Playoff Phase – Final Preview

Bertus de Jong and Rod Lyall 08/09/22

Whatever your opinion of the format adopted for this bumper Topklasse season, be it right or otherwise, it’s difficult to argue the two finalists have earned their place. Voorburg and HCC have racked up more wins than any other teams over the course of the season, and won through a fiercly competitive play-off stage that both kept the back end of the group phase interesting and produced a set of thrilling fixtures, with all three play-off matches going down to the wire. Likewise two of VCC and HCC’s three encounters this season have been run pretty close, and one suspects the biggest threat to another nail-biter at Westvliet on Saturday is the weather, which may yet prevent or at least postpone the resolution of the season’s two remaining questions. There is a reserve day on Sunday of course, as there is for the relegation play-off between Sparta and Hermes which takes place the same day. It’s that end of the table which provides us with a last bit of controversy this week, on which more below…

BdJ: Although champions-presumptive Voorburg have not looked quite as dominant as some expected, HCC remain the only side to have beaten them in a match that mattered. The replacement of Janneman Malan by his less-fêted brother Andre has seemingly only strengthened the side in Dutch conditions, though the departure of Logan van Beek and Delano Potgieter leaves them looking at least beatable. Malan and Musa Ahmad have proved a productive opening partnership once set, and Bas de Leede a capable marshal of the middle-order when under pressure, especially in company of Sybrand Engelbrecht since the latter’s return from injury. HCC’s success has been built on a combination of Tonny Staal and Zac Worden’s form at the top of the order, together with the left arm spin trio of Tim Pringle, Clayton Floyd and Damien Crowley whose discipline through the middle leaves opposing bats looking for runs against an enviable seam attack, with wickets the usual result. Conversely, VCC’s wicket-taking wrist-spin combo af Shariz Ahmad and Flip Boissevain will be eying up a vulnerable HCC middle-order, while a seam attack spearheaded by Vivian Kingma and Bas de Leede is nothing to sniff at either.

RL: HCC have reached the final the hard way, losing their semi-final at Westvliet last Saturday and then having to withstand a very determined challenge from HBS the following day. To the extent that cricket is a game of character the Lions demonstrated on Sunday that they have it in spades, twice coming back from perilous situations when batting and then holding on in a tense final act to win by the narrowest of margins. Their cause was helped by the addition of Jan-Wieger Overdijk to the attack, his inclusion as a fourth seamer enabling them to maintain the pressure in the middle overs, and in the absence of Van Beek there’s a case for stating that HCC have the better-balanced bowling unit. Still and all, Voorburg can draw on Ali Ahmed Qasim and/or Stef Mulder alongside Kingma and De Leede, and their top order has on the whole been more consistent that their opponents’. The beauty of the play-off system, though, is that the prize goes to the side which performs better on the big occasion, and both sides have plenty of players with the temperament and the experience to step up when it matters. Form says Voorburg, as it has all season, but don’t be surprised if HCC spring a surprise.

BdJ: At the other end of the table Kampong may still complain that they won as many matches and finished with a better net run rate, but it was Sparta 1888 that had to come through the crunch game against Dosti at the back end of the group phase to earn their showdown with Hoofdklasse champions Hermes DVS in the relegation/promotion playoff. Hermes’ long-running battle with Quick Haag for a shot at promotion saw the teams clash no less than five times over the summer, but it was the Schiedammers that won through in the end, bouncing back from defeat in the preliminary final to claim the Hoofdklasse title in emphatic fashion last weekend.

That’s not enough to earn them home advantage however, as owing to a faintly farcical fudge the playoff is to be played on neutral ground, specifically at Excelsior’s home ground of Thurlede. Having long-grassed the question of who was to host the match at the pre-season ALV, the eventual outcome of weeks of needless negotiation was to split the proverbial baby, with first Rood & Wit and then Excelsior being awarded hosting rights for the game. The question then belatedly arose as to who was to be officially the home side in the encounter, which might seem academic but for the fact that the nominal hosts have choice of wicket, and despite (or perhaps because of) Excelsior having turned out some remarkably good turf wickets all season, Sparta were keen to play on their thankfully seldom-used artificial wicket, widely regarded as among the worst in Holland. Inevitably the silliest solution again won out, and the two sides quite literally tossed a coin for it. Sparta won the toss and duly said “we’ll have a mat, thanks”. No doubt my esteemed colleague has plenty to say on this too, and at time of writing I – as the kids say – literally cannot even. So on to the actual teams and such.

Hermes’ chief stength through the season has been their seam attack, ably led by skipper Sebastiaan Braat, with youngsters Travis Ackermann and Roy Numair both bagging 30 wickets across formats over the season. All-rounder Sahil Kothari, formerly of ACC, has also proved a shrewd acquisition. The comparative frailty of the batting will be their chief concern as they head to Cappelle Thurlede, though with Sparta’s Mudassar Bukhari understood to have been planning to retire following the Dosti match they may have one less all-round threat to worry about. Bukhari has taken something of a back seat to Ahsan Malik and Belgium international Khalid Ahmadi with the ball this season, though given Samit Gohil’s departure Sparta are left with serious batting concerns of their own. All told could go either way, but safe to say that the credibility of the game as a serious pursuit in the Netherlands is the real loser.

RL: There are, in fact, clear historical precedents for a one-off promotion/relegation play-off being played on a neutral ground. Otherwise, should the home advantage be accorded to the side trying to retain their top-flight status, or to their challengers? It’s a question which has a particular bite when there are such marked differences between the venues concerned; it’s not just a matter of who tosses the coin and who calls.

As for the playing surface, it is surely understandable that a club who play all their home games on an artificial surface should prefer to play on such a surface for such a deciding match, while a club who play on turf at home should wish to play on turf. How, then, to resolve the issue? For the Bond to make such a decision on its own account would pretty certainly give rise to an objection from whichever side felt itself to be disadvantaged, and therefore a preliminary coin-toss seems, to this observer at least, to be the least-worst solution.

Underlying all this, however, there are much more fundamental issues: the near-pathological fear of relegation and an equal determination to gain promotion by whatever means available got us into this mess in the first place, the one-year twelve-team Topklasse an honest attempt to square the circle and give everybody what they wanted in the unique circumstances of the pandemic. The last question most clubs ask is what is in the best interests of Dutch cricket as a whole, and to be frank, the way in which the KNCB has attempted to find its way out of a genuine dilemma comes nowhere near the top of my list of factors compromising ‘the credibility of the game as a serious pursuit in the Netherlands’. But that’s an argument for another day.

As for the match itself, there at least we are in agreement: it’s very hard to predict which way it will go, especially given the likely intervention of the weather gods. Hermes lost only two matches during the regular Hoofdklasse season, their South African overseas Travis Ackerman averaging 32.60 with the bat and 10.44 with the ball, and although they had a bad day at the office in their semi-final against Quick, they have the all-round strength to test Sparta to the full. The acquisitions of Kothari from ACC and Numair from Kampong have been significant, but one should not underestimate the importance to the side of the long-serving former international Nick Statham, of skipper Braat, or of the home-grown brothers Ralph and Olivier Elenbaas. For Sparta, the contributions of Malik, Bukhari and Ahmadi are likely to be vital, but it was a remarkable innings by Ali Raza which got them into this play-off, while a valuable and too-often neglected contribution with the ball has come from skipper Joost Martijn Snoep.

BdJ’s picks: Rain, Absurdity, Voorburg, Sparta
RL’s picks: Voorburg, Hermes.

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