Exciting fayre in store in revamped Ulster Bank Premiership
Robin Walsh (Sunday Life)
The aim within Cricket Ireland is to pitch best against best and thatís the way itís to be in an NCU season that gets way next Saturday.
Right: Ross Gelderbloem (Carrick), David Simpson (Lisburn), Kyle McCallan (Waringstown), Eugene Moleon (Instonians), Stephen Cruise (Ulster Bank), Nigel Jones (CSNI) Stephen Hughes (CIYMS), Andrew Kirkpatrick (Ballymena), Neil Russell (North Down)
First up is a slimmed-down Ulster Bank Premiership with eight teams vying for honours; two fewer than last season.
The reintroduction of the interprovincials takes us further down the elitist road and at international level the worldís number one ODI specialists, Australia, are back in Belfast for the first time since 2001. It all promises much.
The club scene can rarely have been more intriguing given the comings and goings during the off season in preparation for what will surely be a seriously competitive league race. There will be few, if any, easy passages.
Nowhere has the influx of new faces been more apparent than at CIYMS whose hitherto elusive search for success has been nothing short of relentless in recent years.
As a result, two legendary veterans of Irish cricket find a new home at Belfastís Belmont - the Australian Jeremy Bray with Irish centuries to his name and Taimur Khan, the fine all-rounder who has captained Pakistan ďAĒ and, with justice, would have gone all the way.
The latter will not only strengthen CIís prospects, but his absence will be felt by defending champions, North Down, the club he has helped to eight titles in the past dozen years.
But while itís virtually all change at CI - newcomers also include overseas professional Ryan Butterworth and Peter Moor of Zimbabwe - itís more than a co-incidence that the opposite is the case with the excellent North Down and Waringstown.
There will be new overseas professionals: at The Lawn comes South African all-rounder Glen Addicott with the unenviable task of erasing the memory of his remarkable fellow countryman Obus Pienaar; opening bowler Anwar Ali arrives in Comber from Pakistan boasting T20 honours for his national side.
But elsewhere itís no change under Kyle McCallan and Peter Shields. They remain the sides that everyone else fear and speaks volumes for teams of real commitment and for players who know intimately each otherís game.
There will no shortage of confidence within the remaining five clubs. Instonians could well have the surprise package of the season in Australian fast - very fast - bowler Mick Delaney whose partnership with skipper Eugene Moleon could prove destructive.
Ballymena took themselves unobtrusively to third place last season - albeit some distance behind North Down and Waringstown - and with Kaushik Aphale returning from India for his third season they will hope for another solid summer.
Civil Service North found themselves in fourth place last time and Nigel Jones will look for better things with the arrival of South African batting all-rounder Griffin Nieuwould and the reappearance - possibly in June - of the redoubtable Regan West, now back in the nets following his serious shoulder problems.
Lisburn will hope to reverse last yearís record of more defeats than victories under new captain David Simpson and yet another South African all-rounder Darryl Brown and Zimbabwean Nathan Waller might help do the trick.
Thereís no change at Carrickfergus under Ross Gelderbloem and with the contraction to eight clubs they might find it difficult to escape the one club drop. But with nine years of survival in the top grade, whoís to say they wonít make it 10 out of 10.
For leading local players there is the prospect of three North-South interprovincials and one of the Twenty20 variety. And tickets are still available for that much-awaited official ODI against Australia in Belfast on June 23.
May the sun shine.