...season it ignited a huge wave of publicity for cricket and the media flame continued to burn when Woodvale added Indian test spinner Uday Joshi in 1979 and North Down made the more controversial appointment of Michael Reith in 1980.
Next season marks a modern era of thirty years of overseas professionals in Ulster cricket and while much has happened since 1978, the advocates in both camps have hardly moved from their original stance. Waringstown annually propose their elimination at the NCU AGM and annually it fails to win a two-thirds majority, although up North-West even this token protest has all but disappeared. There's no point in listing the positives and the negatives of the debate as Ulster intransigence wins every time as nobody on either side of the debate gives an inch. However, one or two anomalies remain, not least the ban on overseas professionals playing in the NCU Senior Challenge Cup and the Irish Senior Cup, while the difference between a local paid player and an overseas paid player is a difficult issue to get the head around in this debate. And of course there are now employment laws to be respected so the hardy old chestnut of overseas professionals in local cricket seems destined to be with us forever.
If that is the case then isn't it time to view the debate in the context of 2008 and not 1978 when the trend returned to Ulster cricket?
The issue has already been absorbed in the need to regenerate interest in the Irish Senior Cup as there's no doubt the dominance of Leinster clubs in the last five years has killed a lot of enthusiasm north of the border with even talk of non participation in some quarters up the M2. Of course the northern clubs have a good argument when they claim the playing field is not level since some Dublin clubs have Ireland-qualified overseas players that beat the system, so they are at a disadvantage. This is certainly true, but the reality of sport in general is that the playing field is never level and the richer and more influential clubs have always held an advantage over their peers. But must we continue with our heads buried in the sand for another thirty years or can we recognize problems much earlier and deal with them in a pragmatic way?
Hopefully the normally conservative Irish Cricket Union Executive Committee will sanction the inclusion of the overseas professionals in the Irish Senior Cup as the competition is dying on its feet without a serious northern element, but what of the local cup competitions?
The North-West has no restriction and it seems to have worked successfully because in general the North-West cricket community has absorbed the participation of overseas professionals and moved forward collectively. Not so the Northern Cricket Union where the diehards give no quarter, many ironically maintaining overseas professionals but still critical of their presence. Now that takes some understanding as well. The criticism that has been levelled at the Irish Senior Cup could also apply to the NCU Senior Challenge Cup competition that has been totally dominated by North Down and Waringstown in the last five years. Surely this competition has now become too predictable and has lost a lot of its appeal, especially to the neutrals. The senior cup final used to be the showpiece of the NCU season and attracted neutrals from not only our local union but from North-West and Dublin cricket quarters. It used to be a colourful occasion and who could forget the great finals like 1983 featuring Waringstown and Lurgan, or the 'Battle of the Pros' in 1991 between Woodvale and North Down, arguably the best final of all time not just because of Raza and Clarke, but a number of excellent local performances that the anti-pro lobby always ignore?
And what crowds.
Contrast the modern finals, even with the one-day format, and there's not much to attract a neutral. If the overseas professionals will make a meaningful contribution to the Irish Senior Cup then surely they could do the same for the NCU Senior Challenge Cup.
Time to move on after thirty years.