It might feel like the middle of January but the first real signs of summer will be in the air on Saturday as the local cricket season gets under way across the North West.
It was a shorter close season than usual for many with Ireland’s involvement in the World T20s breaking things up a bit, but it’s back to the ‘bread and butter’ now and everyone will be hoping for some long-overdue seasonal weather as the new campaign begins.
Current champions, Coleraine, could again be the team to beat in the Premier Division though a couple of pivotal personnel changes will mean both Brigade and Donemana look set to be in the hunt as well.
The Beechgrove side finished joint-top in 2015 but then didn’t field a team for the play-off against the Bannsiders and may well feel they have an added incentive to go one better this time. New faces on the Limavady Road include David Barr, arriving from Bready, and Ryan Macbeth from St Johnston as well as a new overseas player in Danza Hyatt.
Barr comes in to replace Ian McGregor at the top of the order although it would be no surprise to see the Warriors’ Head Coach turn out occasionally as well, if the need arises.
Macbeth will provide good options in the same department but is likely to come on for the experience of working with Andy Britton and Mark Simpson; however, Hyatt could be the marquee signing of the summer.
The West Indian international knows the local scene having been here with Killymallaght some six years ago and, if he is anywhere near the levels he was then, Brigade could be hard to work with.
Donemana have only brought in one player this time, Andrew Riddles, who played his boyhood cricket in the Tyrone village and is going back after a decade spent between Limavady, Eglinton and Ardmore.
The story here, however, is more about the players who are staying after Andy McBrine turned down an eye-watering offer to move to Belfast, while twins, Gary and William McClintock, rejected a more modest offer at Ardmore.
As well as that trio, overseas man Jan Frylinck is also back and that consistency could be a big help when the trophies are divided up later this year. McBrine would have been a savage loss to the cup holders, and also to the Interprovincial side, where he is captain. The feeling from the Donemana camp is that they aim to make their persistence count.
Holders Coleraine have David Cooke coming in to join a title-winning side, however, they have lost Ireland-contracted bowler Graeme McCarter to Belfast side, Civil Service North. The Sandel Lodge outfit are also introducing a new overseas professional in Roshen Silva, a very highly-regarded Sri Lankan batsman.
The title looks at the mercy of these three this summer but splitting them is very difficult. Brigade will be favourites followed by Donemana with Coleraine hunting them both down but you could pick any one from three. Ironically, when asked about which trophy he’d prefer to get his hands on this season, Bannsiders’ captain Scott Campbell immediately opted for the Bank of Ireland Senior Cup, not surprising given that they’ve lost out in the last five consecutive semi-finals.
Ricky-Lee Dougherty, whose Donemana side haven’t lost a Senior Cup tie since 2011, said that, if he could only have one, he’d willingly take the league.
Elsewhere, Eglinton, Strabane and Ardmore will hope to compete for a top half place with Bready and Drummond setting their stall out to avoid the relegation scrap.
The ‘Red Caps’ still look light years away from the side that won the senior title three times between 2009 and 2014, but they should be able to survive comfortably enough. They, too, have a new professional in South African schools’ player, Kevin Pretorius, but it could well be local faces, including Peter Gillespie, skipper Ryan Gallagher, Aaron Gillespie and Ryan Patton that help keep them safe.
Ardmore welcome back ‘keeper/batsman, Kevin Martin, and also bring in a very dangerous bowler in Stephen Dunn although they lose Simon Killen and Andrew Riddles who are both heading back to their previous clubs. There’s a new overseas man here, too, and early signs are encouraging that South African, Marlo Jardine, could be very productive.
Eglinton have a few ‘outs’ this year but still look very capable under the captaincy of current Ireland International, Stuart Thompson. The new skipper and returning professional, Oraine Williams, are as good a new ball pairing as is in the league and, with a solid batting line-up as well, the villagers will hope to consolidate on a very impressive 2015.
Bready’s plight hasn’t been helped by losing David Barr from the top of their order after he decided to join Brigade while, more recently, Craig Young, has gone on short-term loan to Hampshire.
The cupboard looks just a touch bare at Magheramason and David Scanlon’s men will have to dig deep if they’re to make any inroads on a trophy hunt.
Similar comments apply to Drummond who come into the top flight with exactly the same squad that won the Championship by a whisker from Fox Lodge last time. Not bringing in any local players for a tilt at the top flight is one thing, but trying to survive without an overseas player could well be another thing altogether for the Roe Valley men.
They certainly have experience in spades considering the likes of skipper Chris Moore, former Ireland International Ricky McDaid, Andy Christie, Steve Moore and Adam McDaid but that missing piece looks to be a solid “pro”.
That’s not to say they can’t survive because they will win games, but it might just be a bridge too far.
In the Championship, the ‘Foxies’ start warm favourites to make their quality count this time after coming so close 12 months ago. Marco Marais is back in town and the prolific South African will hope to help Brian Allen bring them back into the Premier Division at the second time of asking.
Their job is likely to be made difficult by a rejuvenated Killyclooney and maybe even more so by perennial challengers Glendermott.
You wouldn’t want to put a line through Newbuildings or new boys Ballyspallen either in a division that, if anything, looks the more competitive of the two.