Smiling and relaxed, Chris Burns takes his seat opposite me to discuss the finer points of the 2018 season. In what was widely regarded as Bangor Cricket Club’s best season for many years, the beautiful brutality of his batting style has undoubtedly been the symbol of the exciting new era that has dawned for the club. It is more than that though. Chris is buzzing to be here and his whole demeanour is infectious, a fact he readily alludes to:
“You know Dixo, it’s the weirdest thing. It’s the first season we’ve ended that I can genuinely say I am missing cricket. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t discussed with Andy (Nixon) either cricket or making gains.”
The ‘gains’ Chris are talking about brings us on to his other passion in life, physical fitness. The man sitting opposite me is a far cry from the comparably tiny 13 year old who first came to my attention in the middle of the 2006 season. We discuss briefly an innings he played at Londonderry Park for the Mighty 4th XI in a match against Ards. Having lost two quick wickets, Burns entered the fray and played shots that belied his years, for a chanceless innings of 35 not out. It was a fantastic innings from someone so young and put the team into a winning position. However, a stalwart of that side, Evan ‘Marv’ Fraser, was critical in one aspect “it was a fine innings, but he would need to bulk up a bit.”* Bulk up he did, the present day Burns is a colossus, a point that he is keen to highlight gives him an edge when it comes to his batting.
“I train hard and I practice hard and I know I’m stronger than anyone in the league. That gives me the confidence to play the way I do but mainly it’s a feel thing. I need to feel the ball on the middle of the bat early, if I do that I know that I am in for the score.” I’m immediately drawn to this concept of ‘feel’. Burns has been a flamboyant batsman for many seasons now with the ability to score fast runs not in question, but this season has been different. In the space of four glorious weeks Chris scored three centuries against Deriaghy and Lurgan twice. The last of these, 139 no in the T20 against Lurgan, was watched in a state of delighted shock by those fortunate enough to see it. It was phenomenal in its devastation.
Burns has always had this raw power with the bat so there must be more to it. “The mindset of the team is completely different now. Until last year, I used to be sent out to bat with the thought process of ‘see where we are after ten overs’ but that has changed. I can put us firmly on the front foot by taking advantage of the fielding restrictions in those opening overs and, as seen this season, we can be miles ahead very quickly.” These fast starts have been glorious to watch this year and there is a real sense that this Bangor team has found their identity in the way that they want to play cricket. The change in psychology has been enabled by Burns’ teammates, “I’ll hit a six and Nicky (McCollum) will walk down, pump fists and say ‘great shot’. Taimur (Khan) will tell me I will see my ball and I believe him every time. Andy scores his runs in a different way and Adam (McCusker) has been a revelation at five, the gutsiest cricketer I have ever seen. The top order all know our jobs and this more than anything enables me to hit dingers.”
There it is. That word – ‘dingers’. We both laugh because we know what is coming. I don’t know the etymology of the word ‘dingers’ and coming from a more traditional cricketing background I was initially sceptical, especially since for a number of seasons ‘hitting dingers’ seem to be the be all and end of a Saturday afternoon’s entertainment. A dinger is a big hit. It can be a four or a six but it must be a big hit. Burns’ rolls his eyes in mock frustration as I ask him about the science of hitting dingers. He knows the futility of explaining dingers to a man who doesn’t have the ability to hit one. The mere mention of the word and his eyes light up explaining the different type of dingers and the joy he gets from hitting them. The ultimate dinger is claimed to be the one that clears the sight screen over the bowler’s head, “All dingers are equal, but some dingers…” The thought of the ultimate dinger is too much for Chris to finish his Orwellian metaphor as he is stopped dead by the thought of the ball sailing into the clear Bangor sky.
All of this is a world away from 22nd July 2017, barely 15 months before this conversation. Bangor faced Cliftonville at Mallusk in a perilous position at the foot of Section One. Cliftonville had set 279 to win and the team was on the verge of falling apart. “Everything was wrong that day. I had been at my sister’s wedding the day before and I didn’t want to play. The fielding was one of the worst performances I can remember from a Bangor side and to top it all I was a felon. I had walked out of a Spar in East Belfast without paying for any of my items. Seriously, it was all too much.” Widely regarded as the day the Bangor revival began, Burns and Mark English attacked the Cliftonville bowling and set the platform for a famous victory. Bangor needed every win they could get and they avoided relegation by a single win.
The first half of that season had led Chris, and many of his teammates, to question their desire to keep playing the game they had grown up playing. “More and more I began to question ‘why am I playing cricket?’ I didn’t want to just play the game because that was my game, I was the cricket guy who was just playing the game because he had grown up playing it. There must be something better to do with my Saturdays. I was questioning everything, it was awful.” Burns wasn’t alone but from somewhere the team found the considerable resolve to stay up. The revolution had started but an overhaul in the mindset was needed. Under duress from an unlikely source Burns took on the captaincy reins again.
“Dad had been in my ear for a while and we were at a rugby club corporate lunch. I was standing at the bar with loads of beers on board talking to Alison and she said that I was the only one that could do it. As the idea started to form in my mind my Dad was there to convince me. As sobriety dawned I agreed to do it but we would divide up the roles.” The captaincy has been a poisoned chalice for Bangor Cricket Club players. Burns described how it worked this season, “Basically, I took on selection with the help of my Dad. Adam committed to training. Andy and Nicky, who have superior cricketing brains than myself took on the on field duties. Andy and Beachy helped with the Spectator reports respectively, Ricky (McLarnon) did social and this really worked for us. It got us all involved and allowed us to take ownership of our team.” This is as far from the traditional role of a captain as is possible and rancoured with a few of the elder statesmen of the club. To the older generation the captain was responsible for everything and Burns was respectful in his answer to this, “we had to find a way that worked for us. The world has changed and cricket has changed and for the first time in a long time we have found a way to make our first team enjoyable and successful.” At this stage, Burns provided the first exclusive of this interview series, he will be club captain in 2019.
Burns is respectful of the position he holds. He talks with great pride about what it is to be Bangor Captain and how the greatest compliment he gets are from our younger members. “Honestly, somebody said that Seb Yeates loves to see me bat. When I was younger I couldn’t wait to get up to Uprichard to see Hutchy bat. You just can’t beat that.” A man of Burns’ talent must be in demand though. Our conversation turns to offers from other clubs. “I’ve had offers from other clubs, mainly as a result of people I’ve come through the NCU set up with, but none that I have ever considered.” Burns is honest enough to recognise the potential that he may be offered a mega money deal in the future, which would have to be considered, but he wouldn’t enjoy it. Enjoyment seems to be the watchword these days.
So what are his ambitions for 2019 and beyond, does he see Bangor in the Premier League at any stage? The answer surprises me in his assuredness, “Definitely. I would love to build a team around what we have now and take our chance in the Premier League. We would need players but we believe that we have a squad of endless potential and I definitely see it in the future. The club is built upon a successful First XI so we can’t stand still particularly after the season we’ve just had.” This may shock a few who claim the gulf between Section One and the Premier League is unassailable. “This is a plan for 5-10 years down the line but it is something that we want to see happening.” Of his own ambitions, Burns is more certain, “I want to dominate the league next season. At the level I’m capable of playing my ambition is 1000 runs and I know I can get there. Oh, and to hit as many ‘dingers’ as is possible.”
At the mention of the fabled word Burns is looking over my head into the distance, imagining the ball disappearing over the sight screen.
Chris Burns was talking to Paddy Dixon
* Evan Fraser scored 3 in this match. He was cleaned bowled while trying to hit the ball over mid-wicket.