Love them or loathe them, overseas professionals have been a massive talking point in NCU cricket for the best part of 40 years.
Some clubs rebelled against professionals when they first reached our shores, but even those who resisted the most, notably Waringstown, eventually joined the party.
Here I have selected the ultimate overseas professional 11. There are various criteria - their impact on and off the field, longevity, whether they left a legacy. But some were so good, it didn’t matter how long they stayed!
1, Rahul Mankad (India, Lurgan, 1981-86) - Picking two opening batsmen was one of the most difficult tasks. There was a plethora of options, the New Zealander Matt Horne (North), Rizwan of Woodvale and Downpatrick, Partha Sharma (Instonians) Lurgan’s Subash Kshirasgar and North Down’s Pieter Malan may eventually make it, but Mankad was one of the great early pros. Robin Haire describes Mankad as a “very consistent performer, a great judge of a match situation”. He was instrumental in Lurgan’s success in the 1980s.
2, Rassie van der Dussen (South Africa, CIYMS, 2014-15) - The South African opener lit up Belmont over two wonderful summers. He scored two centuries in successive days in the Challenge Cup final win over Instonians, with the first washed out. He finished 2015 with 1,009 runs at 77.62. Rassie wasn’t bad in 2014 either, with 856 runs at 85.60.
3, Raman Lamba (India, North Down, 1984-85, 87-89, 93-96, also Woodvale, Cliftonville) - The classy Indian all-rounder played four Test matches and 32 one-day international. He died tragically aged 38 in February 1998 after being hit on the temple while fielding. A flamboyant batsman with film-star looks, Lamba plundered 1,000 runs in eight seasons at Comber and inspired North Down to become a force in NCU cricket once again.
4, Ijaz Ahmed Jnr (Pakistan, Belfast Harlequins 2002-2004, Waringstown 2005-2008) - The all-rounder was one of the great long-serving professionals. Ijaz was a league title winner with Waringstown in 2005 and 2006. Batting was his stronger suit but he was the epitome of reliability with the ball. He played two Tests and two ODIs for his country.
5, AB de Villiers (South Africa, Carrickfergus, 2004) - The most famous overseas man to ever play in the NCU, the-then 20-year-old’s spell here was brief but unforgettable. De Villiers was called back home midway through the season, but not before he had slammed an unbeaten 233 against Cliftonville and 208 not out from 157 balls against Instonians. Now arguably the finest batsman in world cricket.
6, Obus Pienaar (South Africa, Waringstown 2011, 2013) - It didn’t take long for the 21-year-old from Bloemfontein to announce his arrival here. In just his second league match, he slammed the highest individual score in the history of the top flight, 244 from 114 balls against CIYMS. He left early that summer, but returned in 2013 and while he wasn’t as explosive, Pienaar helped Waringstown win the Challenge Cup and share the Premier League title.
7, Taimur Khan (Pakistan, North Down 1999-2011 and 2014-15, CIYMS 2012-13, Bangor 2016) - Who had heard of the all-rounder from Peshawar when he pulled up at Comber back in 1999? He went on to be a pivotal part of the North Down team that dominated NCU cricket. Sharp with the new ball, an expert at removing opposition professionals, he was also a match-changing batsman. He always seemed to perform when North Down needed him most. Pound-for-pound, Taimur is the best professional the NCU has ever had.
8, Akram Raza (Pakistan, Woodvale 1987-92) - A spin-bowling all-rounder, Robin Haire describes Raza as a “quickish, maybe negative off spin bowler who is probably best remembered by the Woodvale faithful for his epic 146 in the 1991 Senior Cup final against North Down”. He represented Pakistan in Tests and ODIs.
9, Kamal Merchant (Pakistan, Downpatrick 1984-94, Cliftonville) - Arguably the finest overseas seam bowler to play in the NCU. He was a huge influence in the great Downpatrick team of the 1980s, winning an Irish Cup and latterly was a mentor to the Cliftonville team of the 90s. Kyle McCallan said: “He was the best bowler I have ever played with in club cricket. He had the ball on a string and was equally effective as a seamer or spinner. He was an enthusiastic coach with a genuine love of seeing young players improve.”
10, Eugene Moleon (South Africa, Instonians, 2002-today) - Who would have thought the fresh-faced South African bowler who first arrived here in 2002 would still be going strong 14 years later. Moleon might not be as talented as some of the stellar names here, and some may question the exclusion of a Rudi Bryson of Muckamore for instance, but few have brought as much to the table over such a long period. He inspired Inst to title-winning campaigns in 2009, 2013 and 2015, and Challenge Cups in 2009 and 2012.
11, Pulasthi Gunaratne (Sri Lanka, Waringstown 2000-01) - The paceman was Waringstown’s first professional in the top flight. He was fast and possessed a lethal slower ball, taking more than 40 wickets as the villagers won the 2000 league title. Uncapped before arriving in the NCU, he went on to play 23 ODIs, including at the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.
And the Coach: There is only one choice. John Solanky, the pioneer professional who paved the way for a host of young talent to come through from Lisburn Cricket Club. He would be the perfect man to mentor this side, as he did with a host of cricketers during his time in Northern Ireland.
Of those who missed out, who were the most unfortunate? There was a persuasive case for Gerald Dros, the big-hitting South African who played for Cliftonville. Abby Kale, the gifted Indian batsman who played for Lurgan, would be included on the basis of talent but as an overall package, Lurgan were much happier with Mankad, Subash and now Niranjan Godbole, who has given the Pollock Park club sterling service for well over a decade.
Some will question the exclusion of Rudi Bryson, the fearsome South African paceman who featured for Muckamore while Wasim Haider, the Pakistan all-rounder, has had his champions on social media.
Ewen Thompson, the New Zealand fast bowler, was also painstakingly close to the final 11. The Kiwi was a fearsome fast bowler for Civil Service North and handy with the bat. He and his club were hugely unfortunate not to lift the league title back in 2008.
For me Craig McMillan provided some wonderful moments of entertainment during his season at CIYMS in 2010. The New Zealander was pure box office, if only he had been here a few years earlier.
What could be even more interesting is the worst ever overseas professional 11... watch this space.