CIYMS the team to beat as season set for lift-off
A repeat of last year's Challenge Cup final is the stand-out match on the opening day of the new Robinson Services Premier League season tomorrow, but this time Civil Service North have high expectations of a different result.
Although man of the match Adam Dennison and new Ireland international James McCollum, who scored 218 runs between them at Comber last July, will again spearhead the Waringstown batting line-up, the Villagers will have no overseas help with Pakistani Haseeb Azab, their replacement for Shaheen Khan, only 'hoping' to arrive towards the end of next week.
Civil Service North will have their own cup final century-maker Mark Ellison again opening the batting in a line-up boosted by the homecoming of Gary Wilson, Ireland's T20 captain.
Wilson missed Ireland's winter tours because of an eye problem but his first innings of the year, in La Manga on Wednesday as captain of Northern Knights, passed off without any reaction and 40 runs from 67 balls was a more than satisfactory return to the middle.
Even more encouragingly for CSN, Ellison was the game's top scorer against North West Warriors, hitting 87 from 90 balls as the Knights made a convincing start to their 50-over interprovincial campaign.
If these two can lead their side to victory, on their home ground, then not only will it give the Stormont side the perfect start but belief that they can break back into the top three for the first time since 2014 and even target a second place finish for the first time in 11 years.
At the outset, the runners-up spot would appear to be the height of everyone's ambition outside CIYMS, such was the dominance of the Belmont side last season.
They finished 20 points clear of the pack and are currently on a winning run of 13 Premier League games, since defeat on the opening day of last season by North Down.
It is hard to argue that their personnel this year is not even stronger with former Waringstown professional Obus Pienaar and Mark Adair as new additions, the latter having already starred for the Knights with both bat and ball this week.
Pienaar replaces fellow South African Matt McGillivray while the underused Khartik Rajevelu has moved on to Muckamore and will immediately face his former team-mates in their opener at Moylena today.
In a blow to Muckamore's hopes of an opening day shock, new signing Marcus O'Riordan misses the game in favour of playing for Kent Seconds and skipper Neil Gill will be hoping it is not the first of many absences during the season.
Instonians are the only team to break the CIYMS-Waringstown duopoly of the last seven years but the 2016 champions must cope this year without international James Shannon, Nathan Smith and the bowling of Nikolai Smith.
On the surface, it would appear a triple whammy condemning them to a fight against relegation but the arrival of classy South African Murray Commins as their professional is set to compensate for the missing batting talent and he could score enough runs to give their limited bowling attack, also missing Ben Rose today, plenty to bowl at.
A visit to Shaw's Bridge would appear to be the ideal opener for Lisburn on their return to the Premier League although their hopes of staying up will depend on the impact Indian professional Faiz Fazal and former Ireland international Reinhardt Strydom can make.
The other opening day fixture is at Middle Road where Carrickfergus, seeking a fourth consecutive top half finish, will also need new overseas star Jacques Snyman and fellow South African CJ van der Walt to hit the ground running against a North Down side who have international opening bowler Craig Young and Muckamore batsman/wicket-keeper Jamie Magowan as important new additions.
It promises to be an intriguing campaign with plenty of twists and turns.
Weekend fixtures: Tomorrow: Robinson Services Premier League: Carrickfergus v North Down, Civil Service North v Waringstown, Instonians v Lisburn, Muckamore v CIYMS
Section One: Armagh v Cregagh, Bangor v Templepatrick, Derriaghy v Ballymena, Holywood v Donaghcloney Mill, Woodvale v Downpatrick