The Ulster Bank NCU Premier League season may be just a day old, but reigning joint champions Instonians must already be sick of the sight of Civil Service North.
As if it wasn’t enough for the Stormont men to inflict two key defeats at the back end of last season, CSNI also ensured Inst’s title defence and Neil Russell’s reign as captain got off to a losing start on Saturday.
This match wasn’t as entertaining as the run feast a couple of miles away at Belmont, but it was just as tense as the momentum swung one way and then the other as Inst tried to chase down a target of 168 and came up five runs short off the final ball.
That they didn’t get there was down to a combination of their own poor shot-making and two men who are fast becoming the scourge of Instonians. Nigel Jones, the CSNI captain, put them on the back foot from the start of the run chase, bowling Russell and opening partner Eric Layard with beauties and taking the outside edge of Nikolai Smith’s bat as Inst stumbled to 49 for four.
But just as influential in the final outcome was the unlikely figure of Ben Adair, the CSNI off-spinner. Last year’s second eleven skipper took four for 20 to deny Inst the title outright at Shaw’s Bridge last August and here he intervened just as the game seemed to be up for CSNI.
Imad Wasim, Inst’s highly-impressive new Pakistan professional, and Jordan McClurkin, had added 64 for the fifth wicket to take Inst to within 41 of victory with almost six overs still remaining.
There was no need for McClurkin (43), who had already received two let-offs, to dance down the wicket to Adair, but he did and the subsequent stumping changed the course of the game again.
Richard McCarthy found it hard to get the ball away and with the pressure mounting, Imad played his first injudicious shot. Trying to run Adair down to third man after making 35 from 57 balls, the left-hander could only deflect the ball onto his own stumps - it was a match-defining moment.
Still though, Inst should have won it. Stephen Bunting crashed Adair for six over long-off and then in the 48th over came pure theatre. Zach Rushe sent Adair for a four and a six and with nine needed from 13 balls, the visitors were suddenly favourites again.
What came next was a catch unlikely to be bettered this season. Bunting connected well with a drive to wide long-off but Charlie Beverland raced around and dived full length to pull off a wonderful catch.
Rushe lost the strike in the penultimate over and the nine needed off the final six balls was too many. Andre Forbes was stumped trying to hit a six from the final ball as Adair finished with four for 32.
It’s too early to jump to conclusions but Inst are going to feel the absences of John Stevenson and Eugene Moleon perhaps more than many anticipated. James Shannon will return to bolster the top order after a ban but the batting lacks experience and the new-ball bowling is short of bite. The big positive was Forbes, the 16-year-old bowling with pace and accuracy on his way to taking three for 29.
CSNI excel in their role as party-poopers but it is one thing relishing the under-dog tag, entirely another contending for trophies. They should now aim to take the new step with Shane Getkate, the fast bowler and MCC Young Cricketer, adding quality with bat and ball.
Jason van der Merwe and Christopher McMorran are much improved and in himself, Mark Adair, Getkate and Allen Coulter, Jones has no shortage of quality seamers.