Alistair Bushe: The NCU Premier League is strongest it has ever been but is that necessarily a good thing?

Talk to almost anyone involved in the NCU club game right now, be it players, spectators or coaches, and they will tell you that it’s been a long time since standards were this high.

Saturday, 29th May 2021, 5:33 am
Updated Sunday, 30th May 2021, 10:05 am
North Down's Paul Stirling bowls last season's Robinson Services Cup final against Waringstown. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

In the last decade, the NCU gradually reemerged as a force in Irish club cricket after a period in the doldrums, with Waringstown winning the Irish Cup four times and the likes of North Down, CIYMS, Instonians and Civil Service North contesting the latter stages of all-Ireland competitions in 50-over and T20 cricket.

However, there was still the sense that Leinster was the place to be, with the greater depth of talent and the Leinster Lightning dominating the interprovincial competitions.

But that argument no longer has the same sway. CIYMS might remain the favourites to win most of the NCU’s silverware this summer, but Carrickfergus and Civil Service North have already demonstrated that they are likely to be contesting the top prizes thanks to a burgeoning pool of playing resources they simply haven’t had in many years.

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That Waringstown for instance aren’t going to make the last four of the Twenty20 Cup isn’t necessarily a reflection of the decline of the villagers’ great side of the last decade (although that is a factor), but more the sustained rise in quality right across the eight-team division. For instance, Lisburn have been touted as one of the weaker teams, yet they have already taken two prime early-season scalps and unexpectedly reached the semi-finals.

In some respects, it is reminiscent of Dublin in the noughties, when a combination of once in a generation Leinster-born talent and an influx of South African and Australians lured by the Celtic Tiger, saw the standard of Dublin club cricket rise to dizzying heights.

The O’Brien brothers, the Mooney brothers and Eoin Morgan emerged while the likes of Andre Botha, Trent Johnston and later Alex Cusack delivered star quality from overseas.

If Leinster was the go-to destination back in that era, the NCU is now the place to be, not just for overseas stars, but also for the cream of North West talent which has left its top division largely decimated.

Donemana’s Andy McBrine, the Ireland all-rounder who at least once came perilously close to joining CIYMS, is very much the last man standing while the rest of the union’s biggest names switched their club allegiances south east.

Three of the North West’s biggest names, Stuart Thompson at CSNI, Craig Young at North Down and Graeme McCarter now of CSNI, are firmly entrenched in the NCU while Boyd Rankin, now retired from Ireland, chose to play his club cricket at Lisburn instead of returning to home village Bready.

If that’s a huge concern for North West club cricket, it’s helped catapult standards in the NCU, along with the continuing presence of quality cricketers from overseas and the return to the NCU club game of internationals like Paul Stirling and Gary Wilson.

But without exception, the eight Premier League clubs are heavily reliant on talent that wasn’t developed in their own back yard.

What’s new, some might argue. Clubs have longed depended on luring players from so-called smaller clubs. Without Kyle McCallan joining Waringstown from Cliftonville, the villagers wouldn’t have been the same force, while David Kennedy left Ballymena to boost the great North Down team that dominated from 1999 to 2011.

However, we are talking about more than one or two imports when we come to consider the present day.

That is no bad thing if the sheer quality of the cricket you are seeing is your prime concern.

But it does present two immediate concerns. Firstly, it presents a slightly false picture of standards in the NCU. And likewise, there is the argument that the presence of so many players from outside traditional club ranks blocks the path into senior cricket of younger cricketers.

The recruitment isn’t costing clubs nothing either. You might have expected the impact of the pandemic to have hit clubs in the pocket, but if anything, the spending seems to be increasing.

It’s vitally important that clubs don’t take their eyes off the ball in terms of the next generation. It’s all well and good in the here and now, but what are the playing standards below the Premier League? And at youth level are clubs doing everything they can to ensure there will be a next generation of quality senior cricketers?

“Imports from the North West, Leinster and Irish and British passport holders are pushing younger players onto club second elevens and it’s not good for the union long term,” said a source at one leading NCU club. “There are not many young players playing if you look at some of the teams since the start of the season.

“I think a lot of money is being spent for just £250 of prize money. We can’t afford younger players to lose interest and leave Premier League clubs”.

An exciting summer is in store but one eye should be kept on the long term too.

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Alistair Bushe