Northern Cricket Union
NCU Facebook Page
Lisburn and CIYMS will meet in the Gallagher Challenge Cup semi-finals today having shared many similarities this season; both have progressed in major cup competitions, both finished in the league's top-six but perhaps most importantly, both brought in a new coach ahead of the campaign.
Two former internationals – Ireland's Uel Graham and New Zealander Ian Butler – are in post at the respective clubs and the teams will likely be fighting it out for the rest of this season for major honours, starting this afternoon at Wallace Park.
Lisburn finished last season bottom of the table with three wins from 14 matches, but flash forward 10 months or so later and they've opened up an eight-point gap at the top and have sealed progression to the latter stages of both the Challenge and Irish Senior Cup. They are on the verge of a truly historic season – the last time they won a league title was in 1993 and last outright win in the Challenge Cup was that 1985 success – and although not many on the outside had them down as a team that would be going deep in competitions, Graham felt the opposite – and has proved to be correct.
An emphasis has been placed on individuals – taking responsibility for their performances, stepping up when the team requires – which ultimately has helped the collective.
"When you look at some of our stats, we have 10 guys who have made a contribution of 30+ and it has been those vital contributions late on setting a score or chasing that has got us over the line in tight games," he said. "We've seen greater contributions with the bat and lots of different players have come to the fore on different occasions. With the ball, we have seven or eight options and seven have bowled more than 50 overs and have double digit wicket contributions. It has been that which has got us to the position we're in now."
It's crucial that the captain-coach relationship thrives for a team to be pushing in the same direction in a successful environment, and Graham has known Atkinson for well over 10 years through working as colleagues at the Northern Cricket Union and a young Atkinson even played in Graham's final club game for Lisburn in May 2008! There has been a sense of learning together as they go with both in new roles and along the way they've developed a winning formula.
Familiarity has been a theme running through the squad for Graham, whether it's going back to his playing days or development roles within the NCU, he has worked with most of the players previously in some capacity which has helped with a seamless transition. Despite their success though (they've only lost one 50-over match all season), he's looking to keep their feet on the ground while also trying to strike a balance of enjoying the journey they've been on.
"I probably set the bar pretty high for myself and those around me which can be a detriment at times, but when we look at the start of the season our hopes were to break into the top-six and go on a cup run," he added. "To be involved in three competitions in early July is great but my job is to keep the guys firmly on the ground in conjunction with Callum but to enjoy where we've got to. It's a cup semi-final on Saturday but we've been very good at staying in the moment and not getting carried away with external noise."
In contrast, this is Butler's first involvement with the Gallagher Challenge Cup after relocating to Northern Ireland with his family earlier this year and becoming Director of Cricket at Belmont. He has extensive experience both at international level where he represented New Zealand 53 times across formats but also in the UK, playing for the likes of Gloucestershire, Kent and Northamptonshire while spending 10 summers in the club game. The 40-year-old has settled in quickly to his new role and alongside first team duties, a large part of his coaching brief is to bring through the next generation of CIYMS stars that can sustain and build on the success they've had in recent times.
Having spent seven years at Otago in his homeland alongside Brendon McCullum, the creator of 'Bazball' which has seemingly transformed Test cricket in recent months, Butler has a very similar outlook on the sport and how he believes it should be played. He values creating an environment where players can be free to play their natural game without the fear of failure after McCullum and Coach Mike Hesson helped transform his own career.
"What people don't understand is that cricket is an amazing game that we make complicated," he said. "If you teach kids how to express themselves, whether that's hitting the ball hard or bowling fast, if you teach players to show their skills rather than fearing failure I think they go a lot further. When you take away the negative thought process about cricket, it's amazing how you play so much better. I had seven years at Otago where Mike Hesson and Brendon McCullum changed my career.
"I was told I wasn't good enough to play for my First-Class team Northern Districts anymore and then Otago rang and said I was still good enough to play for New Zealand. When people express belief in you and tell you to showcase your skills, it changed my career and I know I can't change kid's careers because they haven't started, but I want to help them progress through their career not looking at the negatives. Look at England – they are playing fearless cricket which is working well for them right now. Hopefully CI play with that fearlessness for the rest of the year because we have to find a way of believing we can chase Lisburn down."
It feels that Butler's philosophy and the squad of players he is working with at CIYMS will be a match made in heaven, with the likes of Ross Adair and John Matchett enabled to throw caution to the wind and they've had great success, while Mark Adair – who Butler played club cricket with in Birmingham previously – is one of the most exciting players in the country. Ross in particular is stamping his authority on most games and undoubtedly putting himself in the minds of international selectors in the process.
"I certainly don't enjoy throwing to him because it's life-threatening at times!" said Butler. "I just love the guy's attitude – he plays with no fear and backs his game and I think he's a phenomenal talent. I personally see him as an opener; he doesn't slog but plays good, hard shots and if you have to bowl to him with a new ball and only two fielders out, it's a really tough thing to do. I would like to see him succeed with Ireland at the top level but all he can do is keep banging down the door with scores."
CIYMS currently occupy fourth spot in the league, eight points adrift of Lisburn with five matches to play and are one of four teams that sit on 24 points after the split. Getting a taste of Irish club cricket for the first time, Butler has been mightily impressed by the competitiveness and standard on show.
"I've been really pleasantly surprised," he said. "I really like 50-over cricket because you need depth across the whole team and there are so many talented players here. The good thing about having a smaller pool of players is that if you perform well you get a chance to compete for higher honours. The team has already been formed and they have a really good balance, but we have some really talented youngsters coming through and it's about helping them to develop so they can play Premier League cricket. All top-six teams are really strong so it's going to be a great finish. Nobody would have said at the start of the year that any team would have a lead but Lisburn essentially have a three-game lead and to have five teams chasing them down is going to be a great finish."
In the other semi-final, CSNI travel to Section One outfit Derriaghy, who have reached this stage of the competition for the first time in their history.
Gallagher Challenge Cup Semi-Final fixtures:
© Northern Cricket Union