The 2017 NCU Premier League title race could be a survival of the fittest, the eventual winners the team that withstands the rigours of the most highly congested cricketing summer ever.
The bulging fixture list is not so much down to any proliferation of club matches but more the continuing shift towards a representative programme that promises to test the physical and mental resilience of many leading players.
Waringstown, with a team packed full of Northern Knights stars, cracked under the pressure of a fixture pile-up last summer, and it the villagers and champions Instonians who will probably face the most rigorous examinations again this summer.
Those two teams might appear to be the best bets for silverware, but representative distractions and sheer workload could open the door for others, particularly a newly-strengthened CIYMS or even last year’s surprise runners-up Carrickfergus.
Instonians, league champions in three of the last four seasons, start the campaign as favourites, even though they will have no overseas professional and have been embroiled in a stand-off with CSNI over Shane Getkate.
The Dubliner has taken his batting, now brutally destructive, to a totally new level in the last 12 months and if he makes the move to Shaw’s Bridge, it will be almost akin to adding a proven professional.
With a seam attack led by the impressive Nathan Smith and Robert McKinley, Inst’s main weakness is an apparent lack of spin options. In addition, the presence of a overseas player is always a psychological boost and even the great North Down team of the previous decade relied on Taimur Khan to bail them out in tight moments.
It’s more of the same for Waringstown, who were seemingly sweeping all before them last summer before dramatically losing five of their last six league matches. Greg Thompson has taken over the captaincy from Lee Nelson and Shaheen Khan replaces fellow South African Cobus Pienaar as overseas player.
Khan will need to be more penetrative with the ball than Pienaar while the workload of Phil Eaglestone, now in his mid-thirties, must be managed. Last season underlined that without early wickets to work with, Waringstown’s famed spinners are more vulnerable to attack in the Twenty20 era.
The depth of their batting is the envy of most, but a tendency to blow up in the final month of the campaign, as in 2012, 2014 and 2016, cannot be dismissed.
CI struggled in the league last summer but should be better equipped for a sustained challenge this time. Jason van der Merwe and Ryan Hunter should be good bets for big runs and signing seamer Matt McGillivray as professional should plug the gap left by Johnny Thompson’s return to the North West. The only concern will be the availability of Jacob Mulder, with Ireland having first say on the leg-spinner who will miss the early weeks of the season with injury.
Carrickfergus, runners-up after Waringstown’s 2017 meltdown, remain outside bets and their best opportunities will surely be in knockout competitions, with no bowling attack relishing trying to combat the devastating South African Pat Botha when he is in the mood.
The relegation battle looks fiendishly difficult to predict. Lisburn have been written off in some quarters but they are a tight, home-grown group who relish defying the odds. As ever, their home form will be decisive. New boys Muckamore are keen to atone for disastrous previous Premier League seasons, and their preparations were on course until the NCU has rejected the registration of former Coleraine seamer Jarred Barnes. That is a body blow and survival is surely the main target at Moylena.
CSNI will be hoping that Getkate changes his mind and stays at Stormont because without him, the batting looks light, even with the addition of veteran James Kennedy.