NORTH Down are the best team in the NCU? That was the question everyone from Eglinton was asking on Satuarday night after the team who were not even in the top eight in the North West last season had caused the upset of the day in the Royal Liver Irish Cup.
It was the only second round game that took place in Northern Ireland but what a result it produced. And, let me say at the outset, it was no fluke. Last season's Senior Two champions deserved their victory and a place alongside Donemana and Brigade in the second round.
Raymond Moreland had produced a wicket to be proud of after the wettest week of the season - the water hog was on the square every day - but the home side let him down. Admittedly, North Down won the toss and, of course, inserted the opposition. Who was going to bat first with a weather forecast that insisted there was no chance of 100 overs?
The maximum distance was not played but it had nothing to do with the weather. Rather, the Eglinton top four scored enough runs to put the NCU double winners on the back foot and a marvellous bowling display shot out North Down for just 107 in barely 40 overs, proving again that in cup cricket nothing can be taken for granted.
The first bonus for Eglinton was their opening partnership of 50, almost three times better than anything they had produced this season and while it used up 20 overs the patience of Karl O'Doherty and in his new role, Gardiner, was brilliantly supported by Stephen Smyth and Nigel Thompson.
The latter are two of the players who would make up a North West side capable of taking on the present inter-regional side and, some might say, beating the available 11. While Smyth's innings of 60 can hardly have been a surprise to North Down, Thompson's knock of 52 from 60 balls was Eglinton's second bonus.
By the time he came to the wicket, in the 27th over, Smyth (right) had put Irish international Andrew White off his length and Nigel, when the going is good, proved he can still cash in. He joined in by hitting the off spinner for a four and two sixes off successive balls and, in that one over, the game was won and lost.
Peter Shields, the North Down captain, said at the tea interval that 'hindsight is a wonderful thing' but it did not take a fortune-teller to know White should have been taken out of the attack after that over. In any other competition, Andrew could not have continued, but this year in the Irish Cup bowlers are allowed 15 overs. Even the best have off days and they do not have to bowl their maximum quota, espcially when such an under-rated, and still under-used, bowler as Robin Haire is in the team. White duly completed his 15 overs - another Eglinton bonus - but it was Robin who removed Thompson in his third over. Before that, he had restricted him to ones and twos as he slowly made his way through the 40s but the damage had been done.
When Stephen Smyth starts cautiously and then hits his first scoring shot for six, the opposition should beware and, in patches, this was vintage Smyth. When he is in the mood, no bowling attack is safe and 10 boundaries were as many as his team-mates hit altogether and, until a late flourish from Billy Adams, more than the entire North Down team. After tea, a fine opening spell from Gardiner had kept Joe Montgomery and White on their toes and he deservedly made the breakthrough in the 13th over. But it was Wylie who proved Eglinton's biggest bonus. He wasn't even called on to bowl when they gave Donemana their hardest league match of the season but, captain's prerogative, he got himself on early and took wickets regularly.
A surprisingly adventurous Robin Haire was lured down the pitch after just eight balls and was bowled, White was trapped in front for what was to be North Down's top score of 26 and Wylie then had his opposite number caught behind for a single. When Thompson replaced the tiring Gardiner in the 25th over, he struck in his first over to have the threatening Ryan Haire caught off a skyer to extra cover and from 44 without loss, the NCU kingpins were 76 for the top five - game over.
Eglinton, still three weeks away from their next Irish Cup match, now have to go back to the Derry Journal League and prove this was not a one-off. With captain Vanka Pratap available it should not be too difficult. Ominously for their NCU rivals, this result means North Down will have three less Saturdays to get backlogged in the defence of their league title and concentration is likely to be stronger than ever after this setback. Taimur Khan will also be back, of course. All he could do on Saturday was hand over the man of the match award to Nigel Thompson. One all-rounder to another.