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Upbeat CIYMS captain Nigel Jones hopeful of meaningful campaign for Ulster cricket

 

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High hopes: Nigel Jones believes cricket can still come back strongly

High hopes: Nigel Jones believes cricket can still come back strongly

High hopes: Nigel Jones believes cricket can still come back strongly

This was supposed to be one of Nigel Jones' busiest months of the year. As captain of CIYMS, coach of Leinster Lightning and Director of Cricket at Trinity, he should have been juggling his various roles ahead of the start of the cricket season today.

But, instead, Ireland's adopted New Zealander spent his 38th birthday on Wednesday, in his fifth week of lockdown, home schooling his two daughters and talking, at length, to the Belfast Telegraph.

"For the last 10 years, at this time of the year, I've rarely been in the house so it's nice to spend so much time at home and between my wife and I we're managing the home schooling," he said.

"Lucy is seven and is easy enough to parent, Emily is P6 and with AQE next year, it takes a bit more concentration. We try to do three hours a day but we spread it out. It's difficult for them as they're not getting to see their mates so you try not to be too strict. It's all about creating your own schedules."

Quite when this unusual life will end, however, remains unknown and the skipper of the CIYMS side which made a clean sweep of all the NCU trophies last year does not know why the NCU this week gave July 18 as the latest starting date for the season.

"No other union has committed to a date," said Jones. "If we get two months, yes we should be able to get one round of league games, keep the big cup competition and it's easy enough to fit the T20 around it.

"But even if the start is delayed until August, these are unprecedented times so you could make the league a T20 competition, say two games a day or back-to-back Saturday and Sunday, rather than have two full days every week.

"I'd be disappointed if we couldn't have a meaningful competition of some description in August because I'm sure, if there wasn't, clubs would arrange games between themselves."

The defending league champions have made just one change in personnel from their all-conquering season with David Miller, a wicket-keeper batsman from Muckamore, replacing Ryan Hunter, who has returned to his native North West, although the decision has already been taken to go without a professional.

"We signed (South African all-rounder) Migael Pretorius but we have had to release him because we don't know what the season is going to look like. It'll save us a few quid. But he seems keen to come on board next year so we will pick up the phone in the next couple of weeks," said Jones.

"But I'm happy with the squad and looking to push on again, equal what we did last year or even sacrifice one cup to finally get my hands on the Irish Cup. I want to do that before I hang up the boots."

It is just about the only trophy missing from Jones' CV for a life in cricket which started as a five-year-old playing club cricket!

"You play club cricket in New Zealand as opposed to school cricket at primary school. You start in what we call 'D' cricket, plastic bat and balls and that goes up to 'A' grade which is P7, although at 'A' and 'B' grade it is judged on playing standard as opposed to age, and you are now playing with a harder ball.

"When you go to secondary/grammar school the talented youngsters progress to adult cricket. But in the big cities they have a Schools' Cup and the 1st XIs play throughout the country, the South Island schools playing against the North Island.

"I grew up in Geraldine, a little town in south Canterbury, about an hour and a half south of Christchurch. I left school at 17 to go to Christchurch, mainly because of my cricket, and played for St Albans, which is the biggest membership club in New Zealand, based at Hagley Park, now the Test ground in the city. I played with Chris Harris and Chris Martin, the Test match opening bowler.

"I didn't make it to first-class cricket there - it was strong competition - but was involved in the white-ball stuff, played 2nd XI for two or three years, did well and was then a professional for a couple of years in Scotland."

Jones arrived in Northern Ireland in 2003 and spent three years at Cooke, flying back each year to New Zealand for their season.

But in 2006, he moved here full-time, married Rosalyn, whom he had met in Scotland, and spent the next nine seasons at Civil Service North, captaining them for the last eight. Three years later he was making his Ireland debut - ironically, against New Zealand.

"When I was at Cooke I obviously realised there was an Irish team but it wasn't really on my radar but (then coach) Adi Birrell invited me to a training session at North County, their last before the 2007 World Cup, and it was then I thought I might give it a crack," recalled Jones.

"The 2008 and '09 seasons were big for me and it's funny how things work out. I was mainly a top order bat, didn't bowl much but Boyd (Rankin) got injured, and Adi had said, 'Don't neglect your bowling'. I got called into the Irish team for the tour of Sri Lanka at the start of 2010 and didn't miss a tour for the next two years.

That included the 2011 World Cup in India, when Ireland famously beat England in Bangalore.

"It was a brilliant experience to be at the World Cup, although me and Albie (van der Merwe) were the only players who didn't get a game. But it was a strong, experienced squad and Simmo (Phil Simmons) stuck with them," he said.

Eighteen months later, after playing in the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka, Jones shocked everyone by retiring from the international scene, but looking back he has no regrets.

"It was nice to go out, knowing I had cracked it. But work and our second child coming along made my decision to quit pretty easy. There were not nearly as many (Ireland) contracts then so it was the right decision for me and my family," he said.

The experience, however, has stood him in good stead and he is now the go-to coach throughout the island.

When Van der Merwe stepped down as coach of the all-conquering Leinster Lightning side last year, Jones got the job and last month he accepted the post of Director of Cricket at Trinity College.

"Trinity are in a unique position, playing only in the first half of the season, the League Cup, but a high standard of competition. Good cricketers go there but they want to build a cricket programme; it's a three-year concept. Cricket Leinster thought it was a good idea, it ticked boxes. I'm coming on board as player-coach, not captain, just adding to the playing standard," he said.

With players unable to register for two clubs in different unions, it looked as if the playing aspect could have been a problem.

"I'm not moving from the NCU, it's just a job opportunity. I put my request in writing to NCU, saying I would miss only one game that clashed with CIYMS, and they were completely happy with that and I got approval just before lockdown. They said it was up to Leinster to agree that I could register there and I knew they are fine with that," he said.

So it's another iron in the fire for Jones but he insists he can cope.

"It looks like the League Cup will not happen this season anyway, but I will be doing a lot of coaching sessions in the winter and build a cricket support programme for next year. There will still be some planning and admin but it's not a massive amount of time. It's a part-time role and I'm only busy from January to the end of May," he said.

"The only full-time job I have is as pathway manager with Cricket Ireland. I'm incredibly busy but it's manageable."

And with that, he went off to pick up the home schooling.

Belfast Telegraph