After a 2014 season that saw a desperately contested relegation battle at the bottom of the table, and last year's edition which was remarkably tight at the top, the 2016 Topklasse - which will, for better or for worse, be the last to be played under the current eight-team format, looks likely to be characterised by a crowded middle.
Last year's champions Dosti-United have put together an even more intimidating roster than last time round. South Africa international Stiaan van Zyl is the most high-profile signing in Dutch cricket for some time, and he bolsters a batting line-up that was already one of the strongest in the league. In Mudassar Bukhari and Ahsan Malik - newly arrived from VOC - Dosti now have two first-choice Dutch international bowlers, with both van Zyl and second overseas Robbie Frylink able to contribute with the ball, and Hafeez, Hans and Vinoo Tewarie as spin options, Dosti are spoilt for bowling choice as well as boasting a batting line-up with remarkable strength in depth. It's fair to say that the title is Dosti's to lose in more ways than one.
Last year's runners-up Quick Haag enter the 2016 season in something of a rebuilding phase, with a number of departures and retirements meaning this years side looks markedly different to last year's. With Steve Smidt, Edgar Schiferli, Viv Kingma , Henk Mol, Farshad Khan all leaving and questions over Jeroen Brand and Geert Mol's availability, Quick are missing almost their entire bowling line up from last season.
With James Gruijters spending the summer in the UK with Broxbourne Quick's batting looks still more dependent on elder brother and captain Tim, together with last season's Topklasse top-scorer Wesley Barresi. Quick will hope Northerns' fast-bowling all-rounder Ryan Cartwright can add something with the bat as well as leading the attack, with fellow South African Stephen Kriel rounding out the top order, this season Quick will be banking on emerging youngsters and former 2nd team players to stepping up if they are to avoid sliding back into the pack.
Conversely the ACC side that came in a solid third last season look comparatively intact this season, despite Roelof van der Merwe and Paul van Meekeren departing across the North Sea. The loss of van der Merwe is a particular blow, as the spinning all-rounder was the Amsterdammers' lead run-scorer and wicket-taker last season, but the acquisition of Titans' quick Juan-Pierre de Villiers is an excellent replacement.
The Zulfiqar brothers continue to improve, though a pre-season injury to Sikander may see him miss the first few matches, and in the returning Mangaliso Mosehle ACC have a safe pair of hands behind the stumps and a potential game-changer down the order. In a slightly weakened field, ACC will be disappointed if they miss out on a finals spot this time round.
Meanwhile VOC Rotterdam who will have been disappointed with their 4th place finish in 2015, would do well to repeat it this season, having lost both their captain and their lead run-scorer over the winter, with Ahsan Malik headed to Dosti and Amol Muzumdar not returning to Holland.
Skipper Pieter Seelaar is the only remaining VOC player inside the top 20 wicket-takers or run-scorers of last season, so the Rotterdammers look concerningly dependent on him replicating that form, and will look to deputy Dirk van Baren to grow into his senior role. With Tim de Kok and Jochem Steenbergen also joining the exodus and no overseas coach yet confirmed, the likely make-up of the rest of VOC's first team is something of an mystery, but barring some remarkable signings replicating lasts season's mid table finish will likely be the limit of their ambitions.
After a disappointing 5th place finish last season, VRA will be aiming at least to get into the right play-offs this time round. Despite the departures of Sohail Bhatti and opening bowler Amil Prasad, the core of the 2015 VRA side remains largely unchanged. A longish batting line-up still looks a little over-reliant on seniors Peter Borren or Eric Szwarczynski anchoring the innings. With Adeel Raja, Emile van den Burg, Mitch Lees and new arrival Ruben van der Berg making up the rest of the top order there's plenty of promise in the line-up, but little dependability, and Quirijn Gunning being called upon to demonstrate his newly acquire talent for salvaging disastrous innings with the tail looks a distinct possibility.
The Amsterdam side has eschewed the signing of any overseas player-coach for 2016, and a pre-season injury to Kiwi-born passport holder Fred Klaasen during the Netherlands A tour to Guernsey leaves them looking perhaps a bowler light at the start of the season. The series of cameos from a rotating cast of youth and peripherals that saw VRA use some 25 players last season is likely to continue, though given the generally solid performance of these occasionals VRA may not be unduly worried.
Likewise looking destined for the mid-table is a maturing but still youthful Excelsior '20 side. The loss of Redbacks bat Alex Ross leaves the Schiedammers' batting looking appreciably weaker than last season on paper, with a 627-run hole to be filled. Jamaican overseas Lorenzo Ingram was the only other batsman to average much over 20 last season, so Excelsior will be looking to Joost Kroesen and Tim Etman to shoulder greater responsibility, or ideally for Tom Heggelman to regain some form with the bat.
The arrival of Guateng's Matt-Kai McGillvray and Sohail Bhatti from VRA will relieve some of the pressure on the Excelsior skipper with the ball, having spearheaded the pace attack last season with 35 wickets at 13.5. With former youth players Rens van Troost and Joost and Gijs Kroesen now established in the side, and several more pressing for selection, this youthful Excelsior side boasts promise for the future, but is probably still at least a season or two away from its best.
Schiedam rivals Hermes-DVS are widely seen as headed in the opposite direction however. Having narrowly avoided relegation in 2014, repeating that accomplishment will likely be their first priority. The retirement of former coach Kruger van Wyk leaves a substantial hole in the batting, one which even Stephan Myburgh will struggle to fill alone. With the loss of Lesley Stokkers to Quick, the Hermes middle order looks decidedly rickety, with Seb Braat and Bart Schilperoord the only Hermes bats other than Myburgh boasting an average above 20 last season.
The signing of leg-spinning all-rounder and former Zimbabwe youth international Tendai Julian Chitongo looks a solid one, but the Hermes bowling nevertheless looks one of the weaker attacks in the competition, with an alarming amount of responsibility falling on the young shoulders of Davi van Slobbe. With Maninder Singh and Braat the only other bowlers to contribute more than a handful of wickets last season, Hermes' opponents will be able to look forward to a fair few overs from part-timers this summer.
Newly (re)promoted HCC lost out in 2014's close-fought relegation battle, and promptly bounced back with a near-perfect season to win the Hoofdklasse, undefeated until their final game. Much the same side will contest the Topklasse this season with plenty to prove.
Returning South African overseas playerss Jonathan Vandiar and Werner Coetsee were instrumental to HCC's rapid return to the top level, having looked utterly dominant at Hoofdklasse level, whilst HCC's own Hidde Overdijk and Tonny Staal both have excellent seasons behind them with the bat. Mark Jonkman takes over the captaincy from the long-serving Tom de Grooth, though the latter is expected to remain available for first team selection, and together with brother Maurits, Reinier Bijloos and Overdijk makes up a solid pace attack. Returning to top-level cricket with considerable momentum behind them, a settled and confident HCC side will be targeting the top end of the table, and a run to the finals is far from impossible.
Topklasse Rankings Predictions:
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