In this two-part article, Barry takes a look at the overseas professionals who have played for North West clubs between 1979 and 2001.
With all the debate surrounding the usefulness of professionals to cricket clubs I thought it would be a good time to look back at the impact overseas players have made since their introduction in 1979 in the North West. A chance conversation between Billy Henderson, then with Eglinton, and Tony Opatha, a touring Sri Lankan, saw Opatha joining Eglinton for the remainder of the season. He was to be the first of over 50 professionals who have so far ventured here, including 13 Test Cricketers (Iqbal Siddiqui having recently made his debut for India in the current series against England).
Which of these has had the greatest impact? Which has been the best player? In terms of coaching youngsters and attracting young players to their club there are several who stand out. Bobby Rao who, along with S Armanath and Venkat Sundaram, arrived in 1980 created a lot of interest around Strabane and his coaching legacy can still be seen in the Strabane senior side to this day. His outstanding coaching ability has benefitted not only Strabane and Sion Mills but a host of clubs throughout the North. Venkat Sundaram was involved in one of the most controversial games ever to take place in the North West when he played in the 1980 cup final against Limavady. He scored 85 in the first innings but was completely overshadowed by no less than Kapil Dev, whom Limavady had signed up for the game. He took 3 wickets and scored 85 and entertained the large crowd. Limavady won the cup when Sion Mills failed to show on time for the resumption of the game on the third day. Armanath didn't set the world on fire with Eglinton and struggled to adapt to conditions here. He did however help Eglinton reach the 1981 Cup Final where they were beaten by Donemana.
His replacement at Eglinton, Hendy Wallace, is in the opinion of many the most influential professional to play in the vicinity. The affable Bajan was in his first few years a truly frightening prospect. He bowled with great speed and menace on a bouncy Eglinton wicket which then was nowhere near the batsman's paradise it is now. I remember the press coverage at the time with players complaining at the prospect of being injured by Hendy. It has to remembered that this was in the days before helmets, and protection was minimal. Over a period of time although his pace diminished Hendy consistently took between 60-80 wickets per season. His batting too improved and in his last years at Eglinton he scored heavily and consistently. Indeed in his last season (1997) he took 68 wickets and scored 914 runs. Hendy also carried out his coaching duties diligently and enthusiastically and proved hard to replace. Despite Ridley Jacobs scoring 1150 runs for Eglinton the following year they were relegated. The arrival of New Zealand Test bowler Heath Davis was not a success to say the least, but Venkat Pratap had a superb season in 2001 and helped Eglinton to promotion.
Strabane followed Bobby Rao with a great character called Jerry Kirton from Barbados. The big man proved to be one of the most popular players ever to play here. He is best remembered for his destruction of Donemana in the 1987 Cup final when he took 12 wickets for 98 runs and bowled his side to victory. Strabane also had two further West Indians, namely Tony Johnson and Ahmed Proverbs. Johnson was a great showman although he possessed a fiery temper. His partnership with Terence Patton was a real contrast in styles with both taking plenty of wickets, 85 apiece in 93 finishing first and second in the averages. The pair accounted for a strong Brigade side in the 93 cup final with Johnson smashing 92 and Patton taking 14 wickets. They lost out to Donemana in the race for the title when they were beaten by 2 runs chasing 223 for victory. Since then Strabane have employed the "Rawalpindi Express" Shoaib Akhtar who drew crowds where ever he played but obviously wasn't fully fit, much to the relief of batsmen in the North West. Since then both Sadat Gull and Pavan Kumar (left) haven't really produced many fireworks, except for a fine century by Kumar at the Rectory against Glendermott.
Limavady, apart from Kapil Dev, employed two other professionals namely Jadeep Narse (right) and Iftikhar Hussain. Narse was wonderfully consistent and held the Limavady team together on many occasions. It always helps however when you have Decker Curry on your team! He will be best remembered for successive centuries in 1999 against Donemana and 2000 against Brigade in the Cup Final. Iftikhar Hussain (left) played last year for Limavady and performed reasonably well but didn't take as many wickets as he would have liked.
He, of course, had previously played for Ardmore for 3 years and was well liked at the club. His quicker ball accounted for many batsmen and he figured among the leading wicket takers. His predecessors as professionals were among two of the finest players to play in Ireland. The late Raman Lamba played for Ardmore in 1991 and despite missing the first 3 games he managed to score no fewer than 6 centuries to take Ardmore to second place in the league. His presence brought huge crowds to the Bleachgreen and regenerated cricket in the Ardmore area. It was he who recommended Sanjeev Sharma to the club and he soon proved what a class act he was. In his first season Ardmore finally broke their hoodoo and won the Senior Cup - he won the Man of the Match award (although personally I thought it should have gone to Dessie McCourt) for his 9 wickets, and started celebrations which I still get a headache from every time I think of them!
When Sharma left Ardmore he joined Sion Mills for whom he has almost single handedly kept afloat in Senior One this past few seasons. Sion have also employed in the past, as well as Sundaram, Rao, Pratap and Sharma, two others. In the early 80s they had the huge figure of Mark Harper, brother of Test player Roger Harper (who incidentally played for Woodvale in 1981). He showed that he was no mean performer himself scoring 1400 runs in the month of June alone! The records show that in this purple patch he had the following knocks - Creevedonnell 212 not out, Strabane 120 not out and 104, Old Belvedere 90 not out, Ardmore 148 and 65 and North Fermanagh 120. With his help Sion beat Ardmore by 8 wickets to win the 1983 Senior Cup with him scoring 65 and taking 5 wickets. He also held the record for the highest score in the All Ireland Cup when he scored 194 against Lurgan but amazingly ended up on the losing side! What a game that must have been. Zimbabwean Neil Johnson (left, who was one of the stars of the 1999 World Cup) also played a season at Sion but proved to be a major disappointment, struggling with injury and form, and proving that a big name doesn't always guarantee success.
In the past few years Wian Smitt at Bready has shown his undoubted class and finished first and second in the batting averages. He hasn't been able to bowl in that period however and one wonders how Bready would have fared if he had been fully fit. It is strange to think that in his debut season he struggled to adapt to conditions and it was only his fine century in the relegation play off against Ardmore in 1999 which saved his skin. Bready who for many years were against the introduction of professionals have also employed two other professionals - Alex Cilliers and Ijaz Ahmed Jnr. Cilliers guided Bready to successsive Cup finals being instrumental in their win over Strabane in 1996 giving the Magheramason outfit their first major trophy.
Another side who reluctantly recruited professionals was Donemana, but they saw the need after several barren years. Kendrick Marshall, a 6'6" West Indian policeman was their first and created a surge of interest among the youngsters in their area. His coaching along with personnel from the club has seen Donemana produce such a wealth of young talent. His performances on the field were sporadic although he helped them to a Faughan Valley win over Brigade. He also scored 34 in one over against Ian McCloskey of Drummond so he proved he could strike a ball. Muajahid Jamshed replaced Marshall but couldn't lead Donemana to the trophies their supporters demanded. He too was a fluent strokemaker but he tended to get carried away. Azhar Shaffique (left), despite a slow start, came good at the right time and his 83 runs and 5 wickets in the second innings of the 2001 Cup Final earned him the Man of the Match award.
Brigade have also had three overseas players - Venkat Pratap, who joined from Sion, and Pakistan Test players Akram Raza and Wajahatullah Wasti. Raza guided them to their first All Ireland Cup when they beat Leinster by 8 wickets in the final. His spin bowling was very effective and difficult to score against. Last year saw Wasti help Brigade finally capture their Holy Grail when they won the League after a play off with Donemana. After a slow start he finally came good with both bat and ball when it mattered. His pedigree was never in doubt as he had previously scored centuries in both innings of a Test match against Sri Lanka, and shared in a record one day opening partnership against New Zealand in the 99 World Cup.
Another Pakistan one day international currently playing in the North West is Wasim Haider of Drummond. He almost single handedly carried the Drummond batting last year. finishing top of the North West averages and winning the Britannia Player of the Month award for May with an amazing average of 484! My claim to fame is that I dismissed him with my first ball in Senior cricket for twelve years! It's been all downhill since. Mukesh Nuralo was also a great success with Drummond scoring heavily and carrying out plenty of coaching in the area. In the 1995 season he scored no fewer than 1578 runs at an average of over 121, and took 47 wickets at 13.60. Their other recruit Ezra Poole wasn't a great success although to be fair he did make two centuries - albeit against Senior Two opposition.
Crindle have employed two professionals with varying degrees of success. Shantu Sugewakar was a prolific run getter in the North West and was part of a successful Crindle side in the early to mid 90's. Indeed he was instrumental in helping them reach the 95 cup final although due to an injured hand he was unable to bat or bowl in the final and Eglinton inflicted a crushing defeat on them with both Hendy Wallace and Stephen Smyth scoring centuries. Hensley Wilshaw was their other pro but despite some good performances he lacked consistency. He was however very popular with everyone.
Sugewakar also plied his trade with Coleraine who have had their fair share of professionals through the years. They also had Jadeep Narse on their books before he was snapped up by Limavady. Their most successful pro was Milan Gunjal who was by all accounts a very shrewd tactician. In Coleraine's finest year of 1986 he masterminded a famous semi final cup win over the mighty Donemana, and in the final his unbeaten 59 out of a total of 114 proved to be decisive in their win over Strabane. He returned to the club in 1994 when he topped the Senior Two bowling and batting averages and led the club to the league title. Others to have played there included the Indian Test wicket keeper Kiran More, and one of the great batsmen in Irish cricket Alf Masood. Lesser known names have been Robin Parris and Englishman Chris Stockdale.
Glendermott have for the past few seasons employed one of the most liked pros ever to play here in Shahid Iqbal. The opening bowler was devastating in his first season with the ball but struggled with a shoulder injury last year and wasn't at his best. He is a fine striker of the ball and has produced some entertaining knocks. He does however lack a little in consistency. His two predecessors were the recently capped Iqbal Siddiqui and Courtney Cort. Both had their moments with Glendermott with Cort taking 67 wickets at 9 apiece in the 94 season but it wasn't enough to gain his side promotion. Siddiqui was a more than useful bowler but his batting wasn't the strongest as he had a propensity to hit the ball in the air especially down the ground.
Both Fox Lodge and Burndennett have employed one professional namely Zahid Javed (right) and Steve Linton. Javed has been a disappointment for the Ballymagorry club too often playing rash strokes. He undoubtedly is a fine striker of the ball as he showed in a whirlwind knock against Limavady, but these scores were too few, too often. Linton was a popular figure and for a while generated interest but he was unable to help Burndennett reach Senior One.
Creevedonnell to their credit have gone down the professional route in recent years. To date they have used 3 Indians - namely A Agashi, P Kanade and Sachin Aradhye. Aradhye started slowly but finished the season well helping his side win the Sam Jeffrey Shield. He finished second in the bowling averages and his batting showed glimpses of his talent as the season wore on. Both Kanade and Agashi had their moments but both didn't score as heavily as they would have liked.
The final club to employ professionals is North Fermanagh who have had a wide range of players throughout the past 20 years. The most famous by far was the West Indian Test player Everton Mattis who also was part of the infamous rebel tour of South Africa. I was present at his first game which was against Ardmore at the Bleachgreen in late April and it was absolutely freezing! I have never seen anyone look so cold in their life. When he eventually acclimatized he played some fantastic innings, and was a fearsome striker of the ball. Indeed in the return fixture in Fermanagh he struck Connie McAllister for a huge six. As the ball was continuing on its ascent out of the ground Connie remarked "Christ, I think it's going to land in County Tyrone." In a test match to decide who was going to win promotion from Senior Two Mattis was joined by Craig Sturyk who was also a pro. Together they were successful and Fermanagh, or Western Counties as they were then known, went into Senior One. Others to have played there included Australian Pete Siptieri, Andrew Glasgow and recently Saurav Yadav, who may return this year after a leg injury meant he missed the 2001 season.
Who then was the best? My top three would be Sanjeev Sharma, Hendy Wallace and Bobby Rao. The three have been consistent over the years and feature regularly near the top of the averages every year. There is no doubt that Wallace in his early days scared the wits out of batsmen, but as time went on he showed what a canny performer he was. Sharma oozed class from his first innings with Ardmore when he scored 94 on a difficult track and has scored runs ever since. His bowling has lacked the penetration it did in his early years but on occasions he can still be devastating. Rao, who played in four tests in the 80s against West Indies and Australia, and should have been selected for more. He too was a class batsman and fine leg break bowler. For over twenty years he has performed consistently. Indeed he is at his most dangerous when he appears to be hobbling when batting, much like the great Gordon Greenidge.
Apologies if I have omitted anyone, but please write and let me know who your favourite pros are and why.