Ian Callender (Sunday Life)
THERE will be four current Ireland players in the Robinson Services Premier League for the first time since 2010 and with a former India international one of five new overseas players involved, expectations have rarely been higher going into the new season.
CIYMS will again be the team to beat and with the signing of former Waringstown professional Obus Pienaar and Ireland Wolves all-rounder Mark Adair they look to be in pole position to be the first team for eight years to win back-to-back titles outright.
Not only can the Belmont side expect runs from both new recruits, they are sure to be vital cogs in what surely is the best bowling attack in Ireland with Adair adding to a pace attack of Nigel Jones and Allen Coulter and Pienaar’s left arm spin supplementing Jacob Mulder, Trevor Britton and new Ireland international James Cameron-Dow.
Captain Jones, delighted with the new singings, expects another big season from the defending champions.
“We are excited about the year ahead and the squad we have put together. There is very little change but the addition of Obus Pienaar with his pedigree in Irish cricket is a massive boost,” he said.
“Mark’s got real talent with both bat and ball and I feel this season he can push on with the Knights and Wolves, and maybe even Irish senior international recognition later on in the year if he stays fit and firing.
“We’ve had a settled side for the last two or three years and that undoubtedly helped us win the league last year. We lost two really close matches in the big cup competitions, against Waringstown and Merrion, but we probably only had ourselves to blame and we’ve talked about that.
“We are going to take each game as it comes and hopefully we’ll have more silverware at Belmont come the end of the season. As long as we play to our potential, and the guys follow the axiom of team first, I can’t see it playing out any other way.”
Waringstown chased CI all the way last year and the omens are good for the Villagers who have lifted the league trophy every other year since 2013. They also have an Ireland Test player in James McCollum, after he made his debut against Afghanistan last month, and alongside Adam Dennison and James Hall they provide a formidable test for opposition new ball bowlers.
The attack is boosted by Haseeb Azam, a 32-year-old Pakistan pace bowler who has an impressive red-ball record back home with nine five-wicket hauls and 10 in a match twice. If he can hit the ground running, he could be a tremendous asset in a line-up with a proven quartet of spin bowlers.
It would have been five Ireland current Ireland internationals only for James Shannon to up sticks and leave for Phoenix, but close friend and new Ireland team-mate Shane Getkate is staying at Shaw’s Bridge and Instonians may need a big season from him if they are to remain in the top half.
They do have an overseas professional this year, though, and it is not an unfamiliar face as 22-year-old South African Murray Commins scored a century on his one appearance last year in the Irish Cup – against Phoenix!
Muckamore have been the busiest club over the winter with four out and three in plus, what could be the most valuable signing, coach Bobby Rao.
Marcus O’Riordan, who has been on Kent’s books for the last few years, is the most interesting newcomer and he has already starred with the bat for the Ireland Academy side, on their tour to England last week. The Moylena side will be looking to improve on their seventh place last season while North Down, who finished just one place above them, will be expecting a top half finish after snaring Ireland international Craig Young from North West champions Bready while Jamie Magowan, a more than useful batsman, will keep wicket after his move from Muckamore.
The highest profile Ireland international in the NCU is T20 captain Gary Wilson, who comes home after 12 years in county cricket to bolster a Civil Service North side which has an abundance of talent as proven by the cup record in recent years. Capable of beating any team on the day, skipper James Kennedy will be looking for that consistency to get back into the top half of the league.
Carrickfergus have regulars in the top four recently but may need a big season from new South African professional Jacques Snyman to stay there, while newly promoted Lisburn have signalled their intention for another extended stay in the top flight with the signing of former Ireland international Reinhardt Strydom and new professional and opening batsman Faiz Fazal, who scored 55 not out in his only ODI for India, against Zimbabwe three years ago.
Saturday’s opening fixtures: