Ardmore look to experience as they set out to prove they have top-flight quality
SIX years after their last appearance in the top section of North West cricket, Ardmore seem determined to make an impression on their return to the big time.
They may not have ambitions of succeeding Coleraine as Premiership champions but the winter signings indicate a determination to prolong their stay in the top flight for the first time since 2004. And they have gone for experience.
They are one of two clubs who go into the new season without an overseas professional but the two new faces more than make up for the absence of an import.
Between them, Decker Curry and Gary Neely can boast 72 Ireland caps and, although their combined age is now 86, it could well be a case of class is permanent and it can also make the Bleachgreen the venue for the most entertaining cricket of the season.
Curry has already proven he is raring to go – after taking a year out – with a hundred and an unbeaten half-century in last weekend's pre-season games, and that is not even considering his bowling which, for the last few years at Limavady, was his strongest suit.
Neely joins Ardmore from Creevedonnell where he took 33 wickets at 10.7, and the best economy rate (2.78) in the area, with a team who could finish only fifth in the Championship.
He seems sure to be effective again this season and big-hitting captain Adrian Murphy also still has Curry's former Limavady team-mate Andrew Riddles, with 916 runs at 65 last season the top scorer in the North West.
It will be fascinating to see how they perform one level up and we don't have long to wait because, weather permitting, they host the champions tomorrow in the day's top game.
Coleraine have recent history against them if they are to retain their league title.
Long gone are the days when Donemana won a staggering nine titles in a row (1985-93) and Limavady seven in a row (1994-2000) – Curry, by the way, played in a 15 of those championship-winning sides! – and not since 2007 has a team (Brigade) won back-to-back titles.
The Bannsiders, who also won the Ulster Cup for the first time last year, have changed captains but kept it in the family, Gordon Cooke instead of brother David, and Kyllin Vardhan, a 24-year-old South African batting all-rounder, replaces Roy Silva as their professional.
But all eyes will be on Niall McDonnell, the batsman of 2013, to see how close he can come to emulating his sensational form which brought him 1,230 runs (449 more than the next best in the North West) at an average of almost 77.
The challengers to replace Coleraine, however, are in the starting blocks and although Brigade were their nearest pursuers last summer, they were hardly close.
Indeed, the Beechgrove side, unchanged apart from the addition of a professional, 23-year-old batsman Digviyay Amarnath, were only nine points off the bottom, as opposed to eight behind first place.
It will surely be a lot tighter this year and fancied to emerge from the pack are a resurgent Strabane, with Jonny Robinson, last year's captain at Fox Lodge, and Ryan Gallagher making it a four-prong spin attack, while the opening bowling will be handed to their new professional, former Zimbabwe Test player Tawanda Mupariwa.
And for those looking for an omen, Strabane were the last team to come from outside the previous year's top four to win the league, when they jumped from sixth – also their finishing position last year – to share the title with Limavady in 2009.
There was a three-way tie for third place last year with Donemana favourites to consolidate that position with an identical line-up while it would be a surprise if Fox Lodge, who have signed Decker Curry's son, Dean, and 29-year old-Pakistani pace bowler Tabish Khan, can match it, and an even bigger shock if Eglinton can repeat their best finishing position.
More likely to shoot up the table are Bready who, remarkably, needed to win a play-off last season just to stay in the Premiership.
This season, expect a much faster start – they lost their first eight In 2013 – with Ireland international bowler Craig Young on board and Ernest Kemm, who impressed with both bat and ball in pre-season.
A visit to Donemana , though, will be the real eye-opener for the 23-year-old South African.