There are few members of Bangor Cricket Club who are as instantly likeable as Taj Onyekwelu. Having just completed one interview in a different part of Bangor, I have spent the last half hour trying to synchronise movements in the centre of town with the young star, who seems very reluctant to leave his current bar until I am in situ. Five minutes after I arrive and notify him that I am in the Hop House, he makes the short journey across the road and swaggers through the doors, confidence oozing out of every pore. He orders a drink and we retire to the back part of the bar to conduct the interview, Taj’s demeanour lights up the dark corner that we find ourselves in. His recent move to Manchester will hurt Bangor Cricket Club and I wonder what part cricket will play in his future:
“It’s funny you should say that, Holmer (Alan Holmes, Bangor’s former scorer, now residing in the North West of England) has already been on to me through social media asking me to join the club he now scores for in Liverpool. It’s unlikely that I’ll play any cricket over there. I love my new job and all my boys from university are still over there so cricket has not really crossed my mind. If I’m being honest, I can’t see myself playing for any other team than Bangor.”
The reaction is not surprising. Taj has grown up and has been a part of the club for 15 years. It is hard to believe that he is only 21 years old. Since joining the club in the late 80s his father, Mike, has been a stalwart of the club and, although I don’t have the statistics to hand, I would argue in that nobody has played more games for the club than he in the last 30 years. This has meant that Taj has known little else, a point that he illustrates fondly, “I would go with Dad and Jacob to matches and at the age of four, I was scoring the book. I looked up to people like Alan Andrews, Peter McIwaine and many others. I played driveway cricket with Jacob and Jack Elliott just endlessly bowling to them. At Uprichard, I was fortunate to have Regan West as club professional and he taught me how to bowl properly. I started to pick up a few more wickets in driveway cricket after that.”
Taj talks excitedly about those days and it is a tale found in how many of our players look back at their early days at Uprichard. Being the son of a lower team Captain, it wasn’t long before Taj found his way on to side. He made his senior debut for the club for the 3rd XI at CSNI during his last year in primary school. “I batted four and couldn’t get the ball off the square, but I stuck it out and got 11 from about 20 overs. It wasn’t a big score but it was what the team needed.” Although, it was his batting on this occasion that stood out, it would be his efforts with the ball that he would become most renowned for in the coming years. “I remember making my debut for Muckamore and bowling to Kametekar, their pro. I think I went for around about four an over. Muckamore won the game easily, as you would imagine would be the case with a 13 year old playing, but afterwards he came up to me and told me I was going to be a good cricketer. When I see him now, we still talk about it.”
Taj had arrived and since then he hasn’t looked back. His youthful bravado, keen sense of humour and lightning wit have all helped to make him a popular member of the 1st XI squad. A lack of options with the ball when Bangor found themselves, inexplicably, in section two meant that the young Onyekwelu was promoted to opening bowler. While the situation was far from ideal, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his development, “the club was in an absolute mess. I’m not sure what exactly happened in those years, but we went from being able to field five teams to struggling to get three out. One of the results of this was that we didn’t really have the seam attack and I jumped up to open with Andy Nixon. At that time we were able to blood other bowlers such as Ross Miller, who I had come through the club with, and it helped my bowling massively. I’m not sure either Ross or I would have been able to cope at that stage in section one, so playing in section two gave us the confidence to progress.”
It wasn’t long before Taj had his finest moment in a Bangor shirt. In a match against Templepatrick at Uprichard he took five wickets but it was the runs against tally that was to prove the most impressive feat. Due to his young age Taj was only permitted to bowl seven overs and he did so without conceding a single run. It could all have been very difficult, as Taj describes; “The first delivery was a loopy full toss that I had time to cover my eyes as the batsman came to strike it. Comically, the batsman chipped it straight to point for the first of my five wickets. I got the fifth wicket in my sixth over and at that stage I knew it was on. I walked down to third man thinking I don’t think I’ve gone for a run. This was confirmed by the umpire at the beginning of my last over and from then on it was about not conceding. I was bowling to a guy I had gone through the NCU set up with, Jordi Fettis, and I was just thinking please don’t let this guy score against me. It came to ball five ‘please don’t bowl a wide’ and the last ball was the slowest, straightest delivery I could muster. It was a fantastic feeling.”
Performances like this one began to get Taj noticed by the Irish schools selectors and I ask him if this was ever a realistic possibility for him. “I had represented Ulster Schools at every age group and I got to play for Irish Schools at Malahide. While it was a great experience and I performed well enough, playing representative cricket was not as attractive then as it is now and certainly will become in the future. You have to train exceptionally hard and give up so much at a young age and even then, you’re not guaranteed to make it and definitely not guaranteed to make a living out of it. For me there were too many distractions and it wasn’t attractive enough an opportunity for me to make a go of it.”
Taj has been an integral part of the 1st XI side for over five years now and in that time he has seen many changes. The darkness of the early days when he was thrust into the limelight of spear-heading the Bangor attack have been replaced with renewed optimism for the future. “The mind-set is completely different now. You have to give full credit to the senior members of the team for turning that around. Given the resources we have we should be competing to win the league that we’re in, although it is a tricky situation given what lies in wait for the winners.” Taj is alluding to the Premier League and how difficult it is to play in that league without paying players. He laughs off any conspiracy theories that still resonate from other clubs that Bangor aren’t in the league to win it, “I can categorically say that our goal as a team is to win the league.” He smiles, a broad knowing smile, as he knows what is coming next “you’re going to talk about Lisburn, aren’t you?”
It would be remiss of me and this process not to discuss the Lisburn match at the end of last season. Our shot at the league gone due to a postponement with Derriaghy in the middle of August, it appears as if collectively the boy’s heads were somewhere else, Burnsey’s barbeque more specifically. “I wasn’t expecting to open the bowling to be fair and I don’t know what happened. It just wouldn’t come out right and I went for 25 from the one over I bowled. It had been a long season and my mind was on the barbeque that evening. In fairness, we battled right to the end of that match. Andy batted beautifully and we were in it right until the end. In previous years we would have been all out for 150 and lost by the same amount. We did have a great night at the barbeque as well!!”
Although his part in it is likely to be greatly reduced, Taj talks excitedly about where this team can go in 2019. He credits the availability of live scores through the Facebook feed on a Saturday as an amazing way of bringing the club together on a Saturday and also involving those from further afield, “One of my favourite parts of a Saturday is getting in after the match and reading my way through the match as it happened, seeing the names of people who are supporting you even though they are spread around the world. Honestly, when you see the names of your old friends and team mates like Danny Hamilton supporting the boys; it really gives you a sense of what you are playing for. It’s not just the ten other guys around you. It’s the wider community of the club. It blows my mind that. It’s class.”
Sometimes you worry that when people move to another country and make their lives there that they just drift away from the club. With Taj that is not the case. He has too much of his life invested in the club and his enthusiasm for it is infectious. It is easy to see why he is such a popular member and key to the dynamic of the team given his generosity of spirit and the fact you can’t help but smile when you talk to him. Everyone at the club wishes him well on his new life in England, while also hoping to see him in a Bangor shirt if he ever finds himself back here in the coming summers.
Taj Onyekwelu was speaking to Paddy Dixon.