31 July 2014

Traditionally the last two weeks in July produce the defining moments in the NCU season for most clubs.


And although the trophies won't be handed out at the start of August, the potential winners and losers are generally grouped together based on their performances during this period. By the end of July every club knows what's left to make or break their season.
In some ways the 2014 cup season looks no different than many that have gone before, but in sharp contrast this year will see some of the tightest margins in the leagues at both ends of the table.
The Big Three in NCU cricket is now the Big Five and after some good results in recent weeks Lisburn might also lay claim for a sixth seat at the top table. Unfortunately Ballymena and Muckamore are well off the pace and will slug it out in the relegation dogfight over the next two months. But that could be just as exciting as the fight at the top of the table.
Waringstown started the season as favourites and they have justified their status. They top the Premier League and have strong aspirations to win both the NCU Challenge Cup and the Ulster Cup. They have lost only one league game and in a tight 8-team league that's a big advantage just past the halfway stage. The smaller league structure was designed to have the best playing against the best and make all the matches meaningful, and that will certainly be the case as Ballymena and Muckamore could dent a few title hopes with surprise results in the second half of the campaign. The outcome at both ends of the table might go to the wire because every team in the top six can beat each other and while the Villagers hold a strong position they know better than anyone that 'the game is not over until the fat lady sings.'
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the continuing poor showing by NCU clubs in the Irish Senior Cup where North Down are the only northern representative in the semi-finals. The Comber team is not the invincible force they were a few years ago, but they are dangerous cup opponents and their season will also be defined by their performance against the Hills at Comber.
The tight placing at the top of the Premier League has been repeated in Section One where Lurgan bid to bounce quickly back to the top division. But they'll have their work cut out with no less than seven other teams within striking distance and all the best performers have lost at least three matches. Sadly Dundrum are having a nightmare season and will need a miracle to avoid relegation.
Section Two could also produce a tremendous finish as Academy, Armagh, BISC and Donaghcloney are all fighting at the top end of the table while none of the other six clubs are out of the relegation zone. Every result will count from here to the end of the season as the winners and losers are already grouped and know what they have to do.
Section Three may be the senior league basement, but cricket is just as keenly fought in this section as anywhere else in the NCU. Cregagh and Larne bid for glory with Ards an outside bet, while these continue to be tough times for PSNI, Dunmurry and Dungannon. Survival at the bottom of Section Three is as much about keeping cricket alive as earning points and these clubs deserve medals for their efforts.
We may be just past the halfway stage of the 2014 season but all the fireworks are about to go off in the next few weeks. Let's hope the weather is kind and we see some exciting cricket.

Clarence Hiles

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