North Down aiming to make an impact in title race
FOR the first time since 2009, the Ulster Bank Premier League title was shared last year but there is every reason to expect another thrilling, if not even closer finale, this season with a third team forcing their way into championship contention.
Waringstown and Instonians, just as they were four years earlier, are the defending champions but North Down, after two years in the wilderness, seem set to assert their authority once more and make a meaningful bid to add to their seven outright titles in the previous 11 years.
The only player they have lost is Tim Ley, their Australian professional from last year, but not only has he been replaced by a tall South African pace bowler, but they are boosted by the return of two familiar faces.
Andrew Sutherland missed virtually the entire 2013 season and, having let Neil Russell rejoin Instonians early on, North Down were without two recognised opening batsmen.
The other new face is one who has been missing rather longer, but the return of Taimur Khan, after two years at CIYMS, will add more than just another all-rounder to the squad.
The popular Pakistani spent 12 years there and while he is not the force he was in his prime during North Down's title-winning deeds, it will be a major surprise if he is not a match-winner on more than one occasion.
With Nick Larkin and James Cameron-Dow starting their second seasons – both already regulars in the Northern Knights side – they will surely only improve on their runs and wickets tally. The negatives are hard to find at Comber.
But, they are still going to have to finish above Waringstown if the Premier League trophy is to head east. The Villagers have lost Obus Pienaar who, unsurprisingly, failed to match the heroics of his first season at The Lawn in 2011, but in a like for like replacement they have returned to South Africa and snapped up Shaheen Khan who, like all the new faces is an unknown quantity in Northern Ireland conditions.
Instonians introduce Imad Wasim, a Pakistani all-rounder, and despite last year's captain Eugene Moleon announcing his retirement, do not be surprised to see the Knights' coach back in whites in club cricket.
With Ireland having only eight days' cricket this summer, they will also have Andrew White available more often.
The team that prevented Instonians winning their first outright title since 1962 were Civil Service North, who beat them twice in the final week of last season, proving that if the Stormont side can start the summer as they invariably finish it, they could even make it four-way fight for the title.
In the end, they finished only two wins behind the champions and after winning six of their last seven and with Griffin Nieuwouldt back for his third season, he is one professional who should be able to hit the ground running.
The newly promoted side are perpetually installed as favourites for relegation and Muckamore are no exceptions this year. Three new faces, including Carl Mickan, an all-rounder from Adelaide, should make them competitive but there looks to be enough experience in Lisburn, CIYMS and Ballymena to keep them above the Moylena side.
Ballymena have Yogesh Takawale, a prolific runs scorer with Derriaghy last season, as their new overseas player and when he arrives, it will be interesting to see how he steps up while CI may have lost PJ Moor to Dublin YMCA and Taimur Khan, but have brought in Nathan Waller from Lisburn and brought back Ryan Butterworth.
Lisburn will be relying on Darryl Brown enjoying a better second season but even with that, and the arrival of James Magowan, they will need more consistency to improve on last year's fifth place.