According to many observers, the standard in NCU Junior One, so long rightly regarded as one of the union’s flagship divisions, has fallen dramatically this summer.
Once seen as the perfect breeding ground for young cricketers looking to hone and develop their skills before promotion to senior cricket, almost everyone agrees that the quality isn’t what it once was.
Perhaps controversially, there has been a suggestion from some quarters, most notably Waringstown, that the barrier in league cricket between the junior and senior leagues should now been broken, freeing the second eleven winners of Junior One to enter Section Three.
Alan Harrison, a stalwart of Waringstown’s second team, is an advocate of allowing promotion.
“In my opinion the league should be opened up,” he said. “The standard is now very poor. It has been going down the last four or five years but it has fallen through the floor this season. We have had one competitive game this season. If they don’t open up the league we are probably the only second string looking to play 50-over cricket.”
That argument is not greeted with enthusiasm in some other quarters. Carl Williams, a member of the Lisburn seconds team that won the Junior Cup, says the current structure should remain intact.
“I’m personally against opening up the leagues. I think it will harm smaller clubs as again the better players will gravitate to the bigger clubs,” said Williams. “The standard in Junior One is not great bar Waringstown, who are good enough for Section One, and probably CSNI. The problem is all teams can at some point have a strong side, but it may happen only once in the season. Players just don’t have the commitment to be available all season.”
Lisburn have prospered under Ricky Finlay’s captaincy, with a number of experienced players like Williams himself, Neil Doak and Derek Suffern providing leadership to the talented youngsters. William maintains getting more experienced heads back onto the field at junior level is pivotal to maintaining and improving standards.
“The standard can be improved if older guys drop down and help the lower teams instead of just giving up completely,” he added. “Lisburn this year is an example of this where we have five guys over 40 playing in the seconds. Mixing some experience with youth is a good way to improve things.”
Williams also doesn’t see how immediate promotion would yield dividends for the junior one winners.
“How would you implement it as I’m sure Waringstown seconds would not want to play in Senior Three next year? They would find that even less competitive than Junior One. Whoever got promoted from Junior One would need to go up into Senior Two initially I think.”
Civil Service North, one of the strongest second elevens in Junior One, are more receptive to opening up the leagues. Colin Andrews, the off-spinner, does accept there are potential pitfalls however.
“We would be of a similar opinion to Waringstown about letting second elevens be promoted up by opening Section Three but we understand the reason why clubs with first elevens in those leagues don’t want us up there as they want to offer our fringe first eleven cricketers first eleven cricket. They see that as one of their selling points for attracting players.”
Andrews maintains that 40-over cricket, as opposed to 50 overs, would have its attractions, but certainly doesn’t favour a move to 30 or 20-over cricket.
“Cowdy (first eleven captain Andrew Cowden) and I disagree about the 40 overs as he believes the better youngsters need exposure to more 50-over cricket to get ready for Premier League. I think that weak 50-over games that don’t go the distance won’t help and some of the best/toughest games I’ve had this year have been 40 overs. I wouldn’t want it any shorter than that.
“I definitely wouldn’t say it’s all doom and gloom, Junior One has had at least one side in the Junior Cup final since 2010 and regularly had two in the semis.”
Aaron Kernohan of Instonians, cautions against opening up leagues but admits there are concerns around standards.
“I think consistency of standard this season has been the problem,” he said. “There’s a lot of good players and teams but I struggle to put the same side out twice in a row, lots of reasons, exam pressure, holidays, other sports encroaching etc. I’ve played most teams twice and it’s seemed quite different elevens each time. When teams are at full strength I’d contend that the league is arguably the third best in standard in the NCU.
“I’d agree we need to find a way to encourage maybe retiring Premier League players to play on. It’s difficult having devoted a lot of your time to playing in the Premier League but there’s a lot of talent coming through and it would be good for the youngsters to experience playing with those guys. When John Stevenson played for me a couple of years ago his experience and just the way he went about his game I think gave a great example.”