It was another exciting weekend on the NCU cricket scene with the Irish Senior and National cups both getting underway.
There were some brilliant performances - with the likes of CIYMS, CSNI and Carrickfergus all securing places in the second round of the Senior Cup and Derriaghy continued their unbeaten season with National Cup success against DLR County.
Here are five talking points from the weekend:
1 - CIYMS are much more than just a star-studded team
CIYMS have arguably the best squad in Irish club cricket this season but their victory over North County was about much more than that.
The Leinster side were cruising at 111-1 at Belmont on Saturday and looked like setting a total in the region of 300, but the character and skill shown by the NCU Premier League champions under pressure was superb and deserves credit.
Nigel Jones made the much-needed breakthrough when he dismissed County’s overseas professional Yassar Cook for 43 and you could tell how much that meant with the celebration that followed before the visitors crumbled to 211 all out.
They are on a roll in 50-over cricket and many of their league wins have came easily in the end but don’t get it twisted - they are more than capable of showing some grit and digging deep when needed.
CI lost out by tight margins last season in the two main cup competitions and the challenge now is to transform themselves from contenders into champions on all fronts.
2 - NCU cricket is in a brilliant spot
Looking at the results in the Irish Senior Cup on Saturday it is hard to not be impressed by the standard of cricket that clubs in the NCU are currently playing.
Muckamore lost out to Malahide and Lisburn were beaten in the end by reigning North West champions Bready, but when you consider they have just been promoted that is a credible effort on the road from Adam Berry’s side.
Carrickfergus produced a stunning performance to beat YMCA, who have many future Irish internationals in their squad, with Jacques Snyman hitting his third century of the season, plus CSNI demolished Coleraine.
Instonians have left a lot to be desired in the Premier League but were absolutely brilliant in their 10-wicket triumph against Cork County with Oliver Metcalfe and Nikolai Smith both registering centuries on their way to chasing 236.
Waringstown are already into the second round, having won the competition last year and North Down also have the chance next Sunday to progress against Donemana.
Looking at the National Cup, all five of the Section One clubs that entered will be in the hat for the second round, which goes to confirm how healthy the game is in this part of the country.
3 - Graeme McCarter might just be the best bowler in the NCU
Admittedly, I had this thought a couple of weeks ago so it isn’t just revolving around this weekend’s action but his 3-18 from nine overs in CSNI’s seven-wicket victory against Coleraine just reaffirmed my feeling.
The 26-year-old doesn’t possess rapid pace but skill gets the ball to move off the surface and the more you watch him the more you can’t help but be impressed.
He picked up four wickets against North Down in the opening league game and bowled well early on against Waringstown before James McCollum and Greg Thompson took the game away from CSNI and this could be the season where we see him towards the top of the wicket-taking pile.
McCarter is in the Northern Knights squad for matches against the North West Warriors at his home pitch of Stormont this week and it will be interesting to see how he gets on after impressing on the recent trip to La Manga.
Add in his middle-order batting capabilities and it is clear that he will have a big role to play if CSNI are to pick up any silverware in 2019.
4 - Haseeb Azam will take plenty of wickets this season
Azam arrived at Waringstown with big shoes to fill after the impact made by Shaheen Khan over recent years but the early signs suggest that he is going to excel on the bowling front.
Watching him bowl against Carrickfergus in the Twenty20 Cup on Thursday night showed that he is able to adapt his bowling to different conditions and formats, and just like the aforementioned McCarter, he isn’t counting on express pace but lets the ball do the talking when it pitches.
Khan had a knack of stepping up with big performances in the most important matches and they are coming thick and fast now for Waringstown with Challenge Cup and Irish Senior Cup fixtures in the next few weeks, and they will be hoping Azam can make a big impact.
He hasn’t been able to showcase his batting abilities just yet but undoubtedly that will come and it’s going to be exciting to see what he will produce in the key moments for a club always at the latter end of competitions.
5 - Is this the strongest year of professionals in some time?
When you look at every squad, each overseas professional is making a huge impact - which is something you would expect, but the quality of those eight Premier Leaguer players is astounding.
Andre Malan is an absolute run machine for CSNI and has just continued on from his blistering 2018 form, while North Down’s Ruhan Pretorius hit yet another half-century on Friday night to secure a Twenty20 Cup win at The Green.
Jacques Snyman and Faiz Fazal were two newcomers to the NCU with Carrickfergus and Lisburn respectively and both hit big Irish Cup centuries this weekend while the aforementioned Azam is going to be a tricky customer with the ball.
Obus Pienaar is a delight to watch and he smashed 74* to see CIYMS over the line against North County to add to a century he scored on debut against Lisburn.
Fahad Iqbal at Muckamore is building on a great 2018 campaign and he will have to lead from the front over the next couple of weeks if the Moylena side are to start climbing the table.
We haven’t got to see the best of Instonians’ Murray Commins yet but by all accounts he is a superb batsman and will be one to watch as the Northern Knights take on the North West Warriors this week.
The quality in the Premier League has hit a new level in 2019 and it is set to be the most competitive competition in quite some time.