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Cricket: Villagers with the best shot at taking title

By Ian Callender

The best two overseas professionals in the Northern Cricket Union this season, Obus Pienaar and Craig Ervine, arrived in the province on Thursday night but while one is certain to play in tomorrow's opening round of fixtures, the other may have had a wasted journey.

Pienaar, the face of the 2011 season with his dramatic impact at Waringstown, is back after a year plagued by injury and will line-out for the Villagers in their attractive clash with Civil Service North at Stormont but Ervine, the Zimbabwe Test player, will not be involved in Lisburn's game against Instonians at Shaw's Bridge because of a dispute over his registration.

At the moment, Ervine is not allowed to play for Lisburn because, despite being an Irish passport-holder – and indeed he played at Wallace Park as the club's professional in 2009 – he was turned down by the NCU's Registrations Committee on Tuesday night because of his "recent and regular experience of Test and ODI cricket with Zimbabwe".

Ervine has played four Tests and 25 ODIs in the last three years, which is the accepted time-period used by the committee.

Lisburn have appealed the decision, on the grounds that he is Irish-qualified (although the fact that he played for Zimbabwe last month means he cannot play for Ireland for another four years). But that appeal will not be heard until Tuesday night so Ervine is resigned to a watching brief tomorrow and Lisburn can only hope the Appeals Committee overturns the decision to make him available not only for next week's game against Ballymena but the rest of the season.

Captain David Simpson, is charge for a second year, is targeting a top half finish this season in what he sees as another competitive league.

"I genuinely believe that every team can beat everyone else on any given day," says Simpson. Even (promoted) Lurgan have a few experienced operators, so there will be no easy games for anyone."

The Lisburn skipper however, sees the usual suspects at the top of the table, but has a clear favourite.

"Waringstown must be the team to beat," he says. "They have recruited very well with Pienaar, Phil Eaglestone (the Ireland pace bowler, from Strabane) and our own Greg Thompson whom were are disappointed to lose of course. They should set the standard.

"North Down are the unknown quantity this year and none of us knows two much about their new Australians (Tim Ley and Nick Larkin, the latter an Irish-passport holder) while Instonians are certain to be up there whenever they have players such as Andrew White, James Shannon and Eugene Moleon. Shannon, with his Ireland call-up last season, showed what a class act he is," added Simpson, who must face all three tomorrow with no international commitments.

How Lisburn cope without Thompson is probably key to their hopes of that top half finish but one must fear for them if Ervine's registration is turned down again next week.

Elsewhere tomorrow, champions CIYMS will be without Steven Clarke, one of their four new signings, for the game at Lurgan, after pulling a hamstring in last week's friendly at Strabane, while North Down, desperate to make-up for their first trophy-less season since 1998, start at home to Ballymena for whom the only way must be up, after their seventh place finish last season.

Tomorrow's fixtures (each having 1pm starts): Ulster Bank Premier League: Civil Service North v Waringstown, Instonians v Lisburn, Lurgan v CIYMS, North Down v Ballymena.

Section One: Dunmurry v Carrickfergus, Downpatrick v Cliftonville, Donacloney v Woodvale, Dundrum v Templepatrick, Muckamore v Laurelvale.

Section Two: Armagh v Cooke Collegians, Armagh v Holywood, Bangor v Saintfield, Drumaness v Cregagh, Millpark v Larne

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