With an unbeaten record up to this point, Bangor captain Adam McCusker is hoping his side can end the 2020 season on a high by winning the Robinson Services Bowl on Saturday.
The Upritchard Park side, who will host Drumaness Superkings in the decider (1pm), have won all six of their games this season, including a 39-run semi-final triumph over Cooke Collegians last weekend.
They’ve been in fine form, picking up victories by margins of 10 wickets, 70 runs and 129 runs in Twenty20 cricket, and McCusker has been delighted to see the effort his side have put in during the shortened campaign.
“I couldn’t be happier with the form,” he said.
“The guys have stepped up in every department.
“We prepare to go into each Saturday with the goal to work harder than the opposition in every area, and I think that has shown in our performances so far.”
It’s the batting unit that has been particularly impressive, scoring over 140 on three occasions while chasing against Holywood (91) and Donaghadee (65) for the loss of one wicket.
Bangor were relegated from Section One last season after finishing two points behind Downpatrick, who beat Donacloney Mill on the final day to preserve their spot in the second tier.
McCusker believes his men have reaped the rewards for the hard work they have put in to improve.
“Last season our batting let us down a few times and it’s the one area we have worked really hard to improve, so to score as we have has been really pleasing,” he added.
“The real positive for me is how much work the boys have put in, their enthusiasm to get back to cricket and work hard at it post lockdown.”
The league system should return to normal for next season and Bangor will have their sights set on immediate promotion back to Section One.
First though, their attention is on Saturday’s final and McCusker says there is a positive energy around the club currently.
“The energy around the whole club at the minute is really special,” he said.
“It just feels like we are moving in the right direction and it has been a great momentum builder going into next year, where we fully expect to be challenging for promotion.
“We are really looking forward to Saturday to what would be a perfect end to an already successful season.”
North Down, Cregagh and Waringstown Women were all big winners at the weekend as all three picked up their respective league titles.
We cover all of that and more in the final ‘five thoughts from the weekend’.
1 – North Down end their wait for silverware
North Down were in ruthless form over the weekend as they beat Instonians and Waringstown to win the Robinson Services Cup title, which was their first competition victory since a T20 Cup triumph back in 2013.
For a club like North Down that totally dominated the local club scene between 2000-2010, where they won seven Challenge Cup’s and seven Premier League crowns, that is a very long time but this team could be one that goes on to challenge on a consistent basis over the coming seasons.
They have put together a squad that covers all bases and literally every player is able to contribute at a high level, whether that’s the top order of Paul Stirling, Ruhan Pretorius and Alistair Shields, the pace of Craig Young, leg-spin of Carl Robinson who came into his own this season or Jamie Magowan, who is one of the best wicketkeepers in the league, as he proved on Sunday.
That’s without mentioning the likes of Peter Eakin, Peter Davison, Aditya Adey, Stuart Nelson and Ryan Haire, with everyone coming together to create a squad that could challenge on all fronts from 2021 onwards.
Having the potential is one thing but it’s something different turning that into trophies like CIYMS and Waringstown have done in recent times, but it’s going to be exciting watching them all battle it out.
2 – Rollercoaster semi-final
The first semi-final between Waringstown and CIYMS was always going to be close but the drama that this encounter brought was on another level.
Waringstown were absolutely cruising at 92-2 chasing 125 for a place in the final before a massive collapse of 22-7 in just under eight overs meant that CIYMS were favourites at one point to progress.
Number 11 batsman Matthew Purse stood strong for five deliveries while captain Lee Nelson took the responsibility of dragging his side over the line, taking eight of the required nine runs to win in the final over as the Villagers progressed on fewer wickets lost with the scores tied.
It follows the trend of previous meetings between the pair with last year’s T20 Cup decided by one run and Irish Senior Cup semi-final in the last over, which is testament to just how good and competitive both teams are.
3 – Cregagh crowned Trophy champions on dramatic final day
The drama wasn’t just limited to the Robinson Services Cup as Cregagh were able to capitalise on Derriaghy’s final ball four-wicket defeat to Cliftonville Academy at Shaws Bridge to go from third to Trophy champions after beating Muckamore by six runs.
Derriaghy knew four points would be enough to win the league but an inspired performance from Matthew McCord (44 and 3-10) helped Cliftonville to victory and that threw it over to Moylena, where the winners of a second vs third showdown between Muckamore and Cregagh would be crowned champions.
It was Cregagh that prevailed, with Jay Hunter (53) leading the way before three wickets from Craig Irvine meant Muckamore fell six runs short of their D/L target.
That secured the league and cup double for a very exciting Cregagh side who, depending on winter transfer movement, will likely be favourites to win the very competitive and unpredictable Section One next season.
4 – Domination for Waringstown Women
Waringstown women were also at the double as they followed their Challenge Cup success up by winning the league after an eight-wicket triumph over Muckamore on Sunday.
It has been quite the season and improvement for Waringstown, who were put out in the first round in 2019 and also lost four of their eight league games, so massive credit must go to the whole squad for putting in the work required to go unbeaten during this campaign.
Captain Charlotte Lyons has led from the front, putting in another big contribution of 38* at the weekend to help guide her side to the title.
With six players who were selected for a recent NCU Women series against Jersey in their side, they possess the talent to go again next season and try to back up their success of 2020.
5 – And so that’s the end of a bizarre, brilliant season
The curtain has been drawn on the Robinson Services Cup and Trophy seasons with the only top-flight side still in action being CIYMS, who will travel to Bready on Saturday for an All-Ireland Twenty20 Cup semi-final against Donemana.
It has been a different season with T20 competitions, social distancing, elbow bumps and very little of what we have been used to in more normal times, but credit must go to everyone involved for getting the season on after it looked for quite a while earlier this year that nothing would be possible.
I’ve really enjoyed the format and was a huge fan of the two semi-finals on one day, so I think there could be some positive innovation that comes out of this season, which will potentially have more of an impact down the leagues rather at the top of the pyramid in terms of overs etc.
Cricket’s return helped to bring a bit of normality back to a lot of people this summer and it was yet another enjoyable season.
The best was certainly saved for last as the final Robinson Services and D&P Cricket Player of the Week award of the 2020 season goes to North Down’s Ruhan Pretorius.
Pretorius was in frightening form on Saturday against Instonians, blasting 120* from 56 balls (seven fours, nine sixes) to help his side progress to the Robinson Services Cup final, where they beat Waringstown by seven wickets to lift the title.
The 29-year-old also scored 47 from 38 deliveries in the decider, putting on a second-wicket partnership of 66 with captain Alistair Shields.
As a reward for his weekend performance, Pretorius earns a £50 voucher for equipment at D&P Cricket.
Jay Hunter scored 53 to help Cregagh win the Robinson Services Trophy title with a six-run victory over Muckamore on Saturday.
Cliftonville Academy all-rounder Matthew McCord picked up figures of 3-10 before hitting 44 as they beat Derriaghy by four wickets off the final ball.
Waringstown fast bowler James Mitchell took four wickets as his side progressed past CIYMS in the Robinson Services Cup semi-final.
Lee Nelson also picked up four wickets, including a hat-trick, in the final over of the same game before playing what turned out to be a crucial innings as the Villagers got past CIYMS on fewer wickets lost.
There was also four wicket hauls for North Down’s Paul Stirling (4-18), Aaron McKinley (Muckamore, 4-37) and Downpatrick captain Ross Roultwood (4-13).
Waringstown captain Lee Nelson believes his side still haven’t hit peak form this season but is hoping they can do just that in their Robinson Services Cup semi-final against CIYMS at The Green on Saturday (11am).
The Villagers qualified for the play-offs after finishing the league season in fourth, winning three and losing two of the matches that were contested on the pitch (two void games also).
That means they will take on CIYMS who finished at the top on net run-rate while hosts North Down will face Instonians before the two winners return to the Comber venue on Sunday for a final (2pm).
Waringstown are no strangers to the big occasion, reaching the Irish Senior Cup final for the past five seasons, winning three, and during that period have also picked up two Premier League’s, one Challenge Cup, one All-Ireland Twenty20 Cup and three NCU Twenty20 Cup’s.
That sort of dominance has only recently been challenged by Saturday’s opponents, who have won five of the last six competitions they have been involved in, including last weekend’s LVS T20 Cup, but Nelson is hoping that big game experience will help them in their quest for yet more silverware.
“Hopefully our experience of playing in these games will stand us in good stead,” he said.
“We have done OK this year but we probably haven’t played as well as we could have done.
“We have played to 70-80% of our capabilities if I’m being honest so I’m just hoping the boys will go out and express themselves on Saturday morning and see what we can do.”
Waringstown are the team that come into this game with the least match practice having missed their last two league fixtures due to bad weather while Instonians beat Carrickfergus last weekend and North Down were CI’s opponents in the Twenty20 final.
Their last game was an 18-run defeat to CIYMS at Belmont on August 15 and Nelson admits the weather and format has brought certain challenges with it.
“This is where the difficulty has been.
“It also seems to have rained every Tuesday and Thursday night at practice for the last few weeks too.
“The difficulty with having a season full of T20’s is a lot of guys don’t get a lot of batting or bowling bar a select few, so in pressure situations in big games there will be that element of rustiness from people that haven’t either batted or bowled much.”
One player that is very much in form is batsman James McCollum, who scored 79* for the Northern Knights against the North West Warriors on Tuesday at The Green.
The 25-year-old also started his innings against Leinster Lightning brightly in Dublin before he was caught for 17 but both matches showed just how much McCollum has improved and innovated in 20-over cricket.
A man for the big games, McCollum will play a crucial role alongside the likes of Adam Dennison, James Hall and Greg Thompson, who is one of the finest players in the NCU in this format, and Nelson believes the Irish international will be key to anything they achieve.
“He’s a class player.
“People sometimes think he can’t play in other formats but he has shown at the highest level In this country that he can.
“If we are going to win trophies and you look back at the big games, he has always had a say in them. We will be relying on a big performance from him.”
This is just the latest in a series of these two teams meeting in the latter stages of competitions and they tend to produce classics, such as CI’s one-run T20 Cup victory last season and Waringstown’s final over win to secure a place in the Irish Senior Cup.
In 2018, Waringstown won by one wicket in the Gallagher Challenge Cup semi-finals and Nelson is expecting another close game this time round.
“They’ve always been close.
“The two teams have a lot of respect for each other because we have played against each other in a lot of semi-finals.
North Down will welcome back Paul Stirling for their Robinson Services Cup semi-final against Instonians at The Green on Saturday (3pm).
The Irish international signed for the Comber club ahead of the 2020 campaign and has made two appearances so far this season – one in the LVS T20 Cup semi-final against Waringstown and a league fixture against CSNI.
Stirling has been in England playing in the Vitality T20 Blast for Northants, where he started off by scoring 80* and picking up figures of 2/26 against Worcestershire.
It was thought he would miss the remainder of the NCU season but with Northants not in T20 action again until September 11, Stirling is able to return and take his place at the top of the order.
Captain Alistair Shields is understandably delighted to have him back but says they won’t be solely relying on their star player with so many others also in form.
“When we saw the Northants fixtures, we had eyed up that he might be available for this weekend with the way their fixtures fell,” he said.
“It’s great to have him back in and hopefully he can get a few runs on Saturday.
“We all know what he is capable of but at the same time, we have a lot of other guys in the squad who have contributed this year and plenty of guys that can step forward.
“If it doesn’t work out and he doesn’t get any and we need to rely on someone else, I think we have enough talent there to win matches.”
North Down are coming off an 11-run T20 Cup final defeat to CIYMS last Sunday but will be desperate to get back into another decider this Sunday, where the same opponents could await if they get past Waringstown at 11am tomorrow in the other semi-final.
Shields is looking to put it right this weekend and is aiming to finish the season on a high.
“That’s probably the one blessing we have that we can put it right this weekend and we get an opportunity to bounce right back.
“If we had finished last weekend it would have been a long winter thinking about what we could have done differently.
“It’s a good opportunity to bounce back and finish the season on a high.”
North Down will enter the semi-final encounter as favourites having already picked up two victories over Instonians this season, but the Shaws Bridge side is packed with young talent alongside the experience of Andrew White, Shane Getkate and Nikolai Smith.
Given the nature of knockout competition, Shields doesn’t believe a favourites tag holds any meaning heading into Saturday.
“It’s a cup game so that favourites tag doesn’t mean too much.
“We played them in a cup game last year and they ran through our top order.
“They have plenty of talent in their squad and young guys who on their day can take the game away from you with bat or ball so we have to be wary.
“What I’ll be saying to my guys is that looking around our changing room we have enough talent to beat anyone on our day, regardless of who is on the other side.
“We will worry about what we can do, how we can impact the game and execute our skills as best as we can.”
Northern Knights head coach Simon Johnston was full of praise for James McCollum after the batsman scored 79* from 53 balls in their eight-wicket victory over the North West Warriors on Tuesday.
Chasing 116 after Mark Adair collected figures of 4-14, Ireland international McCollum led the way, notching his highest career T20 score in the process as he shared partnerships of 53 with Harry Tector (22) and 62 with captain Gary Wilson (12*).
McCollum had started the season well with Waringstown, but this was on another level, striking nine fours and two sixes.
His innings, which included a number of creative and aggressive strokes, was a reminder of how much his game has progressed in white ball cricket and Johnston knew a performance like this was just around the corner.
“He had a bit of a rough time being left out in England,” he said.
“He has worked so hard for 18 months on his white ball game and has done everything asked of him.
“He has gone even further in the last six months and you won’t see anyone work harder.
“When someone tells him he can’t do something or needs to work on something, he does it and that was testament to him.
“That has been the way he has been playing for two weeks in the nets and he just needed a chance to showcase it.
“He has taken his white ball game to a new level today so it was brilliant to watch.”
It was the Knights second victory over the Warriors in the space of 12 days, leaving them second in the Trophy standings and trailing Leinster Lightning by just three points.
The tone was set in the field and with the Warriors sitting on 90/3 in the 15th over, they were able to peg them back to 115 all out off the final ball of the innings.
Graeme McCarter (2-13), Jacob Mulder (1-28) and David Delany (1-20) were also in the wickets and Johnston was delighted with their efforts in the field.
“That was brilliant from start to finish.
“We really set the tone with the ball and in the field.
“That was as good as I’ve seen us in a while. I remember saying a couple of weeks ago that we looked rusty but we got rid of all of that today.
“I can’t say enough about Graeme McCarter, and Mark Adair was as impressive as you’ll see with the skills, knowledge and ability to get out of situations and then just dominate when he needs to.
“David Delany bowled three very quick overs in the middle and got them jumping a bit and put them on the back foot.”
They go into Thursday’s game with Leinster knowing that they must win in order to keep their hopes of retaining the title alive.
Leinster are also unbeaten after winning twice against Munster Reds and the Knights have been dealt a blow with the unavailability of McCarter.
That means Lisburn bowler Josh Manley is set to make his first Inter-Provincial appearance of the season and Johnston is excited for their trip to Sydney Parade, home of Pembroke CC.
“Grum is a big loss but hopefully someone can step up.
“The squad is a bit stronger this year. We are really excited for it and to see what happens.”
Warngstown picked up their first Gallagher Women’s Challenge Cup title after beating defending champions CSNI by four wickets at The Lawn on Sunday.
Batting first, CSNI posted a total of 67/6 from their 20 overs with captain Abbi Leckey (18) top-scoring while Molly Mathers (2-11) and Waringstown skipper Charlotte Lyons (2-12) starred with the ball.
Their chase got off to a bad start when Cara Murray was caught off the bowling of Nikhita Gondhia (2-14) in the second over, who also dismissed Lyons (10) to leave Waringstown sitting on 15-2.
A third-wicket partnership of 30 between Mathers (15), who was named Player of the Match, and Rachael Harrison (19) helped to steady the ship.
The Villagers then lost three wickets for five runs as Mathers, Lois Lyttle and Harrison all departed to leave them 50-5 and provide some hope for their visitors.
It was left to Abbi Harrison (15*) to lead her side home, rounding the game off with a four off the first ball of the final over as Waringstown lifted the trophy for the first time.
“It was a really close game, with CSNI taking it right to the last over,” Lyons told CricketEurope after the game.
“It was a great effort by them after not setting a huge total but they fought all the way.”
Lyons believes the squad are now capable of going on to win even more silverware with the likes of Harrison in their side.
“Abbi is a very strong player and she backed herself to win the game and did it for us,” she added.
“It was a great innings and we were all confident she could do it.
“This is the first time we have won the competition having lost four years ago to North Down.
“I feel this is the start of something for the side, as we have a lot of young players who can only get better.”
It was once again Nigel Jones that led from the front for his side as CIYMS retained their LVS Twenty20 Cup crown with an 11-run victory over North Down at The Green on Sunday.
After winning the toss, CI got off to the worst possible start when in-form Chris Dougherty was bowled for 0 by Ruhan Pretorius (2-21) but that brought John Matchett (41 from 41) and Ireland international Mark Adair (23 from 19) together at the crease.
The pair put on 54 for the second wicket before Adair was caught off the bowling of Peter Davison (2-21), who also had Jason van der Merwe (16) caught by wicketkeeper Jamie Magowan.
That brought Jones, who has taken more of a backseat when it comes to batting this season, to the middle and he would go on to take his side up to what proved to be an unassailable total of 138 by smashing 43* from 26 deliveries (three fours, three sixes).
The 38-year-old will go down as one of the great all-rounders in the local game, winning most competitions on multiple occasions, and it was his breezy knock that gave CIYMS momentum heading into the second innings.
North Down started well with Aditya Adey (28) and Ruhan Pretorius (47*) putting on 59 for the first wicket before the former was caught on the boundary off the bowling of Jacob Mulder (3-31).
Pretorius struggled for rhythm throughout, scoring his runs from 57 balls, but continued to fight for his side, hitting two sixes and supporting the likes of Peter Eakin.
With the required runs per overs nearing 14, it was going to take something special to get North Down over the line and Eakin (26 from 15) was threatening to produce it.
In the 19th over, he hit Mulder for a four and six in consecutive balls but when he was caught by Jones going for another boundary, the game was all but done.
Adair, who was named Man of the Match, bowled the almost perfect final over to finish with figures of 1-9 from four overs and seal yet another trophy for CIYMS, adding to the four they won in 2019.
“We are delighted,” said Jones after the game.
“It was something that we talked about when cricket was coming back and that cup would be up for grabs.
“It’s always nice to have something to focus on and fair play to the boys for backing it up.
“Talking about it is one thing but to actually do it is fantastic.
“There has been a number of big performances and it hasn’t been down to one or two individuals. Different guys have stepped up when we really needed them to.
“We were confident and knew we were always going to have an opportunity with our bowling attack.
“We have eight or nine bowlers there and that gives me plenty of options and then it’s just about picking the right guy at the right time.”
With all of his experience and ability, Jones is still more than capable of producing the goods for seasons to come but says big occasions really help motivate him to produce his best.
“At my age now, I probably need games with that intensity to get me up for it.
“It helps me focus a bit more and it’s probably the nature of playing for as long as I have. I’m just happy I could contribute to another win for the team.”
Mulder has developed a reputation for himself as arguably the best T20 spinner in Ireland and he keeps putting in the performances that would be worthy of his recall to the international arena.
The 25-year-old tends to pop up and produce a little bit of magic or take a crucial wicket when his side need it, and that was again the case on Sunday as he broke the opening partnership, had North Down’s in-form player Alistair Shields caught and bowled and then dismissed the dangerous Eakin.
“As a leg-spinner that plays for the Knights and that has played for Ireland, you expect him to perform,” added Jones.
“His skills came through there and he handled the pressure well.”
It has been an incredible run of success for the Belmont outfit, winning five of the last six trophies that were available to them.
They have now qualified for another All-Ireland T20 Finals Day, giving them an opportunity to also defend that crown, and Jones believes the togetherness and consistency of their squad has played a major role in their accomplishments.
“I think if you go back three or four years, I was pretty keen to get a settled side when I took over the captaincy.
“We have done that and it was a big focus of mine to have the same guys playing every week.
“We have that core and it means a lot in these big games because you know what everyone is thinking and what they are going through. They are backing each other and that’s crucial.
“I’m really excited about that (All-Ireland).
“We will obviously be focused on winning that again and play some good cricket. The boys will be backing themselves going into that.”