It looks like a three-horse title race in NCU Premier League

Neil Russell's Instonians are vying for the title
Neil Russell's Instonians are vying for the title

The NCU Premier League title race has so far resembled the build-up to a world title boxing match.

Plenty of sparring, but little of the action that will ultimately decide the destination of the trophy.

The season may be more than two months old, but none of the likely top three, champions Instonians, favourites CIYMS and Waringstown, have yet faced each other in the league.

Belatedly, that will finally change over the next two days, starting on Friday night when Instonians and Waringstown attempt for the third time to play a twice-postponed match that should originally have taken place on the first Saturday in May.

With Waringstown also due to travel to CIYMS on Saturday (the weather forecast looks decidedly ordinary), the weekend has the potential to distinguish the rose from the thorns.

Instonians, fresh from securing a place in the Challenge Cup semi-final, were probably third favourites amongst many pundits but as the run-in last season demonstrated, underestimate them at your peril.

Neil Russell’s men may not have been at their best so far, but they seem to have acquired the happy knack of peaking at the right time and new professional Farhad Iqbal looks a thoroughbred.

Left-arm spinner Zach Rushe, the leading wicket-taker in the NCU last summer, believes it is a three-horse race.

“It’s between ourselves, Waringstown and CI,” he said.

“I can’t see North Down challenging, which is a surprise because every season you expect them to be there. We haven’t come up against Waringstown or CI yet, but it’s been interesting to hear that CI now have more camaraderie in the squad, which they have not had before.

“For a long time Instonians had the reputation of bottlers, but now we have a habit of digging ourselves out of trouble.”

Tonight’s game at Shaw’s Bridge is a Twenty20 repeat of last season’s title decider, when Russell’s blistering knock broke Waringstown hearts.

The shorter format may again favour the home side.

Rushe is going head-to-head with one of his left-arm rivals, Gary Kidd.

Along with James Cameron-Dow of CIYMS, the trio give the Northern Knights three options for interprovincial cricket.

Former Bangor spinner Rushe (25) has found his opportunities limited but he insists his focus is on contributing to Instonians’ success.

“I’m happy with the way I’ve bowled,” he said.

“I’ve been told by the Knights to go away and work away on my consistency and I think I have improved that.

“ I didn’t take any wickets in the semi-final and at first I came off the pitch thinking I hadn’t really contributed.

“But then I looked at my figures and with almost everyone else going for 50 or 60, the fact that we managed to restrict them to below our score probably came down to my spell.

“Last year I was leading wicket-taker in the NCU but I still struggled to cement my place in the Knights.

“I was told that was because of consistency. When the squads are announced I used to be waiting on them and checking the internet, but I’m more relaxed about it now.

“The competition is tough because in my opinion Gary Kidd is the best left-arm spinner around. I’ve just got to take my opportunity when it comes.”

Instonians will have to contend with one important Waringstown weapon on Friday.

James Hall, the opening batsman, is expected to return after missing the last two weekends with hamstring trouble.

Inst are also in action on Saturday as they visit Stormont for the second Saturday in succession.

If they can win twice they will send an ominous message to their rivals. As yet they are not expecting to face CIYMS in the league until a likely a double-header in August.