Going from strength to strength

Jersey cricket v Malaysia World League Division 4 2014. Andy Dewhurst. (37668427)

NEXT month Neil MacRae will pack away what material possessions he has left on his desk – a mug, a picture frame of his wife and kids, a couple of old copies of The Cricketer magazine, a ball signed by all his players, perhaps – into an empty archive box that was kicking around. He’ll take one last look around Grainville, breathe in the fresh spring air and be reminded of the many memories of success and the legacy he leaves behind.

Ten years is a long time in sport but ten years ago can also feel like yesterday. It was that long ago that MacRae was appointed head coach of Jersey cricket and the start of a brave new era that began in Malaysia and Division Five of the ICC World Cricket League.

The former Scotland international had pedigree, having worked with his home national team and taken Austria from 23rd to 9th in the European rankings, but he also had vast experience with junior performance programmes too.

The foundations for a really good side were already in place. Under previous coach, Australian Craig Hogan, who left to run the national cricket academy in Ireland, Jersey had already strolled through Division Six the previous summer, hosting the tournament which drew countries from all around the globe. Argentina, Bahrain, Kuwait, Nigeria and Vanuatu all did battle on this small speck in the ocean but Jersey beat them all with ease, with captain Peter Gough leading the away with an average of just under 50 runs per match. MacRae was obviously impressed but also saw an opportunity to push Jersey forward.

“I’m excited by the young squad… the whole package… a combination of a good cricket structure but also having room build and expand,” said the Scot upon his appointment. “I want to drive it forward.”

Promotion meant Jersey had the chance the travel to the other side of the Earth, and going with them were their Channel Island rivals Guernsey to add a little extra edge to the proceedings. Waiting for them were the hosts, Nigeria again, Tanzania and Cayman Islands, but Jersey were full of confidence going into the tournament and had acclimatised well to the humid conditions in Kuala Lumpur.

“The time is right for this squad,” declared MacRae before they faced Nigeria in their opening match. “We know with the players we have, if we play to our top level, that’ll be good enough to win this tournament.

“It’s obviously testing conditions [but] we’re feeling more and more comfortable with each day it passes.”

The squad had a fair combination of experience and youthful vigour. Captain Gough was the natural leader and played in Jersey’s first ever ICC World Cricket League appearance against Singapore in Jersey in 2008, along with bowler Tom Minty. Meanwhile, Aussie expat Dean Morrison was once selected for the Australia Aboriginal national team. In contrast, making his tournament debut for Jersey was 16-year-old sensation Jonty Jenner, the new blue-eyed boy for Island cricket, whose father, Ward Jenner, was considered one of Jersey’s greatest ever batsmen.

Jersey had played in a World Cricket League tournament in Malaysia before, in Division Six in 2011, finishing fourth out of six. To add insult to injury, the division was won by Guernsey. Nine of the 14-man squad had survived but Gough was adamant that this version were a much improved outfit.

“In terms of where the players are, most are at their peak in their early 20s. We’ve got a good young side, but most have experience of the World Cricket League as well… this team is definitely up there with our best,” said Gough before praising MacRae for the technical and tactical work they had been focusing on.

“The preparation has been as good as we’ve ever done.”

Nigeria were expected to provide Jersey’s toughest test and were up first. Jersey had beaten them the summer before by six wickets and, thanks in the main to Gough (66) and Ben Stevens’ (49) first-innings partnership, they had an equally comfortable time, winning by 60 runs. Stevens also took three wickets while Jenner became the youngest player ever to represent the senior side in a competitive fixture while piecing together an unbeaten knock of 26. “Efficient cricket,” said a pleased MacRae, whose tenure had got off to the perfect start.

And things only got a whole lot of easier as Jersey cakewalked to promotion to Division Four. They smashed Tanzania by 102 runs, thrashed the hosts by eight wickets and ripped through Cayman Islands on the way to a 122-run victory. The final game of the round-robin phase was against old foes Guernsey, who hadn’t won any of their four opening games. Naturally, though, their contest was the fiercest, with Jersey winning the match by only one wicket, the winning four runs scored off the last ball of the penultimate over by Minty.

Jersey topped the group and were automatically promoted, along with Malaysia, but not before the two sides met again in the final, for what was little more than a gilded exhibition match. The result was the same: an easy 71-run win.

Stevens was the star of the show, the 21-year-old named Player of the Series for his valuable contribution of 403 runs and 13 wickets over the six games, including five half-centuries.

But it wasn’t all sunshine, smiles and celebrations as former Jersey Cricket Board chairman, Keith Dennis, who was there to cheer them on, died suddenly at the beginning of the week. Naturally, the victory was dedicated to his memory.

“[It] put the whole thing into perspective. He was a legend of Jersey Cricket and this victory is for him,” said MacRae. Nevertheless, whether that gave the team extra incentive or inspiration, Jersey’s performance gave the cricket world, and themselves, a real eye opener into the team’s potential harnessed by MacRae.

“It’s unbelievable. All the hard work through our winter has paid off and the guys will have deserved their celebrations,” added MacRae.

JCB chief executive Chris Minty was less understated in his appraisal. “Without doubt, this is Jersey cricket’s best moment at a World Cricket League event,” he beamed, while Gough hailed “a fantastic all-round performance… we’ve shown just how much we’ve come on as a team.”

Cricket tournaments come around quick and fast as organisers try to squeeze in schedules within schedules for all formats, and Jersey had only three months to prepare before they were back in old Malaya to play Division Three in Singapore. It also says much for the commitment to the cause that only three changes were made to the squad of amateurs taking weeks off work (or, in Jenner’s case, school) at a time.

Unfortunately, the bubble burst as Jersey finished bottom and suffered immediate relegation back to Division Five, with Malaysia finishing second to their island neighbours and hosts for a successive promotion. It was an abrupt reality check and, over the next few years, Jersey would struggle to find their level in the 50-over format – too good for Division Five, not good enough for Division Four, yo-yoing between the two before being placed in the newly structured World Cup Challenge League. That eventually culminated in winning League B, on home soil again, in 2022, possibly the greatest triumph in their history. The subsequent World Cup Qualifier Play-off would prove a bridge too far once more and, at the end of this year, the whole process will begin again for the 2027 World Cup. It will feel very different with MacRae not there, but new coach Paul Hutchison not only inherits the most competitive team in the history of cricket in Jersey, but benefits from a structure and pathway laid down by his predecessor to ensure the Island maintains its success in future generations and, hopefully, one day, surpasses it.

“The ten years I enjoyed with Jersey Cricket have been incredible,” MacRae told the JEP earlier this year. “We have experienced so much growth and so many highs.”

“His record clearly speaks for itself,” said his captain Chuggy Perchard. “Jersey Cricket is in a far better place through Neil’s guidance.”

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