CSNI finished fourth in the Robinson Services Premier League in 2019, ending on 28 points after winning seven of their 14 league matches – four points and one league position better than 2018.
When it came to cup competitions, they played the eventual champions in both the Gallagher Challenge Cup and Irish Senior Cup and were more than competitive in both matches, losing by four wickets to CIYMS in the semi-final of the former and by three wickets to Pembroke in the quarter-final of the latter.
The Twenty20 Cup was a bit of a write off, finishing bottom of Group B after winning one of their six matches in a group that contained North Down, Instonians and Muckamore.
With a better league performance but without reaching a major final like they did last season, how does skipper James Kennedy reflect on the campaign?
“I’ve heard a lot of people comment that CSNI are the ultimate under achievers and you don’t know what you’re going to get, which I find is a strange label for us to get,” he said.
“We won seven and lost seven, were middle of the road and finished fourth. We arguably could have done better.
“We lost once against Waringstown, once against North Down and twice against CIYMS, which are four games you want to win and play as well as you can, but there was only one of those that we didn’t play at our full potential.
“Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose them, and we lost a bad one to Muckamore which we shouldn’t have done.
“We lost two games in September in the T20 format when we were playing our younger lads. It’s very easy to pull out of those matches but I think it’s important for the integrity of the league and sponsors that every game is played.
“It was a great opportunity for some of our young lads to perform despite losing. So we lost seven and won seven – hopefully we can improve on that next year.”
As previously mentioned, the Stormont side narrowly missed out on deeper progression in the two biggest cup competitions, and Kennedy believes his squad deserve more credit for those performances.
“Last year we had the Challenge Cup final and were very disappointed to lose in that,” he added when asked if he felt his men progressed from 2018.
“This year, we lost a close game in the semi-final to eventual winners CIYMS, got to the Irish Cup quarter-final and lost a classic to Pembroke, who went on to win it, so you can look at the outcomes of both those matches and say we could have went on to win one of those two trophies, but we didn’t.
“We were a lot closer than we get credit for in those games. The big disappointment this season was that we relied so heavily on Andre (Malan) with bat and ball – he was sensational.
“Elly (Marc Ellison) batted well and Grum (Graeme McCarter) bowled well, but the rest of us, myself included, had a disappointing season with bat and ball.
“That’s something we want to develop more next year and hopefully we can help those guys that do perform.”
Overseas professional Andre Malan was again the best player in the NCU, scoring a region-high 1238 runs at an average of 65.16 and collected 41 wickets.
While it is unknown at this current time if the South African will return for a third campaign in Belfast, Kennedy is disappointed the rest of the squad couldn’t provide more support for Malan.
“Andre was fantastic,” he said.
“You are running out of superlatives to describe his form with bat and ball. It was just disappointing we didn’t step up to support him as much as we could have. He is a superb cricketer.
“He was brilliant and is a great guy to have around. Hopefully he can have a good season back home.”
Opening batsman Marc Ellison collected the Larry Warke Trophy for Batting at Saturday’s NCU annual dinner after scoring 699 runs in the Premier League at an average of 49.93.
The only player that could better that tally was team-mate Malan, so it is clear that the platform for success is there at CSNI.
“He had a good season but he will tell you he could have done better,” said Kennedy.
“He batted well and is a great player. There will be more runs in him again next year I have no doubt.
“Hopefully, outside of Andre and Elly, we can step up and add more runs and be more competitive.”
Ireland’s Twenty20 captain Gary Wilson was back at CSNI for the 2019 season after spending over a decade in England with Surrey and Derbyshire, and while his time with the club was limited due to international and Northern Knights commitments, his influence was still felt in the changing room.
“It was great having Gary back,” added Kennedy.
“He’s obviously a great player, is a great guy and it was great having him around, but looking at the schedules it appears we might not have him too much next year either.
“That’s just the nature of where local cricket is going. It’s already happening with the international players, but I reckon it isn’t too far away where the Inter-Provincial players aren’t available and it’s something we will have to get used to, accept it and play the best we can without them.”
CSNI have gave many young players a chance in the past few years, with Archie Johnston, Matty Foster and Morgan Topping all mainstays in the squad throughout the season.
More were handed opportunities towards the end of the season and throughout the 2019 campaign, and Kennedy believes that will stand the club in good stead going forward.
“We blooded a lot of young people this year,” he said.
“It’s tough coming into the Premier League but they really enjoyed it and they enjoyed being about the squad, and that’s half the battle.
“It’s a massive step up but as long as they can come off that pitch having enjoyed it and learned something from the older players.
“Those two T20’s against Carrick and Instonians in September were the perfect example of giving 13-15 year olds a chance to bat and bowl and they loved it.
“They excelled at what they did and hopefully that’ll be a good grounding for them.”