IT is still all systems go for a curtailed but meaningful season of club cricket, starting on Saturday, with a place in the National T20 Cup semi-finals the prize for the provincial winners.
The sport has been given its Return To Play protocols – which could change before the season’s end in September – but, for now, 20-over games is the maximum recommended duration.
In a case of it’s better than nothing, all the clubs are on board. The NCU have proved more ambitious than most and will try to fit in two competitions – keeping both their main sponsors happy – the Robinson Services League Cup, which, in effect replaces the Premier League, with each team playing the others once and the Lagan Valley Steels T20 Cup, to be played midweek as a straight knock-out tournament.
Overseas professionals will be absent and Ireland’s contracted players will also miss the first four games of the season as they leave on Saturday to prepare for the one-day internationals against England in Southampton at the end of the month.
CIYMS, who swept all before them last season, should again be the team to beat although they have lost Ryan Hunter to Brigade, but David Millar, signed from Muckamore, is more than capable of making up for his runs.
Waringstown, who slumped to a 22-year low of sixth place in the 50-over Premier League last season, may be grateful for a diet of T20 action this time – they lost to CIYMS in the Lagan Valley final by a solitary run – and welcome back Morgan Topping and Aaron Wright from Civil Service North.
If CSN can negotiate their opening games without Stuart Thompson and Gary Wilson, they could be serious contenders as they also have signed big-hitting Ross Adair, brother of CIYMS international Mark, from Holywood.
The same applies to North Down who pulled off the signing of the summer in attracting Paul Stirling to The Green although he could be restricted to just four League Cup games – weather permitting – having also signed up for Northamptonshire in the T20 Blast in September, but Aditya Adey, another who has opted to stay in the top flight after Muckamore’s relegation, could be a big player for the Comber side.
Boyd Rankin has been snapped up by Lisburn and will be back in time to make his debut at The Lawn on August 8 but, meantime, Josh Manley should make an immediate impact after his move from Instonians.
The Shaw’s Bridge side – who like North Down reached the T20 semi-finals last season – have only one newcomer, Marcus Poskitt from Coleraine, but will be relying on their youth with up to 12 Under 20s taking part in 1st XI training.
Neil Gill, Muckamore’s captain last year, has joined Carrickfergus and his experience will be invaluable, especially after Matty McCord’s decision to return to Cliftonville Academy.
There is no relegation this year so last year’s Section One champions Woodvale can ease themselves back into the big time – after an 11-year absence – under skipper Jamie Gibson.
Saturday’s League Cup fixtures: CIYMS v CSN, Instonians v Waringstown, Lisburn v Woodvale, North Down v Carrickfergus.