket for Boyd Rankin in the T20 World Cup Qualifier against Afghanistan

“The T20 World Cup in India in October is a target. I think an extended squad is going and that is my aim. I still feel I can perform at that level but it is frustrating.”

And although he turns 37 years of age in July, he says age is just a number.

“I don’t really like putting numbers on things,” adds Rankin. “You just want to play as long as you can. In sport, in general, people look too much at age, that shouldn’t come into it if you are still good enough to perform.

“For now, I’m just trying to enjoy my cricket and if it doesn’t happen it is what it is. I'm coaching Lisburn's Academy boys on Friday evenings and I’ll always be here to help the bowlers and the young lads coming through.”