Bertus de Jong and Rod Lyall 22/07/2021
With four rounds to go in the League phase of the Topklasse, seven teams remain in at least arithmetic contention for a spot in the playoff phase, with five of those within four points of each other. Even long-standing frontrunner Punjab Rotterdam, despite a nine-point cushion, find themselves theoretically in jeopardy of slipping out of the top two and losing the associated lifeline in the finals phase. Behind them are four clubs all within a single point of one another, all gunning for at least second but none safe from missing out altogether.
BdJ: Two of those four sides will be facing off directly come Sunday when Excelsior ’20 welcome HBS Craeyenhout to Schiedam. HBS sank to defeat against HCC last week, clearly missing the South African duo of Tayo Walbrugh and Ryan Klein whose absence was enforced by circumstances typical of the times. Whether the pair will be cleared to play by Sunday is doubtful, and without them the Crows face a still more daunting challenge at Thurlede. While Julian de Mey has more than justified his promotion up the order this season and Benno Boddendijk has stepped up with the ball of late, it’s hard to see either filling the shoes of HBS’s shrewdly chosen overseas players. Should Toby Visée find some form or the Crows succeed in luring Wes Barresi out of his on-off retirement again the calculation may shift somewhat, but Excelsior are generally favourites at home even against full-strength opposition. A comprehensive win over Dosti admittedly indicates little these days, but the hosts boast an impressive home record and two of the three bats with the highest averages in the league. If they fail to take advantage of HBS’s woes on Sunday they will rightly look at it as a missed opportunity.
RL: The visit to De Diepput was always going to be difficult for HBS without their two overseas stars, but they will have been disappointed at such a comprehensive collapse, albeit against what is probably the sharpest attack in the competition. A trip to Thurlede is an equally forbidding prospect, and the timing of the Covid outbreak could scarcely have been worse for a side facing the toughest back end of the league phase of any of the contenders. Even without Tom Heggelman Excelsior look strong in all departments, the continued progress by Niels Etman giving extra edge to a well-balanced bowling unit. Ingram and Stubbs are, of course, bound to loom large in any opponents’ planning, but if the side around them is short on stars it has plenty of experience by now, three championships in four years between 2016 and 2019 testimony to their combined strength and resilience. If Walbrugh and Klein return it all looks quite different, but without them HBS will have another struggle on their hands.
BdJ: Similarly Voorburg may just sense a chance to close the gap with frontrunners Punjab Rotterdam when they host the current leaders at Westvliet on Sunday. 7th placed VRA handed Punjab only their second defeat of the season last weekend, putting a bit of a dent in their aura of invincibility, and while VCC are still missing their new-ball pair of Logan van Beek and Viv Kingma, Bas de Leede has stepped confidently into the role of pace spearhead in their absence. The batting is perhaps more of a concern, especially as de Leede’s form with the bat of late does not match his showing with the ball, but Karl Nieuwoudt has proved capable of holding the middle order together as well as ensuring skipper De Leede still has options with the ball. Punjab are top of the table for a reason of course, but last week’s defeat suggests they might just be taking their foot off the gas in the final straight.
RL: It’s a test of a winning side’s quality how well they come back from a reverse, and Punjab will doubtless have been engaging in some serious reflection following last Sunday’s defeat. VRA demonstrated the limitations of an attack which has specialised in the slow strangle, while the powerful batting top order looked worrying out of sorts. That said, the tail wagged to some purpose, Suleiman Tariq achieving a career-best score, and it’s hard to believe that a top five of the quality of Punjab’s will average nine runs a head two weeks in a row. Still and all, Voorburg’s reconstructed attack has been pretty effective in recent weeks, Nieuwoudt providing excellent support for De Leede with the new ball, and with Stef Mulder and Aryan Dutt picking up three wickets apiece against Sparta last Sunday they will face the Punjab challenge with a degree of confidence. It is, however, Voorburg’s batting which raises doubts, and unless De Leede, Sybrand Engelbrecht and Aryan Dutt all come off it’s hard to see them making enough runs quickly enough to put the leaders under pressure.
BdJ: Meanwhile VRA realistically need a win in the Amsterdam derby when they take on ACC at the Bos if they are to keep their hopes of a top four finish alive. Last week’s win will bolster their chances, not least as young Vikram Singh seems to have rediscovered his confidence with the bat as well as looking an increasingly serious threat with ball in hand. In the absence of Ben Cooper having Singh back at his buccaneering best will be a major boost for the hosts when they take on their local rivals, who themselves will be riding high after scoring an upset win over VOC at het Loopveld last weekend. It was principally a disciplined bowling effort assisted by a torpid outfield that saw ACC strangle a win out of VOC on Sunday though, tactics which are unlikely to prove as effective at the other end of Kalfjeslaan. The visitors will need someone to stand up with the bat if they are to take points home on Sunday, and weather a somewhat more intimidating seam attack in so doing.
RL: VRA realistically need a win every week from here to the end of the league phase if they are to squeeze into the four, but last Sunday’s ACC performance notwithstanding, this should be one of their easier assignments. Comings and goings in the ACC batting line-up continue to cause them problems, and Sahil Kothari has found it difficult to reproduce the form he showed during a couple of stellar weeks back in May. Their bowlers, too, are likely to find that VRA have more firepower and greater stickability than VOC showed once a couple of wickets had fallen: the more consistent presence of Eric Szwarczynski in the VRA side has made a considerable difference, while Jack Balbirnie has proved to be an extremely valuable acquisition. Youngsters Ashir Abid and Luke Hartsink more than pull their weight in the attack, while it’s hard to remember that Vikram Singh and Shirase Rasool are still only 18. ACC have a youth contingent of their own, but it’s much harder for them to shine without the likes of Borren, Szwarczynski, Gunning and Lees to offer them cover.
BdJ: Second-placed HCC will look to shore up their position when they head to Bermweg to take on Sparta 1888, hoping their hosts’ shock win over VOC three weeks ago was a mere flash in the pan. HCC have looked more like their 2020 selves after a tough start to the season marred mostly by the weather, with five consecutive wins in the bag heading into Sunday’s encounter. A well-rounded pace attack combined with a slow-bowling section featuring this season’s lead wicket-taker Clayton Floyd has helped HCC claw their way back up toward the top of the table, and though most of the top order have had off-days the line-up is deep enough to ensure a degree of resilience, and the return of all-rounder Hidde Overdijk arguably makes HCC the most balanced all-round side in the competition. Conversely Sparta have been dependent on overseas bat Garnett Tarr for consistent runs, and Max Hoornweg for wickets. While Mudassar Bukhari is capable of chipping in on either side of the ledger, few of the rest of the line-up have contributed consistently all season. While their defeat of VOC shows what Sparta are capable of at their best, it would be an eyebrow-raiser if they were to repeat that trick on Sunday.
RL: HCC’s opponents in their last five games have managed 104, 68, 63, 101 and 80, with Floyd, Ollie Klaus, Overdijk and Reiner Bijloos taking 45 wickets between them at an average of under nine. Sparta’s batters, on the other hand, have repeatedly collapsed, and it will take more than Tarr’s technique and temperament if they are to cause such a bowling unit any severe problems. The toss may be crucial here: HCC’s top order has looked much less imposing, falling apart the last time they had to bat first, and Sparta’s best chance of causing another upset may come if they can get into the field and seize the initiative with the ball. But there’s no doubting the quality of batters like Musa Nadeem, Tonny Staal, Boris Gorlee, Damian Crowley and Overdijk, and Hoornweg, Bukhari and Co. will need to be at their very best if they are to keep the Lions’ score within reasonable bounds.
BdJ: Finally VOC Rotterdam will host the thus-far winless Dosti-United at Hazelaarweg, hoping to put last week’s upset loss at ACC behind them. While VOC’s lack of depth has been repeatedly exposed in the absence of Pieter Seelaar, Dirk van Baren and Bobby Hanif, it’s hard to see them hand Dosti their first win in years at Hazelaarweg on Sunday. Max O’Dowd remains in imperious form at the top of the order, and opening partner Scott Edwards is unlikely to repeat last week’s mistake of trying to sweep literally every ball he sees for six over his shoulder. Dosti, as we write every week, have the capability of pulling an upset if they all turn up at once. But then they never do.
RL: After losing four matches on the trot VOC now have a real fight on their hands to reach the play-offs, and with HBS, Excelsior and HCC lying in wait for the final three weeks this is a crucial opportunity for them, not only to win but to do so in style. That they have the players to achieve that seems clear, but they have been a side in recent weeks that has contrived to be less than the sum of its parts. That that is also true of Dosti is by now axiomatic, and they may still bear the scars of these sides’ encounter in Amsterdam back in May, which was one of the more distasteful – as well as one-sided – experiences of the season. Whether that will spur them into all turning up at once remains to be seen, but to achieve that they would need to neutralise the threat of O’Dowd and Edwards. And that’s a very big ask indeed.
BdJ’s picks: Excelsior, VCC, VRA, HCC, VOC
RL’s picks: Excelsior, Punjab, VRA, HCC, VOC.