Inside Edge NW Cup final verdict
Inside Edge (Belfast Telegraph)
I tried manfully to find a different subject for today's offering but there's only one show in town this weekend as the North West's showpiece, the Northern Bank senior cup final takes centre stage.
The only remaining two-day final for a zillion miles is still the highlight of the domestic cricket calendar and the old trophy probably features on clubs' wish lists more than most others.
Both combatants, Brigade and Strabane have been here before, and both know what it is like to finish in the winners and indeed the losers' camps. We have been crying out for a decent final for a decade now as the past couple has been ruined by the weather and the previous list featured a litany of one-sided contests that were all but over on the Friday night.
If the rain stays away however, this one could be the real deal. Brigade will start most people's favourites; Mark Simpson's side packed with quality in all three disciplines but that counts for little if they donít play well.
The Beechgrove side will probably go with a top three of Chris Dougherty, Niall McDonnell and Iftikhar Hussein and although none of them has been ultra prolific to date this season, each of them is capable of turning the final their side's way.
Strabane will be wary of all three but will probably have a keen eye trained on McDonnell who was a major player for them on their way to the title last season. Having broken through into the Ireland "A" set up it has been a white knuckle 18 months for the right hander, but he has certainly curtailed his trademark early aggression in recent times. Perhaps a series of quick thirties and out changed the player's approach and while he has yet to truly rediscover his late 2009 form his former team mates are aware that he can be a very dangerous customer.
And whilst McDonnell warrants respect, the class of Hussein could well be a bigger concern. The former Ardmore professional looks set to play a massive role with both bat and ball and if Strabane are to lift the cup they have to find a way of keeping "Ifti" quiet.
Dougherty too has been finding his feet in recent weeks and the left hander has been steadily maturing into his demanding role on Limavady Road. Another on the periphery of the Ireland set up the former Bready opener will see this as an ideal opportunity to showcase his talents. After that trio, Brigade boast a middle order that should be the envy of the region, but that if truth be told has yet to fulfill its potential. Richard Wylie, Johnny Thompson, Mattie Moran and Gareth McKeegan are four players capable of contributing 200 runs on a good day and if even two of them come off, Strabane could be chasing big runs.
Wylie has definitely found his feet a lot more this time after a pretty disappointing 2009 and is well on course to double his run return. McKeegan, who is also first choice wicket keeper at Brigade couldn't buy a run earlier in the season but has worked hard throughout and seems to have turned the corner in recent weeks. One of the nice guys of local cricket there are plenty who would be delighted to see him have a good final.
Johnny Thompson remains a thoroughly destructive all-rounder and the Tyrone side will be well aware that he is very capable of bursting their bubble on his own. Thompson's batting has improved at a steady rate of knots in recent seasons but it is with the ball that the main threat remains.
Skipper Simpson, Graeme Moore and either Ryan Brace or Nick Donnell will surely be the Waterside club's choice of attack with Hussein and Wylie backing up Trevor Britton in the spin department. If truth be told they havenít always turned in the performances that theyíre capable of in the bowling stakes this term but it's hard to argue that there remains plenty of potency in that line up.
Strabane's probable selection is hardly shabby either. Kevin Martin looks certain to open although who will partner the left hander isnít as clear cut. Ryan Gallagher was promoted to the role recently and has relished in it, his style complimenting Martinís in almost every regard. Whereas the former Ardmore man likes to build his innings, Gallagher looks to attack from the start and he has been able to unsettle some of the best attacks that the league has to offer. The fact that this pair offers a right and left combination also makes them a pretty obvious choice.
After that the Red Caps boast a trio of batsmen who could potentially hold the key to the outcome. Peter Gillespie, Jonathan Beukes and Mark Gillespie just ooze quality and if two of them score big runs over the weekend, Brigade will be up against it.
Professional Beukes has had a very stop start season and hasnít been helped by a nasty foot injury that affected him for the best part of a month at a time when he was just starting to find his form. No such problems for the Gillespieís; Mark really hitting a peak at the right time and going into the final with close to 700 runs in his account for the season.
The left hander is such a valuable all round player for his club and Brigade know that if he gets away theyíll have some job to peg him back. If anything though, Peter Gillespie is the one player that the Beechgrove side will be very nervous about. With 1000 runs already in the satchel this season the Ireland cap centurion is batting as well as anyone can remember during a distinguished career. What has been so impressive about Gillespie is that he keeps everything so simple and just accumulates runs at his own pace. He is also an excellent judge of when to accelerate in his innings and no matter what else happens this weekend it isnít difficult to envisage the former skipper having a major say at some stage.
The lower middle order is also useful; Ciaran Patton and Tommy Barr in particular will be asked to get through plenty of work with bat and ball. Both are very capable of giving their side a lift if one is needed but who comes in after those two could also be pivotal.
Strabane have used Gary Gillespie, Mono Sharma, John Gillespie, Paul McNamee and Andy Lynch at various stages but the fitness of Martin Deans and Phil Eaglestone will also tell a tale. If both are available it could make for an interesting selection meeting but at this stage it is more likely that only one will be ready. If that is the case, and with the top seven more or less picking themselves, that leaves three places up for grabs and McNamee would probably be a fairly automatic choice for one of them.
That means perming any two from Lynch, Sharma and John Gillespie or if both Eaglestone and Deans are fit, only one of them. The dilemma deepens further given that the Red Caps may well have been leaning towards the former given that even if both opening bowlers make it, there is no guarantee they would last the two days. Lynchís seam options therefore would have made him favourite for the nod save for the fact that he doesnít play Sunday cricket.
If Strabane choose him and the weather intervenes, theyíre one light straight away. For a side whose bowling has come in for some stick in the recent past however, and with the exception of their shock defeat by St Johnston, Strabane have managed to cope admirably without their opening pair in the past month.
Confidence is unlikely to have evaporated because of that reverse and in many ways it may well have helped to focus minds ahead of the big showdown. Picking a winner is almost impossible as the weather, the toss and injuries will be so important. What does look certain is that neither side will run away with the game and the winners will know they have been in a scrap.
Brigade have the personnel to make them very difficult to beat in a two-innings game whilst Strabane have the form in the book against the top sides. Iíd much prefer to sit on the fence but if I had to bet a quid it would probably go on the outsiders.
Action gets underway at 12pm on Friday unless conditions dictate otherwise and as always, spectators are asked to ensure that alcohol carry-outs are not brought into the ground. Umpires for the big game are Roly Black and John Thompson, both of whom have played in a final but who will both be umpiring their first. The best of luck to one and all.