VRA’s demolition of VOC last week confirmed their position as the principal challengers to Excelsior, and they know that they have to keep winning, and winning well, if they are to have any chance of taking the title. They do have the advantage of a superior net run rate to the leaders, but Nieuw Hanenburg is a tricky place to visit, and the home side also have a powerful incentive: they would move level with the Amsterdammers if they won this match. How well their batsmen cope with Gunning and Klaassen will be a key factor, as will the extent to which VRA’s top order can adapt to the alien conditions.
Alien conditions have not proved too troubling for VRA this season, as skipper Peter Borren pointed out the other day they actually have a perfect record away from home so far this season. And though Quick likely won't have quite given up hope, it's the visitors who have something closer to a viable title challenge to keep alive. Gunning and Klaassen (and indeed young Haseeb Gul) have been a force this season, but Quick's top order can be expected to put up sterner resistance than the beleaguered VOC last week. With Turmaine still unable to bowl and Raja's availability in doubt much may depend on Rathore's performance if Quick can see off the new ball. A tough one to call, but I'm going to go with momentum over home advantage for this one.
HCC vs Hermes-DVS Schiedam (De Diepput)
Both these sides suffered narrow, and fairly traumatic, defeats last Sunday, but for Hermes the encouraging feature was that they posted their highest total of the season so far. HCC’s inability to chase down a modest target of 160 was more worrying for their side, and if self-confidence is a key element then this may favour Hermes. As always, much – arguably too much – depends upon Jonathan Vandiar, whose form has been a little less dominant in recent weeks: if he comes off, then HCC could probably post a total beyond Hermes’ reach, or chase anything the Schiedammers are capable of setting. A major innings from Stef Myburgh excepted, of course!
It's fair to say at this point that a Myburgh century is due, and the rest of Hermes batting line-up is belatedly beginning to find some form. With Seb Braat bowling again the attack also boasts a little more bite than at the start of the season, but the question remains whether it will be enough to contain HCC's Vandiar-driven top order. Little but pride is on the line for either side – with Hermes' relegation looking all-but inevitable and HCC mired in the congested mid-table - this looks another game that could go either way. Having personally seen rather too little of either side so far this season though, I'm inclined to go with home advantage and form.
ACC vs Punjab Rotterdam (Het Loopveld West)
Punjab and ACC, by contrast, both defended low totals last week, and this promises to be a very interesting encounter. ACC’s triplicity of Zulfiqar internationals, plus elder brother Rehmat, player-coach Kathrada, and the evergreen Usman Malik, form the core of a side which perhaps still has too many weak links, while the Rotterdammers have proved in their first Topklasse season that, while they too rely heavily on a few key players, they are a well-balanced unit capable of matching most sides in the competition. But if the ACC top order can master Punjab’s array of spinners, this could well be a home win, and put ACC within reach of a place in the upper half of the table.
Indeed ACC fans must occasionally regret that the Zulfiqar children stopped appearing still a half-dozen short of a cricket team. The four siblings proved more than enough to best Punjab in their last encounter, however, in fact Rehmat, Saqib and Asad saw the Rotterdammers off practically unassisted. Punjab have since shown themselves more than capable of hanging with the big boys, though anything better than an upper-mid table finish is probably beyond either side now. As the good Professor points out, ACC's ability to handle spin will likely be key, and their record in the last few games suggests no great vulnerability there. It was HBS' quicks that kept them to 168 last week, whilst they ran up 266 against a spin-heavy Dosti attack the week before, and lost only one wicket to slow bowling at Excelsior. With home advantage also playing in their favour, the Amsterdammers look favourites on Saturday.
Dosti United Amsterdam vs HBS Den Haag (Sportpark Drieburg)
After an outstanding start to their return to the Topklasse much of the air has escaped from the HBS balloon, and three defeats on the trot have seen them sink to mid-table. But a visit to Amsterdam to take on a disappointing Dosti gives them a great opportunity to break the sequence and get back to winning ways. On the other hand, Dosti pushed Excelsior all the way last week, Taruwar Kohli’s five-for proving just insufficient to give them what would have been a remarkable victory. Containing Visée and Morgan will be one of the key challenges for the Dosti attack, while their own brittle top order will face five HBS seamers determined to turn things around for their side.
The struggles of Rahil Ahmed and the Tewarie brothers are of the deepest concern for Dosti. Whilst their overseas players Dry and Kohli have both had solid seasons, the established young players that one would hope to see form the core of the team going forward have (Mahesh Hans excepted) have all experienced simultaneous slumps in form. It's difficult to see Dosti turning their season around from here – with little more to aspire to than a face-saving finish . Though their showing against Excelsior showed hints of the Dosti of old, one can equally see the wheels coming off entirely if Visée, Rutgers or Morgan get going.
Excelsior 20 Schiedam vs VOC Rotterdam (Thurlede)
Helped by a superb innings from James Hilditch Excelsior crept across the line against Dosti last Sunday, maintaining that four-point margin. But the brittleness of their batting pales into insignificance compared to VOC’s, and even without Rens van Troost their seam attack looks good enough to test the Rotterdammers’ top order. The extent to which VOC miss Pieter Seelaar and Ahsan Malik becomes more evident with every game, and unless their overseas-based trio of Chris Free, Caleb Jewell and Max O’Dowd all come to the party together, this should be a fairly decisive home win.
Yes it's hard to see Excelsior dropping points on this one, with Tom Heggelman's disciplined side already closing on the finish line with the season only half-done. The Schiedammers have certainly wobbled somewhat in recent weeks, a loss to VRA and a far from convincing win at Dosti suggesting some of the wind has gone out of their sails, but VOC are not best placed to take advantage. Jewell's obvious talent has shone through on occasion for them, and he was rather unfortunate in his dismissal last week, but beating Excelsior is not a one-man job. There's still enough quality in the pre-season favourites' dressing room to upset the champions-presumptive, but one wonders if there is the requisite self-belief.
[Note: These tables show the results of this fixture over the past ten seasons. ‘W’ means a win for the home side, ‘L’ a defeat, ‘T’ a tie, ‘N’ no result. Matches played on the opponent’s ground or a neutral venue are shown in square brackets.]
Rod Lyall’s predictions: Quick, HCC, ACC, HBS, Excelsior.
Bertus de Jong’s predictions: VRA, HCC, ACC, HBS, Excelsior