Muckamore favourites to win Section 1
League championships are not won on paper, but if they were, then the NCU Section One trophy would be heading to Moylena without a ball being bowled in anger.
Muckamore have not tasted top flight cricket since they were relegated from what was then Section One in 2002, but over the winter they have made a serious statement of intent about getting back to the promised land of the Premier League.
Pre-season training started in earnest as far back as last September, but it is by signing three top perfomers that Muckamore have really marked themselves down as the promotion favourites.
Wayne Horwood, the Civil Service North batsman, has returned to the club where he played as a youngster, and with him comes the former Ireland all-rounder Ralph Coetzee, who leaves North Down after five fine seasons.
With South African-born batsman Brian Baguley also back at the club, all the logic says that Muckamore should have no difficulty turning third place in 2009 into first in 2010. Muckamore certainly aren’t pretending that promotion isn’t the big aim. Cricket convenor Andy Clement has told captain Andy McCulloch and his players exactly that.
There is already a fine nucleus at Moylena. Jason van der Merwe is one of the NCU’s finest young talents, paceman Neil Gill remains capable of delivering on the exciting potential he unquestionably possesses while Indian batsman Indrajeet Kamtekar is as good as most overseas professionals in the top flight.
Clement said: “Wayne played here as a kid, he always said he would return, and we’re grateful that he’s done that. He will be a great signing. Brian Baguley is a class player, and everyone knows how good Ralph Coetzee is.
“We will have Wayne and Bags (Baguley) opening, Kamy (Kamtekar) at three, Jason at four, and Brian Dunlop and Ralph at five or six. That’s a pretty strong top six on paper, but we know that trophies are not won on paper.”
Van der Merwe could be the young player to watch this summer. He didn’t quite deliver on his potential in Muckamore colours in 2009, but smashed a superb century in a pre-season game against North West Senior One side Eglinton.
“Jason has been at Muckamore about eight years now, he always was a special talent and he is one the classiest young batsmen about. I rate his chances of playing for Ireland quite highly if he continues to deliver,” said Clement. “Not only is he a good batsman, he’s a fine off-spinner and what I like about him is that he has a good head on young shoulders. He probably didn’t score as many runs as he should have done last year, but I would hope that there will be big things from him in the years to come.”
What are the dangers for Muckamore this season? Complacency is one of course, while having to play all their league matches away from Moylena until mid-July will present its share of difficulties. New pitches are being laid at Moylena and they should be the icing on the cake at one of Ulster’s most picturesque cricket venues.
Clement sees relegated Bangor as Muckamore’s biggest rivals, with Woodvale and Derriaghy also potentially in the mix. He added: “Bangor won’t be far away, and Woodvale I’m sure will hope to get back up again. On their day they can beat anyone, and the same goes for Derriaghy.
“We haven’t been in the Premier League for a long time now, but these are exciting times for the club with the players we’ve signed. But there is pressure on us, there is pressure from me as cricket convenor if no-one else. I have told the players I expect promotion this year, and all things being equal I believe we can deliver that on the pitch.”
Muckamore are surely favourites for the title and you can’t look past Bangor for second, especially with Mark Hutchinson deciding to stay at Upritchard Park despite weighing up a move to Waringstown. Johnny Hewitt’s return from CI is a significant addition, and coupled with a nucleus of promising young players, Ryan Bell will expect to lead Bangor back to the top flight at the first time of asking.