Abbreviated NCU programme hots up
Alistair Bushe(News Letter)
The newly-shortened 14-game NCU Premier League season has the feel of a sprint more than a marathon, so the reality is that neither CIYMS nor Waringstown can afford to lose today’s mouthwatering clash at Belmont.
In previous seasons, under the traditional 18-game campaign, losing your unbeaten record didn’t usually amount to anything significant, but no-one really knows just how many defeats will keep you in the frame come the business end of the season.
Stephen Hughes, the CIYMS captain, might have been expecting to come into today’s game on a crest of a wave, only for his team to lose their unbeaten record in comprehensive fashion to Civil Service North at Stormont on Wednesday night.
However, that defeat was in the comparative lottery of the Twenty20 arena, and today’s game will be a more accurate barometer of both CI, and indeed Waringstown’s credentials.
Neither have lost a 50-over game this season, and yet to this observer both will have to produce more complete cricket performances if they are to last the pace.
If you were being critical you would say that CI have probably relied too much on the brilliance of Jeremy Bray with the bat for comfort, with only Barry Cooper of the other top order batsmen acquiring any measure of consistency.
Waringstown meanwhile continue to struggle to find a new-ball combination and even they have had their wobbles with the bat, most notably when they were fortunate to recover from an inexplicable collapse against a modest Strabane attack at The Lawn.
The recent history between these clubs at Belmont underlines what a fascinating game lies in store today. Waringstown won a rain-affected league game here in 2010 before CI got their revenge with a Craig McMillan inspired Challenge Cup semi-final victory later that season.
Last July here Waringstown suffered the defeat that cost them a share of the league title, as a struggling CI team surprised Obus Pienaar and co, with a little helping hand from the weather and Duckworth-Lewis.
CI have strengthened beyond all recognition since then and with no prospect of any rain today, you get the impression there should be a run feast. The great unknown is the pitch, with CI's first eleven not having played here in any form of cricket yet. Michael Hingston did smash a double-century here for the second eleven back in April and although he admitted the bowling that day was charitable, the pitches at Belmont have become increasingly good for batting.
Hughes has robustly hit back at suggestions that his team have already grown too dependent on Bray.
He said: “Both Brayso and Coops have looked great so far, and they have scored a lot of our runs, but you could also say that Waringstown have relied on James Hall and Lee Nelson.
“We have played four or five games so far and all of the batsmen have chipped in at some stage and played their part. Some of them haven’t got a big score yet, but that will come. Chris Dougherty has come to a different club and a different union and he needs time to find his feet. He is a class batsman and he showed that in midweek for Ireland A. The runs he got in Kent will be good for us I’m sure.”
Taimur Khan too has yet to fire with the bat, but from the time he successfully repelled the fire of the villagers’ fearsome Sri Lankan fast bowler Pulasthi Gunaratne way back in 2000, Waringstown invariably brought the best out of the Pakistani when he played for North Down.
Hughes said: “They always say Taimur is a big-match player and you don’t get much bigger than the game against Waringstown today, and the Challenge Cup against Lisburn tomorrow. I think Taimur’s record against Waringstown is unbelievable. In 13 years against them he has failed something like three times with the bat.”
With that postponed Challenge Cup tie at Wallace Park to come tomorrow this weekend is a massive test for CI.
Hughes added: “It’s definitely the biggest tie of the round, I don’t think either team would have wanted to play it at this stage of the competition. We are looking forward to both games and hopefully we can prove that what happened at Stormont was just a blip.”
There are three other rearranged Challenge Cup ties tomorrow all of them all Section One encounters. Cliftonville face Muckamore at Mallusk, Lurgan host Hollywood at Pollock Park and Downpatrick will be favourites to win at Bangor
Civil Service North also play their postponed Bob Kerr Irish Cup tie against Phoenix at Stormont tomorrow.