North Down lifted the NCU Challenge Cup so often during the noughties that it became just another piece of the furniture in the pavilion at The Green.
Seven cup successes in the first 11 seasons from the turn of the Millennium underlined their dominance of the NCU game, but Saturday’s defeat at home to CIYMS hinted again at a shifting in the balance of power.
North Down have now lifted the old trophy just once in seven years, with their first-round exit sealed by an exquisite 89 from the South African professional Rassie van der Dussen.
Tis wasn’t simply a one-man show from the Belmont club. CI won the crucial battles in the field after North Down won the toss and batted first, firstly stopping a 44-run opening partnership between Nick Larkin and Jonathan Terrett in its tracks.
Perhaps the most important moments came in the final 10 overs of the North Down innings. Taimur Khan and Peter Eakin had added 39 for the sixth wicket at a run-a-ball and at 164 for six in the 43rd over, 230 was well within reach.
Ryan Haire, the North Down captain, will rue the soft nature of both players’ dismissals. Khan, with 47 from 76 balls, was accelerating when he edged van der Dussen behind. An over later Eakin, who had struck four fours and a six in his 31 from just 27 balls, was totally deceived by a Stephen Hughes (3-36) slower ball and he was bowled, having played a pull shot far too soon.
Losing two such potentially destructive batsmen one after the other stopped the North Down charge in its tracks and with just 23 coming from the last five overs, 202 was at least 20 below par.
A uncharacteristically sluggish Comber pitch, which had earlier provided significant turn for Trevor Britton, offered North Down some hope, but their only early wicket against a top-heavy CI batting order came in the eighth over when Chris Dougherty edged Taimur behind.
While North Down’s attack is accurate enough, it lacks the penetration that Australian Tim Ley provided in abundance a year ago, although few NCU bowlers could have threatened van der Dussen in this form.
The 25-year-old took no risks and literally the first time he went aerial was in the 27th over when he effortlessly lofted Eakin over long-on for six. North Down had brief hope when Nathan Burns fell for 24 and crucially Haire put down Nathan Waller off his own bowling on six when the score was 106 for two.
With rain threatening van der Dussen and Waller went on the offensive, Waller smashing Marty Moreland for 16 in three balls and van der Dussen particularly severe on Haire in a stand of 62 in eight overs.
James Cameron-Dow eventually got van der Dussen for an imperious 89 from 98 balls, he struck 10 fours and two sixes, but with Waller clubbing an unbeaten 39 from 34 balls, CI were 43 runs ahead on Duckworth-Lewis when two heavy showers ended the game prematurely.
No-one will fancy facing them in this form.