Bertus de Jong & Rod Lyall 17/05/23
The frenetic first phase of the 2023 season hurtles on apace, with an extra round scheduled to take advantage of the Ascension Day holiday on Thursday, then another on Saturday, by this time next week we’ll be seven rounds deep less than a month after the first ball was bowled. As it stands nothing is quite decided, though both Sparta and Voorburg could potentially seal their top six spots on Thursday, while winless HBS could see their hopes extinguished.
BdJ: Current table-toppers Sparta 1888, who will welcome fourth-placed VRA to Bermweg on Thursday, have an opportunity seal their place in the championship pool if they can turn over a VRA outfit that’s blown rather hot and cold so far. Sparta’s success thus far can be attributed in part to some judicious acquisitions in the returning Garnett Tarr, newcomers Sam Ferguson and Will Clark, along with Joost Kroesen who has thrived in his new role as spin all-rounder since moving from Excelsior. It was the veteran Ahsan Malik that shone for them last week though, his seam partenrship with Khalid Ahmadi currently the most effective in the league. VRA bounced back from a surprise defeat at the hands of ACC to see off Salland on Sunday, but remain plagued by inconsistency and injury. While Vikram Singh and Johan Smal reminded us how dangerous the VRA batting card remains with conditions in their favour, but despite their depth they remain vulnerable to collapse on slower tracks. Aryan Dutt’s fitness also remains in doubt for the game, and though Leon Turmaine’s bowling as well as he ever has VRA looked short a few overs of reliable spin in Dutt’s absence.
RL: Sparta have emerged as genuine championship contenders this season, not least because of Ahsan Malik’s partnership not only with Ahmadi but also with his old international mate Mudassar Bukhari. The Bermweg has not been a happy hunting-ground for VRA since Sparta moved there: the competition structure enabled them to avoid it last year, but before their 2021 victory (thanks to 99 from Jack Balbirnie and a 45-ball 100 from Marcus Andrew) they had lost on all three occasions they had played there. In Ashir Abid and Tyler van Luin they have a new-ball attack with the potential to exploit the conditions, but they will need to be at their best to unsettle the home side’s top order. As m’colleague points out, though, it’s the Amsterdammers’ batting which raises the big questions.
BdJ: Also on 8 points at the top are Voorburg, who will head to ‘t Loopveld to take on ACC hoping to return with a place in the top six in the bag. The unfancied ACC are on a surprise winning streak, winning three on the bounce since their humiliation at the hands of VOC in Round 3. Most tellingly, they have done so largely on the back of their bowling, with only limited contrbutions from overseas Thomas Hobson and Heino Kuhn. If the latter come off with the bat they could well give VCC a run for their money, especially on home
turf mat. Voorburg suffered their first defeat of the season at the hands of Punjab last week, though the simple strength of their roster means they remain strong favourites.
RL: The return of Hobson and Kuhn has created a framework in which ACC’s youngsters – and not-so-youngsters – are able to flourish, and the club will be delighted to see the likes of Shreyas Potdar emerge from a relatively long apprenticeship and begin to play significant innings. It was Ammar Zaidi, though, who dug them out of a hole against VRA, and if the win against HBS on Sunday was a more convincing team performance, they will need all guns firing if they are to sink a Voorburg side which remains powerful in all departments. Even when their top order was less than wholly convincing against Punjab last week Viv Kingma stepped up to get them past 200, and it took a Shoaib Minhas century and valuable knocks from a couple of Zulfiqars to end their winning run. Something of the same order will be needed from ACC on Thursday if they are to claim the points.
BdJ: In a season of occasional surprises, VOC Rotterdam have been one of the few sides to conform to expectations, putting up serious scores when the “big three” come off but struggling when Berry, O’Dowd and Edwards all fail. With a bowling attack that’s proved more relible than match-winning, the Bloodhounds remain vulnerable to early wickets. If Excelsior are to take advantage they will need more from their seamers however, especially overseas quick Michael Hart who has looked more like a batting all-rounder in Dutch conditions. Conversely Lorenzo Ingram’s lean season with the bat so far has left a sizeable hole in the batting line-up, though his left arm spin has remained impeccable. On just two points from five matches, Excelsior are running out of road in the first phase, and while homegrown stalwarts Tom Heggelman, Roel Verhagen and Niels Etman have had solid enough seasons so far, the Schiedammers will need full value from their professionals from here if they’re to avoid spending phase two in the relegation pool.
RL: Against Sparta’s rise and Excelsior’s relative decline the departure of Joost Kroesen from Thurlede is beginning to look like a very significant factor, and although the Schiedammers have a greater degree of continuity in their side than most of their competitors, they seem to have lost their knack of eking out victories even when not playing at their best. With four games left they will need to recover it fast if they are to squeeze into the top six, and whereas VOC have plenty of potential match-winners, Excelsior seem, their demolition of HCC apart, more like a team of journeymen. The injury to Roel Verhagen has not helped their cause, and his form with the bat since slotting back into the side has been a positive, but the onus will clearly be on the bowlers to claim some of their opponents’ scalps in the initial powerplay. Failing that, Excelsior could be in for a tough day.
BdJ: Potentially the most consequential game of the round will be at the Zomercomplex where fifth-placed Punjab Rotterdam take on seventh-placed HCC. Punjab’s victory over VCC has taken them to six points with a modest positive net run rate of 0.24, meaning one more win might well be enough to get them into the top six, but their position remains precarious. Nonethess they look in the ascendant with the bat at least, with returning pro Shoaib Minhas striking a century last week while Saqib Zulfiqar has been in the runs both in the Topklasse and Pro-Series. For HCC, who trail them by two points with a negative NRR of -0.77, another loss or two could see their title defence cut short half-way through the season. They’ll hope Jonathan Vandiar picks up where he left off on return to his old home ground, but above all will want more from the homegrown top order. While formerly peripheral players Henrico Venter and Jan-Wieger Overdijk have grown into their roles with the ball, both have been comparatively expensive and Punjab have the batting and short boundaries to take advantage.
RL: Henrico Venter’s maiden five-for against HBS last Saturday was a real bonus for HCC’s reconstructed attack, but it took a solid knock from Clayton Floyd, batting at six, to get them over the line. Ratha Alphonse and, on occasions, Vandiar aside, the top order has struggled for runs, especially away from De Diepput, and Punjab have the bowling resources to put them under pressure. But Vandiar knows very well where the Zomercomplex boundaries are, and if HCC are to come away with the points his contribution could be vital. Equally, it will be interesting to see how Punjab’s batting copes with the threat of Daniel Doram, another powerful weapon for the defending champions. That said, the form of Minhas and of Saqib and Sikander Zulfiqar has generally been impressive, while Mohsin Riaz has done enough to show that he, too, can make opposing attacks suffer. A difficult one to pick, this, but it may be the home side which edges it.
BdJ: Finally HBS Craeyenhout will be looking for their first win of the season when they welcome Salland to Craeyenhout. Victor Lubbers’ eclectic array of easterlings have given a decent account of themselves when conditions favoured them, Kiwi quick Fraser Bartholomew lending a cutting edge to the traditionally solid spin attack, but Salland’s chief trouble so far has been backing up their bowlers with the bat. Though against HBS’ inexperienced attack they will be hoping to at least pass 200 for the first time this season, at Craeyenhout that’s not always good enough. HBS, for their part, will be looking to Wesley Barresi to transfer some of his pro-series form, with Tayo Walbrugh currently rather starved of support with the bat.
RL: With the departure of Ryan Klein and the retirement of several key players HBS began the season severely depleted, particularly in the bowling, but it has indeed been the batting which has has seen them still winless after five games. There have, though, been signs of improvement recently, much of it coming from the form of Walbrugh, and with a bit more luck they might have broken their duck by now. Facing Salland at home on Thursday and Excelsior away on Saturday they will know that these are two games they have to win if they are to have any chance of redeeming their season, given that their last two first-phase matches are against VOC and Punjab. Salland, on the other hand, have given themselves a real possibility of making the top six, a prospect which would be greatly enhanced by two points here. It was largely the German contingent which saw off Excelsior last week, and as long as they are in the side Salland remain a tricky proposition. They will need to get Walbrugh early, though, if they are to drive back eastwards with the points.
BdJ’s picks: Sparta, Voorburg, VOC, HCC, HBS.
RL’s picks: Sparta, Voorburg, VOC, Punjab, HBS.