CI have the edge - but only just

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 31st August 2014 - Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.'Waringstown v Instonians at The Lawn, Waringstown.'Andrew White, batting from Instonians
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 31st August 2014 - Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.'Waringstown v Instonians at The Lawn, Waringstown.'Andrew White, batting from Instonians

To listen to some pundits, you would think that today’s Ulster Bank NCU Challenge Cup final between CIYMS and Instonians amounts to a shoot-out between four players.

On the CIYMS side stands Rassie van der Dussen, the South African professional, and his opening batting partner, the captain Chris Dougherty.

In the opposite camp is Andrew White, the former Ireland international, and the enigmatic James Shannon, on his day the most talented NCU batsman of this generation.

There is something of a ring of truth to the argument. In particular, even the most ardent Instonians supporter cannot make a sustained argument for victory without banking on a telling contribution from either Shannon, man-of-the-match in the 2012 final, or White, the hero of Inst’s unlikely 2009 victory over favourites North Down.

Inst though are more than about just two players. Neil Russell, the captain, remains highly dangerous at the top of the order, Nikolai Smith is an improving cricketer and the seam bowling, led by the under-rated left-arm seamer Stephen Bunting and veteran Eugene Moleon, is better than many people think.

Zach Rushe, the left-arm spinner, has developed a happy knack of taking important wickets at key times, even when not at his best.

Where CI have the edge is in depth. The absence of Farhad Iqbal, the ineligible Pakistani professional, has forced Instonians into a reshuffle, with Rory McCann flying in from Scotland to bat at number three.

CI’s pre-final concerns have mainly been about injuries. James Cameron-Dow, the left-arm spinner, played for the first time in almost a month against CSNI last Saturday as he continues to nurse an ankle problem, but unless he has made a Lazarus-like recovery, he will be a passenger in the field.

Nigel Jones’ first season at Belmont has undoubtedly been hindered by a hand injury - his batting and bowling have both been affected - and Johnny Thompson and Trevor Britton have also had fitness issues.

Those concerns apart, CI have been a different beast this summer to the notoriously fickle teams of previous years. They were standing on the precipice of elimination against both North Down and Waringstown, but recovered from 189 for six against the former thanks to the unheralded Nathan Burns and then Dougherty, in company with Cameron-Dow, played one of the great cup knocks to beat the villagers.

If CI play their best cricket, they will surely lift the famous trophy for the first time in their history after defeats in the final to Waringstown over two days in 2006 and in 2010 to North Down.

But if they are off their game even slightly then Instonians, a team who never know when they are beaten, have the cricketers to capitalise.

A poor weather forecast probably favours the underdogs. Inst won a reduced-overs match in the 2009 final and in Russell and Shannon, they have two batsmen who become more threatening as the match becomes shorter.

CI, in contrast, will hope the sun shines, and for van der Dussen to bat the Premier League champions out of the final.

Their nightmare scenario would be the South African professional and Dougherty inserted in damp and miserable conditions, which Bunting in particular could exploit.

Expect CI to lift the trophy but don’t be surprised if Inst win a third cup in seven years.