Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
ANDY Christie thought he had seen it all before, but nothing could have prepared him for the last few months.
Christie, who starts his 40th year playing senior cricket this evening, having won every trophy available during his 22-year stay at Limavady, has been appointed captain of Ballyspallen this year, the club for whom he played his first competitive match back in 1981.
“These are strange times. Eight months ago, if anyone had said what lay ahead nobody would have believed you. And, of course, not only here but throughout the world.
“I really thought this season would be a no-goer, with players not being allowed to handle the same ball, the social distancing etc, but we are allowed to play T20 cricket which is better than nothing.”
Christie has the honour of making the first call of the season – in any team sport in Ireland – when he joins Stephen Hutchinson, the Coleraine captain for the toss ahead of the season opener, 12 weeks later than scheduled.
(Ballyspallen captain Andy Christie)
While the home side can use Graham Hume, the only overseas professional in action – as he spent the winter here – in either the North West or NCU, Christie admits Ballyspallen are the underdogs in the regionalised group of three which is completed by Eglinton, who play Coleraine tomorrow.
“We will be relying on a lot of youngsters this year. Craig and Mark Averill have joined Eglinton, I believe, but with no promotion or relegation, it gives everyone the chance to experiment with nothing to lose."
However, Christie fears for the future of cricket in the North West with clubs struggling to stay afloat.
The 54-year-old is speaking from personal experience, having joined Ballyspallen last year because Drummond folded and, of course, Limavady also dropped out of senior cricket seven years ago.
The famous Sion Mills club are also absent from senior cricket.
“Unless something is done in the next four to five years, North West cricket could be in big trouble,” is Christie’s warning.
“The future could be amalgamating the top sides in the NCU and the North West. That could be the only way of saving cricket here!”
Despite the season being restricted to T20 action, some things will not change, predicts Christie.
“Brigade will still be the team to beat. They are the best balanced side and that is still in the case in T20.”
Last year’s Premiership and Senior Cup double winners would appear to be in the most competitive of the four groups - each team plays the other twice (the three-team group play their opponents three times) before the group winners go into the Senior Cup semi-finals - with Glendermott, St Johnston and Newbuildings, who have snapped up Gareth McKeegan and Johnny Thompson from Beechgrove.
Donemana, who beat Brigade in last year’s rain-interrupted T20 Cup final are at home to Ardmore tomorrow with Killyclooney meeting Bond’s Glen in the other game in that group, while Strabane, Fox Lodge, Burndennett and Bready – all separated by less than 10 miles – were the obvious quartet for the final group as North West opt to cut down on travel to ensure a safe but competitive season.