The team who have seen it all before take on a side fired up for their first taste of glory in tomorrow’s NCU Challenge Cup final at Comber (11am).
North Down have played in eight of the last 10 finals, winning six of them, while CIYMS’ first and still only appearance in the decider was a losing one, four years ago.
This year, though, the pretenders have a line-up which is capable of causing an upset. When they met Waringstown in 2006, they barely gave themselves a chance of toppling the team who were to claim the league and cup double that year. This time is different.
CI may have bought themselves into the big time but their ambition knows no bounds and while a first Premier League title may have to wait, an inaugural Challenge Cup success is well within their means — and this time they know it.
Craig McMillan is accepted as being the highest-paid professional on these shores and few would argue that his pedigree deserves it. Here is one player who can outmatch anything that any North Down player has achieved — 197 one-day internationals for New Zealand and the little matter of 55 Test matches should ensure he will not be affected by cup final nerves. And he goes into the showpiece in form.
Last week he scored his second century for CI, topping his previous best of 104 by nine, and who would bet against him doing even better on the best pitch in the NCU, this year staging only their second Challenge Cup final?
But McMillan is not alone. In Ben McCord, another Kiwi, they have a contender for all-rounder of the season, with his runs from number three or five adding to his accurate pace at the start and his superb ‘death’ bowling.
Backed up by Barry Cooper and the evergreen Derek Heasley, CI will not lack in the batting department and although the bowling may lack consistency — hence their four league defeats — they have performers in Stephen Hughes and Tony Adams who are capable of ripping through a middle order.
Still, the up and coming upstarts must get past North Down’s formidable top six of Neil Russell, Andrew Sutherland, Ryan Haire, Taimur Khan, Daniel Harding and Peter Shields. They have been scoring runs for fun this year, especially at The Green, and the unsung Sutherland scored 84 not out and 66 last weekend so anything McMillan can do . . .
North Down also have three bowlers in the top 20 wicket-takers this season — CI have only one — with Harding, their Aussie
professional, leading the way with 30 in the league and cup alone.
This cup final, however, could be decided even before the match starts — at the toss of the coin. Remarkably, North Down have batted first in all five of their home league matches this season, and won all but the first, which was lost off the last ball, and in two of three Challenge Cup games. If Shields calls correctly again, they will be favourites.
However, if Cooper wins the toss — and he surely must bat — then runs on the board could take the cup back to Belmont and condemn North Down to a second successive Challenge Cup final defeat on their own ground. Heads anyone?
l One man who will be sadly missed at the final is Sammy Haire, grandfather of Ryan and Andrew, who passed away 10 days ago. North Down through and through, everyone be thinking of him over the next two days.