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Armagh CC relishing their first crack at top flight in 61 years

 

By Ian Callender

Top flight cricket returns to The Mall next season for the first time in 61 years after Armagh sealed promotion from Section One with victory over Downpatrick at the weekend.

Just two years ago Armagh were playing in Section Two, but this Saturday skipper Matthew Steenson will receive his third trophy of the season, and the celebrations, which ended in boisterous fashion in the early hours of Sunday morning, can start all over again.

Victory over Lurgan will give them an unblemished home record, but club secretary and long-serving playing member Gareth McCarter is under no illusions just how difficult it will be next year in the Premier League.

"Realistically it will be a one-season stay, just looking at the resources the other clubs have, but we are going to give it our best shot," said McCarter.

"The boys that got us up will do our best. We will have to look at getting a professional but otherwise it's hard to tempt boys down to Armagh, being so far from Belfast. But that's not a route we want to go down, never mind able to go down. We wouldn't want to spend stupid money, even if we had it.

"Most of the team have been around for six or seven years, this is my 11th season in the first team and Colin Russell has played over 200 senior games.

"Unfortunately Jarred Barnes has played his last game for us as he is contracted to Muckamore for next year and he can't play on Saturday as his UK visa has expired. But his contribution this year was amazing."

At the start of the season, Barnes was not even on Armagh's radar, but the Home Office intervened to prevent Indrajeet Kamtekar from continuing as their overseas professional and, with the new visa regulations preventing Barnes from playing in the Premier League with Muckamore, the door opened for the South African.

"He wasn't fit to bowl for the first two or three matches and everyone was wondering just how this was going to work out because, as even he would admit, his batting stats in the North West (with Coleraine) were well below what he was capable of, but as a batsman he has been superb for us and once he was able to bowl he has been amazing," said McCarter.

"I know as a wicket-keeper I haven't had much experience of a guy coming in like that, his bounce, accuracy and carry-through is something you don't see too often at that level, and on top of his performance as a player, off the field he took on the role of player/coach and was a superb mentor."

Benefitting from his experience has been Ben Mackey, who had played only one senior game before this season but, in McCarter's words, he has been outstanding.

"Harry Doyle missed the first game of the season against Derriaghy and Ben came in, got two or three wickets, including Craig Lewis, and he just went on from there," he said.

"He also has 30 wickets, as well as Jarred, and is probably going to win the (club) bowling award. It's a great story.

"Our formula has been to bat first, put the runs on the board and then bowl teams out, and we have done that quite a lot since the big man has been firing.

"The top run scorer is Neil Gelston, who has 600 in the league and 800 when you take in the T20 Shield which we won, and Colin Russell has also scored more than 400, although an interesting stat about him is that he averages 70 at the Mall and 15 away from the Mall!"

McCarter missed Saturday's match and the celebrations as he is a member of the Green and White Army and was in San Marino watching Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier, and so will also miss the trophy presentation at the NCU dinner on October 7 as he will be in Oslo.

If Northern Ireland reach the finals next summer, McCarter may not be the only Premier League player who will miss a number of cricket matches.

But, for now, being called a Premier League player will do for all the 1st XI players at the Mall. Only six other people - the survivors from the class of 1957 - can say that.

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