Spend money and recruit, or you won’t survive in cut-throat NCU Premier League

Graeme McCarter of CSNI
Graeme McCarter of CSNI

After the best part of three decades dining at the top table of NCU cricket, Lisburn will slip out of the Premier League this weekend.

The fate of the Wallace Park club has appeared set in stone for weeks now, the last vestiges of hope evaporating in a clatter of wickets at Comber last month, as they somehow managed to salvage defeat from the very jaws of victory against North Down.

Iftikhar Hussain has been key to Muckamore's fine season

Iftikhar Hussain has been key to Muckamore's fine season

It was ironic that The Green was the venue where their relegation to Section One was effectively sealed, ending the longest stay in the NCU’s top flight.

After all it was at Comber in 1998 when Lisburn were last seriously threatened with relegation. Back then, on consecutive autumnal Saturday afternoons, their fate came down to a play-off against Waringstown.

The first game was postponed, the second, on what I remember to be the very last day of September, saw their then captain Gary Blair, now a respected umpire, struck an unbeaten half-century to seal the most dramatic of victories that relegated the villagers.

There was to be no escape this time.

Ruhan Pretorius was key to North Down's success

Ruhan Pretorius was key to North Down's success

Relegation became a mathematical certainty last Saturday when Lisburn were crushed by Instonians but you could argue that the Wallace Park club were climbing the proverbial mountain from the moment the season got under way back in April.

Sure, they recovered from a dreadful batting collapse to beat Civil Service North on the opening day of the season, and later pulled off the most improbable of victories over champions Instonians, but after deciding to go it alone, with just professional Gionne Koopman as their only import, the odds on survival were long from the start.

That sadly, is what the Premier League has become, a cut-throat division where spending power, or at least the ability to recruit players from other clubs or overseas, is a prerequisite to being competitive, never mind actually winning any honours.

Muckamore, who were embarrassed during their last one-season stay in the top flight, didn’t make the same mistake twice as they returned to the Premier League in April strengthened by South African professional Kasigo Rapulana, Ryan Haire and Iftikhar Hussain and would have been stronger still had not red tape foiled a bid to sign the paceman Jarred Barnes. Consequently, they stayed up with plenty to spare.

Waringstown's Greg Thompson moved from LIsburn in 2013

Waringstown's Greg Thompson moved from LIsburn in 2013

North Down, who escaped relegation thanks to professional Pieter Malan a year ago, ensured that brush with the drop was consigned to history as Zimbabwe leg-spinner Carl Robinson was joined at Comber by Stuart Nelson, who moved from Cregagh, and Jay Hunter, the Templepatrick wicketkeeper. Granted, Ruhan Pretorius was an inspirational professional and Alistair Shields produced the best batting form of his career, but the triple signing gave them new-found depth.

Carrickfergus too owed several early successes to new arrival Daniel Poulton while where would Civil Service North have been without talismanic captain Graeme McCarter, formerly of the North West, and James Kennedy, ex-Ballymena?

CIYMS’ success was largely founded on recruitment, with John Matchett a notable exception and you can argue that Waringstown, held up as a club who continually invest in their youth, would be nowhere near the same force without their captain, Greg Thompson, who joined in 2013 from, yes, Lisburn.

Lisburn in the past did recruit, Nathan Waller, the Zimbabwean and Steve Lazars, the Indian all-rounder, played key roles as they eased away from the danger area in 2016. But by trusting their own young players, many of them not yet ready for the Premier League, Lisburn probably suspected what fate lay ahead.

So that is the equation for Armagh, crowned Section One champions with something to spare. Their promotion from Section One would have been unthinkable without the contribution of the aforementioned Jarred Barnes, who has taken wickets and plundered runs, often against opposition without professionals of their own.

But that’s where Armagh’s problems start. Barnes is putting down roots in Northern Ireland and when that move to Muckamore fell through, he agreed to return to Moylena in 2018 when he will qualify as a local player.

It’s early days but Armagh will need to invest heavily if their long-awaited return to top-flight NCU cricket isn’t to become an experience to forget.

p James Shannon is entitled to feel mightily aggrieved. As an under-strength Northern Knights side went down to an innings defeat to Leinster Lightning this week, the Instonians batsman was a lone resistance, plundering brilliant half-centuries in both innings as most around him wilted.

Shannon has been the standout batsman in this year’s interprovincial competition but his name was conspicuously absent from the Ireland squad named to face West Indies at Stormont.

He may yet get a 12th man gig on account of an injury Andrew Balbirnie, but Cricket Ireland’s pledge to reward interprovincial excellence will ring hollow the longer Shannon is excluded.