Although it was not mathematically settled until the penultimate week, Excelsior ‘20’s retention of the title they had startled everyone, including themselves, by winning in 2016 had seemed the most likely outcome since well before the end of May.
They remained unbeaten until the end of June, extending their record-breaking winning run to 14 games, before finally succumbing to the team that had by this time emerged as their main challengers, VRA.
But the Amsterdam side had taken several games to settle, and even after beating Excelsior they remained four points in arrears, a gap which turned out to be the margin at the end of the season as well, each of the pair losing just once more along the way.
Excelsior’s success was firmly based on the performances of their two overseas players: Lorenzo Ingram scored most runs (823 at 54.87) and took most wickets (32 at 14.00), while James Hilditch made 542 runs at 49.27 and took 23 wickets at 21.09.
Sohail Bhatti and Tom Heggelman contributed to a useful seam attack with 30 and 25 wickets respectively, but a back injury meant that Rens van Troost bowled only 41 overs in the whole season, and Gijs Kroesen was also less effective than he had been the year before.
Of the other young players in the squad it was Tim Etman who most obviously continued to make progress, hitting a maiden Topklasse century and totalling 434 runs at 27.12.
But the most significant factor of all for the Schiedam club was their ability to win matches they had seemed likely to lose; they were a highly effective unit, and skipper Heggelman, Ingram and Hilditch were able to get the best out of the whole squad. That often made all the difference.
After a couple of disappointing years, VRA Amsterdam bounced back with a vengeance, losing three matches in the first half of the season but only one in the second.
Much of this was due to the competition’s outstanding pace attack, with Fred Klaassen (the leading wicket-taker in the Topklasse with 38 wickets at 13.63) and Quirijn Gunning, backed up by Haseeb Gul Mia, often ripping through opposing batting line-ups.
But equal credit must go to seasoned internationals Peter Borren and Eric Szwarczynski: Borrren had by far his best year ever with the bat, making 1009 runs and becoming only the second player to average more than 100.00 in a season in the Dutch top flight, and chipped in with 21 wickets as well.
In a year when three batsmen passed 1000 runs Szwarczynski’s 790 might seem comparatively modest, but it would have been enough to top the aggregates in many seasons, and he averaged 71.82.
One has to say that a best-of-three final series between Excelsior and VRA would have been a climax to the campaign to be savoured by any cricket fan.
That HCC eventually came out on top of the mid-table battle between the three Den Haag sides, who occupied third to fifth places, was, of course, due in large measure to Jonathan Vandiar’s dominance with the bat; the South African hit 1139 runs at 67.00, passing fifty in ten of his 18 innings and going on to four centuries.
Vandiar’s importance, however, transcended his own prolificacy: his opening partnership with Tonny Staal, who made 565 runs at 35.31 and also posted a maiden Topklasse hundred, gave the side a solid base, and he also oversaw the progress of young Boris Gorlee, who began to flourish and made his first half-century towards the end of the season.
Skipper Mark Jonkman was again the side’s leading wicket-taker with 34 at 14.97, while Hidde Overdijk’s 25 at 24.68 was evidence of his continuing development, although he has not yet realised his full potential as an allrounder.
HCC are still a young side, and the club’s youth policy was confirmed by their blooding of three more youngsters in their final game of the season; at the same time, their victory over Excelsior two weeks earlier had indicated that this is a squad capable of becoming a real force in the future.
If the intention of some of the leading clubs in pushing for the re-expansion of the league had been to bring in a hedge against relegation, they received a nasty shock from the performances of HBS Den Haag, and to a lesser extent Punjab Rotterdam.
They established their credentials by winning their first three matches, and if they never quite recaptured that form thereafter, they remained menacing opponents and won another eight games along the way.
Jaron Morgan was a key factor, the third man to post 1000 runs in the season, and he was well balanced by his fellow-Australian, Corey Rutgers, who made 634 at 48.77.
HBS, too, had a lively seam attack, with Farshad Khan (29 wickets including 7-19 against Hermes-DVS, the individual bowling performance of the season), Ferdi Vink (20), Berend Westdijk (19) and Wessel Coster (21) all having good days, but the lack of a top-class spinner – especially when Morgan was forced to take over the gloves when Tobias Visée was injured – was a serious limitation.
Injury was not the only factor in Visée’s being less dominant than he had been as HBS gained promotion in 2016, but he remains one of the competition’s most exciting batsmen and his emergence as the national side’s keeper may also lead to his tempering his explosive approach to batting.
Quick Haag suffered a shock when they lost to Punjab in the first game of the campaign, and it is tempting to say that they never really recovered.
They posted a few outstanding performances, especially at Nieuw Hanenburg, but overall they lacked consistency, and by the end of the season there were indications of dissension which compounded their problems.
Overseas player Jean Bredenkamp had a decent all-round season, making 467 runs at 35.92 and taking 21 wickets at 19.38, but it was Jeroen Brand who took with most wickets with 26 at 18.50.
Wesley Barresi’s 497 runs at 33.13 was a disappointing return by his high standards, and generally speaking the batting failed to fire; Joost van Schelven’s hundred on his first appearance in the penultimate game simply reinforced what Quick had been missing all season.
They gave several young players a game or two in the course of the campaign, and with the retirement of Henk Jan Mol it seems more than likely that the side is moving into a rebuilding phase over the next year or two.