Summer 2017 is a new dawn for Irish cricket as the Hanley Energy Inter-Provincial Series takes on First Class Status. Leading the Northern Knights into this new era is Simon Johnston, the 37-year-old, who was Cricket Ireland Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2015. Simon stepped down from his role as Waringstown Cricket Club Coach on his appointment, and his focus now is fully on the development of the Northern Knights.
His vision for the Northern Knights is to create a pathway that will bridge the gap from the existing NCU youth structure to the Northern Knights. He says, ‘in the NCU there is a very good youth system but after Under 17’s it is a bit mixed, where the expectation is to go and play club cricket and then if they do well get into the Knights, and that is a massive jump.’ The winter training squad incorporates both senior and emerging players, and a programme is in place identifying individual roles for all the players.
Simon says that the granting of First Class status changes the cricketing environment in Ireland ‘massively, it literally changes everything to the extent that there is a career in cricket for certain players’. With Ireland potentially on the cusp of receiving test match status the future could be bright in the long term. In England and Australia player contracts are on a different level as a result of sponsorship, backing and ticket sales. However Simon states that, ‘should additional ICC funding arrive on the back of higher status for Ireland, then inter-pro players can be well-rewarded. Looking ahead the better players who are in the Irish Academies could be professional cricketers and I think that is massively exciting’. Simon feels that for Ireland the watershed moment in international cricket was the West Indies World Cup of 2007, however for the game within Ireland this (First Class Status) is now another watershed moment. He realises that there will always be doom and gloom merchants and asks that people within the NCU ‘embrace it’. He highlights that every test nation has had to start from the bottom and that Bangladesh after twenty years are only getting their game together now. Most importantly Simon realises that, ‘children are talking about it within the Junior ranks, and when I was growing up I never thought that’.
Turning to preparations for the coming season the new coach has looked around the globe for ideas from Ireland A, Northern Titans (South Africa) and Canterbury Stags (New Zealand). The Knights Squad have been training twice a week since November - one to one sessions on a Wednesday night and individual skills sessions on a Sunday. Simon utilises the experience gained from former Irish International cricketers in the skill sessions. Personal fitness programmes have been devised by Brendan Connor that involve three weekly sessions for players. A fitness screening session will be undertaken in February to assess the physical development of the squad. By the beginning of April when the squad moves outdoors they will be fully prepared for the rigours of the cricketing summer.
Traditionally within the Northern Cricket Union the clubs have been the central focus for players and supporters and ‘that should be embraced and is a strength’. Simon has identified the need to develop a Knights culture and team ethic as one of the biggest challenges. He is realistic and is under no illusions that this is a long term project that will develop over time as opposed to an overnight change stating, ‘that is my biggest challenge, that is not going to change overnight, I addressed the players and said that if we don’t come together as a team this will never work’. As such he has asked his players to refrain from wearing club colours or discuss club matters when on Knights duty. The local cricket clubs will be asked to embrace the mindset of the new coach and he plans to address them at an open meeting to sell the concept of the Northern Knights. A new innovation will be to offer the Knights players to coach at the clubs.
Another challenge that will confront Simon Johnston will be time. He states that, ‘we are a First Class team that is not really semi-professional at present and I am asking the players to train twice a week and that is a massive commitment’. Acknowledging the demands on the players of playing first class cricket and the local club game will require careful planning especially in the latter half of the summer when club trophies are on the line. Maximising the time he has with the Knights players will be paramount to successfully meeting the demands put on the players.
The essence of any successful team is the need to integrate young emerging players into the fold. Johnston states that, ‘if we do not create a pathway from Under 17’s to Emerging to Knights this will fall apart after a year.’ He acknowledges that, ‘we are already increasing our pool of senior cricketers that are good enough to represent the Knights – it will take time to get it to where I want but we are starting with a good group’. Over the winter he has been impressed by the emerging Knights to the extent that some are in his early selection thoughts. ‘Competition is good’ and will not only push through new players but ensure a mentality where no player can feel his position on the team is safe. As Johnston states, ‘if I see someone who is more committed I will pick him over the person who is more talented but maybe has not shown the necessary commitment’.
First Class status is a unique situation that the new coach finds himself facing, and he has been quick to examine the approach of other full time teams within cricket. Gary Wilson at Derbyshire and Mark Adair at Warwickshire have been sounding boards for the way County Cricket Clubs operate. Widening the horizon into other sports such as Ulster Rugby and Ulster Tennis has given alternative viewpoints. ‘Sometimes people are scared to take things from different sports, but we should always be looking to learn, and knowledge is power’. He states that there will be inevitable mistakes in this first year and the system will evolve as time goes on. ‘I have cherry picked the best ideas, but the ones I think we can do to maximise our time properly’.
As Simon casts his vision around the globe in this new era it also includes the work of other coaches. The USA tennis guru Alistair McCaw is one he follows on Twitter and has talked to via Skype. ‘He gets coaching, is player centred, and is a believer in making players better people. A good person is a good player’. Another firm favourite and the person Simon credits with his move into cricket coaching is John Wooden from the world of basketball. A philosophy of Simon’s coaching is that in the sporting world it is always possible to find a better idea.