Arguably the most significant weekend of the season so far lies in store at the top of the Ulster Bank NCU Premier League.
The action begins tonight at The Lawn where Waringstown, the joint leaders, host Ballymena in a rearranged Twenty20 match (5pm start). Kyle McCallan returns for the villagers.
Tomorrow probably the four likeliest title winners, North Down and Waringstown, and CIYMS and Instonians, face each other.
Instonians are the league’s form side. After losing their opening two fixtures, Neil Russelll’s team have responded with five successive league victories, including a hard-fought and crucially important win over North Down at The Green last Sunday.
Inst were rocking on 47 for four and later 128 for eight batting first before recovering to 181 for nine in a 47-over match. North Down appeared to be on course in their run chase, reaching 101 for two but Instonians’ new-found resilience shown through as their spinners induced a spectacular collapse as eight wickets fell for only 32 runs.
“Stephen Bunting’s innings was probably the difference on the day. He is a talented batsman and he came in and knocked it about and then took the attack to the bowlers,” said Russell. “I had spoken to Andrew White when he got out and we thought 180 to 190 was going to be a good score. But whenever you have the likes of Nick Larkin and Ryan Haire in the North Down side they can take a game away from your very quickly.
“But Zach Rushe took the big wicket of Ryan and the North Down wicket spun, which gave us a great advantage with the spinners we have in our side.”
Russell acknowledges the significance of today’s trip to Belmont, where the absence of White on Ireland duty is counterbalanced by Chris Dougherty being in the same boat. Both Inst and CI have lost twice and the winners will grab a crucial advantage in the title race.
“In my opinion this is going to be the tightest title race in many years,” said Russell. “I still maintain that Waringstown are the team with the most depth, but on any given day anyone can beat anyone in this league. Last year we went to The Lawn and won with Andrew White playing a great innings.
“From our perspective losing Whitey is a big miss but Chris Dougherty has been a stellar performer for CI. Rassie van der Dussen and Jeremy Bray are going to be two huge wickets for us to get. If we can get them reasonably cheaply it will put us in a great position to get a vital victory.
“Van der Dussen got 99 not out against us earlier in the season and although he has been on a bit of a lean run recently, he is a very consistent performer.”
North Down host Waringstown at The Green but won’t have Nick Larkin, who is away with Ireland. Lisburn, who are playing their best cricket of the season, host Ballymena at Wallace Park.