Topklasse 2022: The case for a two-pool solution

Rod Lyall 11/09/21

Trying back in March-April to get an elite competition up and running, and faced with the reluctance of the Topklasse clubs to run the risk of relegation and the wish of the Hoofdklasse clubs, should pandemic conditions permit the lower divisions to play at all, to play for promotion, the KNCB Board decided to expand the Topklasse to 12 teams for 2022.

This understandable solution, however, would run for only one season, and it brought with it considerable problems: 2022 is likely to be one of the busiest in the history of Dutch cricket, with home Super League series against Pakistan, England and the West Indies, and this will put great pressure on the fixture list in a year in which at least two, and possibly three, sides would be facing relegation as the Topklasse reverted to ten teams.

[This pre-empts, of course, the ongoing discussion about the optimal competition structure, where there are powerful arguments for going still further, and ultimately reducing the top division back to eight sides.]

A full twelve-team double round robin, which last applied in the Netherlands in 1997, would require 22 playing dates, plus any finals which might be agreed – and that’s without considering any demand that rained-off matches should be replayed.

Even if the competition started on the unprecedentedly early last weekend of April and observed no traditional ‘free weekend’ in late July, it would still take until the first Sunday in September to complete the round-robin phase, although it could be compressed if clubs were prepared to agree to some double weekends.

And on the evidence of this season, that seems pretty unlikely.

If we accept that in view of the international schedule there are no more than 16-18 available playing dates, the Board therefore faced two broad alternatives: a single, home-or-away round robin followed by a further top-six/bottom-six home-or-away phase, or a double round robin in two groups followed by a Super Six and Bottom Six (both 16 matches).

Neither is without its difficulties, but the Board, on the advice of a working party which included club and player representatives as well as Competition Manager Bart Kroesen and High Performance Manager Roland Lefebvre, has reportedly opted for the latter, apparently on the grounds that it would be inequitable for some clubs to have to play only seven home games as against nine away.

My own view, in contrast with that of Bertus de Jong, is that is this on balance the better option, although I accept that it’s an issue on which legitimate disagreement is possible, perhaps even inevitable.

One objection to the group arrangement, forcefully made by Bertus, is that given the season-on-season fluctuation in teams’ relative strength the groups are very likely to be unequal , especially if there is an influx of overseas players next year.

[Again, whether the KNCB should or can take steps to limit that influx is a separate issue, but one which should not be ignored.]

This is a problem easily dealt with, though, by basing the rankings on, say, a three-year average of placings rather than simply on 2021, a season influenced not only by the relative sparseness of overseas players but also by the stramash between HCC and VOC. Such a three-year average would produce the following rankings:

Team 2021 2019-21
Punjab 1 1
HCC 4 2
Voorburg 2 3
VRA 3 4
HBS 5 5
Excelsior 7 6
ACC 8 7
Sparta 9 8
VOC 6 9
Dosti 10 10

Some shifts, then, but with the main exception of VOC, a difference of no more than a place or two in the rankings. Using the traditional seeding system, this would produce the following groups:
Group A: Punjab, VRA, HBS, Sparta, VOC, Kampong.
Group B: HCC, Voorburg, Excelsior, ACC, Dosti, Salland.

As for the problem of the transition from the first phase to the second, even a career of nearly forty years in university politics and more than a quarter-century in Dutch cricket have not equipped my mind for the sort of Byzantine intricacies Bertus de Jong envisages in his scenarios for ‘perverse’ results and competitievervalsing.

Both carrying all the first phase points through and only those from matches against the other sides which progress have both been tried elsewhere, and I am not aware of any documented cases of such willful manipulation of results in order to procure an unfair outcome.

The odds on such a situation arising are, I think, extremely long, and while I don’t in any way underestimate Dutch clubs’ capacity for finagling, I’m inclined to believe that watchful umpires and match referees are capable of dealing effectively with any such problems should they arise.

And let’s not forget that this is an arrangement which will apply for just one season in fairly extreme circumstances; it’s not a system which anyone is proposing should operate in perpetuity.

That leaves the question of relegation, where the Board has decided that the 11th- and 12th-placed sides will be relegated automatically, while the side finishing tenth will face a play-off against next year’s Hoofdklasse champions to decide who plays in the 2023 Topklasse.

This is essentially a repeat of what happened in 1997, and again in 2009 when the top division was reduced from ten teams to eight.

Once again, this seems to be the least-worst solution: no promotion at all is obviously not an option, and to have three sides going down directly would be unacceptably savage.

The scheme may not be ideal, and no doubt every aspect of it could be tweaked one way or another, but in view of all the constraints it seems to me to be a reasonable compromise as a one-off resolution of the problems as we emerge from the pandemic crisis.

Better Together – A two-pool 2022 Topklasse is a recipe for rancour

Bertus de Jong 08/09/21


With a successful 2021 season only just behind us, it may seem a bit early to start worrying about next season. But the KNCB and the clubs face a rather tricky predicament when it comes to the 2022 Topklasse, with an packed international Summer that will see ODI series against England, the West Indies and Pakistan clogging up the calendar, two new arrivals to the expanded top division in the promoted Kampong and Salland, and the prospect of a return to relegation with likely three teams dropping back down to the Hoofdklasse for 2024, devising an appropriate and equitable format for next year’s domestic fifty over competition poses a practically unprecedented challenge.

That challenge does not, as it stands, look likely to be met.

The current proposal that has been put to the clubs, TK Cricket understands, involves splitting the 12 Topklasse teams into two pools for the first phase of the season, with each pool to play a double round-robin before the field is split into a top six and a bottom six. The top three teams from each pool would then play home and away fixtures against the three top teams from the other side of the draw, with a similar format for the bottom six. Following the conclusion of this second phase the top two teams would contest a one-match final, while at the other end of the table the bottom two teams would be relgated automatically, while the tenth-placed team would play a relegation play-off against the Hoofklasse champions.

At first glance this seems a sensible enough system, condensing a twelve-team league into just 16 rounds (plus a single final and one relegation match). There are, however, significant problems with such a format both in terms of practicality and fairness.

The most obvious (if least serious) of these drawbacks is that clubs are faced with the rather regrettable prospect of playing some teams twice (or potentially three times) and some not at all. This lack of variety in fixtures is not the principal problem however. The most significant issue with this two-pool system is that the two groups will be almost by definition unbalanced. There is simply no sensible way of seeding the groups to ensure that they are equally competitive. Leaving aside the fact that the final ranking of teams this season is neither clear nor uncontroversial, there is not, nor has there been been for some time, any particular correlation between any given team’s strength from one season to the next.

Fig 1: Topklasse final league standings and year-on-year change per team

Over the past five seasons, clubs on average have finished more than three places above or below where they placed the previous season (fig. 1). This degree of deviation suggests there is barely more consistency in performance year-on-year than what one might expect from pure random chance. Moreover, this issue is likely to be exaccerbated by the return of a substantial number of overseas players as the effects of the covid pandemic wane.

Splitting the league into two groups also raises the thorny question of how to calculate points carried forward into the second phase. There is, simply put, no good solution to this question. The likelihood of unevely seeded groups means that the simplest option – carrying forward all points into the second phase – gives a considerable advantage to teams that find themselves in the weaker group, as well as substantially raising the chance of dead games at the back end of the season where a number of teams may end up safely in the top six but with no prospect of making the final. In the past this has led to such teams fielding enormously understrength sides, often in the name of giving youngsters a run-out, which gives their opponents at the back end of the season a considerable unfair advantage.

The current proposal’s preferred alternative, only carrying forward points from matches against teams who end up in the same half of the table, makes clubs’ fortunes hugely dependent on neutral results. Not only could the luck of landing in an easier group improve a club’s chances of making the top six, but who else does or doesn’t get through may appreciably affect their position once they get there. Worse still, such a system also gives rise to the possibility of perverse incentives, where in the final round of the first phase a team might be better off throwing a match in order to maximise the points they carry forward into the next phase (fig 2).* Though generally most clubs are unlikely to resort to this sort of Competitievervalsing even when it is clearly in their interests to do so, an equally possible eventuality is for a team to find itself in a situation where they need only limit their margin of victory in their final match to see their opponents progress on net run rate. It is hard to imagine any team deliberately chasing a target any faster than necessary if doing so would leave them in a worse position for the second phase of the competition.

Fig 2: hypothetical first phase results yielding a table-state where Team 2 is incentivised to throw their final game vs Team 3 (see note)

It is in fact difficult to see what conceivable advantage a two-pool double round robin system has over the simpler alternative; just playing a 12-team single round robin in the first phase before splitting the field into a top six and bottom six. A simple round-robin such as that played in 2020 would span 11 rounds, only one round longer than the first phase of the current proposal. A second phase where the top six and bottom six each play a single round robin of return fixtures would take five match days, giving a 16-round league before finals – the exact same number of match days as the current proposal. The notional equity advantage of playing home and away fixtures against each pool opponent in the current proposal seems laughably insignificant in the face of the obvious inequity of teams playing different opponents altogether in the first phase, especially given that under a simple 12-team round robin followed by return fixtures played among the top and bottom half of the table in the second phase would all but obviate this advantage. A single round robin first phase would also eliminate the potential for perverse incentives in the last round of league play and the prospect of teams finding themselves in a position where they could (and from a purely competitive standpoint should) seek to underperform or otherwise manipulate the result of a match in order to gain advantage later in the season.

Though the idea of a two-pool first phase is by a distance the worst (and most easily remedied) aspect of the current proposal, it is not the only drawback. At the bottom end of the table the automatic relegation of two teams is less than ideal, as it arguably means that surviving in the Topklasse next year is actually a tougher challenge from a competitive standppoint than gaining promotion from the Hoofdklasse. In effect one might argue that the two newly-promoted Topklasse clubs start next season from a worse position than their erstwhile Hoofdklasse rivals. If we are to return to a ten team Topklasse for 2023, however, it is difficult to envisage a more equitable solution given scheduling-constraints. Likewise it is regrettable but understandable given the limited space in the calendar that the finals play-off system that added so much tension to the back end of this past season will not feature next summer. If an extra day can be found there would surely be value in adding a 2nd vs 3rd Semi Final before the winner meets the 1st placed side Grand Final, granting the league phase winner a genuine advantage while keeping the table alive deeper into the season, though given that whatever format is agreed in the end will likely only be used for a single season such concerns are comparatively trivial.

Ultimately the finals format and relegation question are both less consequential and harder to fix than the format of the league proper. The current proposal to split the league in two is not only wrongheaded, it is entirely unnecessary. At best it will be inequitable from a competitive standpoint, at worst it may give rise to distorted incentives and needless controversy. It has little to reccomend it over an alternative that is both simpler and fairer, and which fits equally well into the constrained calendar.


*For example, say Team 2 is assured progression from its pool on 14 points after 9 rounds, and is scheduled to play it’s final first phase game against Team 3, currently in third on 12 points, who are one point ahead of Team 4 on 11. Imagine Team 2 has beaten Team 3 in their first match, but has already lost twice to Team 4. It is then clearly in Team 2’s interests to throw their match against Team 3, in order to ensure that Team 3 also progresses. They would thus ensure they carry one win from their four games against Teams 3 and 4 through to the next phase, whereas if they were to beat Team 3 they would risk Team 4 taking third place, leaving themselves one win down in phase 2.

Appeals Committee orders a replay

Rod Lyall 21/08/21

Of the two controversies which have afflicted the Topklasse over the past week, that relating to last Sunday’s abandoned match between HCC and VOC Rotterdam is clearly the more far-reaching and ultimately the more significant.

The other issue, over which of two conflicting rules about rankings on the league table should take precedence, and thus whether VOC or VRA Amsterdam should be the home side for their semi-final, is down to an unfortunate administrative error, and could perhaps best have been resolved by tossing a coin, or by playing the match at a neutral venue.

But the battle over the outcome of HCC’s walk-off at De Diepput after an allegedly racist remark made by VOC batter Dirk van Baren to HCC wicketkeeper Yash Patel, culminating in the KNCB Appeals Committee’s ruling on Friday that the match should be replayed, goes to fundamental issues which have plagued Dutch cricket for many years as well as giving rise to concerns about what may happen in the future.

Sunday’s match was inevitably highly charged: the sides went into it in third and fourth positions on the table, knowing that the winner would be guaranteed a place in the play-offs while the loser’s chances were dependent on results elsewhere.

The atmosphere was not helped by an incident in the fifth over when HCC were convinced that Van Baren had been caught but the umpires, after consulting, ruled that he was not out, but it exploded a dozen overs later, when an exchange of words between Patel and Van Baren led to the former walking off, followed by his teammates.

Twenty-five minutes later, after negotiations which also involved KNCB Match Referee Rob Kemming, HCC confirmed that they were not prepared to continue, and the match was abandoned.

Law 16.3 is quite unambiguous on the point: ‘a match shall be lost by a side which in the opinion of the umpires refuses to play. If so, the umpires shall award the match to the other side.’

This is essentially confirmed by the KNCB’s own Playing Conditions, merely adding a procedure whereby the Match Referee is the one who awards the match, but another key document, the Competitiereglement [Competition Rules], takes a more nuanced position.

Under article 8 of this document the KNCB Board may, ‘where neither team should be deemed to have lost the match’, order a replay, while ‘in exceptional cases’ it may decide not to impose any further penalty on a team which is deemed to have lost.

A note lays down that the normal tariff of penalties for a team which refuses to play shall be, for a first offence, a reduction of two points and a fine of €100.

In this case the Board accepted the Match Referee’s decision to award the match to VOC, but chose not to impose any further sanction, either in the form of a points penalty or a fine; this has now been overturned by the Appeals Committee after HCC appealed, ordering that the match be replayed.

There is no dispute that an abusive remark with racial overtones was made by Van Baren to Patel, and that is a matter which will be properly pursued through the KNCB’s disciplinary procedures.

But does it follow from this that HCC were justified in refusing to play, as the Appeals Committee’s decision appears to suggest?

That they should have walked off in solidarity with Patel is understandable, but to continue the protest even when it was explained to them that they risked forfeiting the match took the dispute to an entirely different level.

There have been instances in international cricket – the West Indies at Christchurch in 1980, India at Melbourne in 1981 – when a captain has come close to refusing to play, but only once, in the infamous Oval Test of 2006 between England and Pakistan, has the situation been allowed to deteriorate to the point at which the match was forfeited, an outcome which continued to reverberate, to nobody’s credit, for almost three years.

The strongest position HCC could have adopted, in my view, would have been to make the protest and then return to finish the game, ideally with assurances that the disciplinary matter would be pursued to the fullest possible extent.

Instead, they chose to take the moral high ground, drawing the greatest possible attention to what they described in the announcement of their appeal as a ‘unique incident’.

Unfortunately, though, the incident, though undoubtedly unsavoury, is far from unique; rather, it is the tip of an iceberg of racial prejudice and misunderstanding which runs deep in Dutch cricket, and which has done so for many years.

Nor should that be surprising: cricket reflects the societies in which it is played, and racism, and specifically anti-immigrant feeling, is a feature, and indeed an increasingly evident feature with the rise of anti-immigrant parties, of Dutch society, as it is in many other Western societies.

This is a subject which deserves much more careful attention than it can be given here, and it is one to which we shall return.

But no-one who has had anything to do with Dutch cricket in recent decades can put their hand on their heart and say that they have never heard racist comments, on or off the field, and many would, if they were honest, admit that they had themselves made for such remarks.

As for the order that the match be replayed, although it appears that VOC had no objection to such an outcome, there is a real danger that it will open the way for sides in a losing situation to manipulate the circumstances in such a way that the match has to be abandoned, especially in the many games in which there are no official umpires.

If it is not to prove a sledger’s charter then the playing conditions need to be toughened in order to ensure that there is no repetition of Sunday’s unhappy events, at the same time reinforcing the message that there will be zero tolerance of racism in Dutch cricket, and indeed of any other violation of Law 42.

New KNCB points system deserves a fair trial

Rod Lyall 28/05/21

How to deal fairly and equitably with rained-off matches has, given the nature of the European climate, long been a subject of debate in Dutch cricket.

Every year, it seems, the same questions have been asked: to replay abandoned matches or not, and if not, should points be awarded?

These questions have been answered in varying ways. There have been periods when games were replayed, leading to lots of double weekends; objections to this led to teams in abandoned matches receiving a point each, and more recently, such games being declared void and the league table being based on points average.

There are problems with all these options.

Double weekends impose considerable burdens on amateur players, especially those with families or with work commitments on Saturdays, not to mention non-availability of some grounds because of the ever-growing demands of football.

The traditional objection to giving each side a point – in the system in which two points are awarded for a win – is that weaker sides are encouraged to allow their ground to be become unplayable, on the basis that a certain point is preferable to an extremely likely zero.

Anyone who has been involved with Dutch cricket for any length of time will be aware of instances where such finagling was at least suspected, and many will actually have participated in or witnessed discussions where it was contemplated.

That’s why in recent seasons no points have been awarded for rained-off matches, and league rankings have been based on the percentage of the available points each team had earned.

This solution allows the mathematical possibility that a team could finish ahead of rivals with more points who had played more games, but more significantly, it too could encourage a team to manipulate ground conditions to protect a superior points average.

Again, there is anecdotal evidence that this is not merely a theoretical possibility.

How, then, to devise a system which as far as possible actually encourages clubs to play?

This problem is, of course, not confined to the Netherlands: other governing bodies in other countries have confronted the issue as well, and some have come up with a solution which gives some value to abandoned matches but not so much that teams are encouraged to seek a No result.

The idea of a differential between tied matches and No results is by no means unique to the new KNCB system: in Australia, it is used in premier grade competitions in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania (in the latter two cases, teams take three points from a tie and just one from an abandoned match), while in England, to name just two examples, the Bradford Premier League awards 10 points for a win, 5 for a tie and 3 for a No result, and the Lancashire League has an even greater differential, 7 for a tie and 3 for a No result.

Some highly intemperate public comments have been made about the new KNCB system, in some cases by people who ought to know better, but the fact is that there is a genuine problem here to which there is no perfect solution and which deserves rational debate.

There is no doubt that the changed points system was poorly communicated to the clubs, but it came out of a long consultative process in which the principle of a new system was widely canvassed.

It is also true that this is not an ideal moment to be evaluating the changes: the extreme weather of the past month, with ten out of 29 scheduled matches abandoned, has exaggerated the effect of the differential on the table, something which is likely to diminish if better conditions reduce the percentage of No results.

But even allowing for that fact, experience so far actually illustrates the value of the new system, and not merely because more games have been played out which might in previous years have been called off.

On 22 May, when three matches were abandoned without a ball being bowled, HBS and HCC played out a thrilling tie which went down to the very last ball: can any rational person argue that it would have been just for those sides to take the same points from their efforts as sides who – admittedly through no fault of their own – didn’t play at all?

At the very least, the new system deserves a full season’s trial before it is consigned to the wastebin of history.

KNCB Board lights the blue touch paper

Rod Lyall 21/09/19


Let me begin by declaring an interest: on most aspects of the Dutch competition I have strong and frequently-expressed views, and on the topic of a ten-team versus an eight-team Topklasse I was the sole dissenting voice on the Board when it decided in 2016 to move from eight to ten.

So the debate which the Board initiated last week is one with plenty of personal resonance, although the central questions affect everyone with an interest in the future of the Dutch game, and the eventual outcomes ought to be those which ensure the growth of that game, both in quantity and quality.

Club representatives took part last Wednesday and Thursday in two consultative meetings, to discuss a series of proposals from the Board:

  • to reduce the top divisions again, from ten teams to eight, probably with some form of play-offs;
  • to play top division matches on Saturdays throughout the season, instead of only in the first six weeks;
  • to restructure the Twenty20 Cup, limiting it to 16 teams;
  • to consider establishing a separate competition for ‘development teams’, essentially the second elevens of clubs with a youth section; and (most radically of all)
  • to introduce over a five-year period a set of criteria to be satisfied by any club before they would be allowed to play in the top three divisions.

    These are far-reaching and, in my view at least, mostly laudable proposals, but the fact that they received a somewhat mixed reception from the club representatives was due, not only to innate conservatism and the undoubted tendency of some to consider only what was in the interest of their own club rather than the needs of Dutch cricket as a whole, but to the fact, admitted by KNCB secretary Robert Vermeulen, that the initiative had had a ‘less than optimal’ preparation.

    The Board had established a Taskforce to review the competitions back in February, but various factors had conspired to prevent it bringing its deliberations to a coherent conclusion, and the Board had now decided that if changes were to be made, the first steps needed to be taken immediately.

    But the problem was that the arguments for change had not been fully worked out, and certainly had not been presented in advance, and many remained unconvinced about the need for change at all.

    One starting point was the increasing pressure from the programme of the national men’s team, which could affect as many as eight of the 21 or 22 playing dates next season and more in 2021, even without taking into account the potential impact of the Euroslam T20 competition, assuming that it goes ahead next year.

    That demanded, the KNCB’s interim competition manager Bart Kroesen argued, greater flexibility in the domestic competition schedule, something which could scarcely be achieved with a ten-team competition with its minimum of 18 playing dates.

    That calculation immediately leads, however, into one of Dutch cricket’s perennial debates, about whether, and to what extent, the competition can fairly be allowed to continue when national team players are unavailable to take part.

    As the demands upon those players increase the impact upon their clubs grows correspondingly, especially when the national team management seeks to limit players’ role in club matches they are released to play, as for example permitting bowlers to complete no more than five overs.

    In some cases this amounts to a contractual problem: if a player is contracted both to the KNCB and to a club, which commitment takes precedence, and will the Bond be prepared to take on the whole cost of that player if his availability for the club drops below a certain level?

    There are, from this perspective, broadly two alternatives: either the top competitions can be played only when all players are available, in which case there may be room only for 14 or so matches and the limitation to eight teams becomes essential, or it is played through with or without the members of the national team, in which case a ten-team competition is feasible but there are serious concerns about its fairness (summed up in the much-used Dutch term competitievervalsing, or distortion of the competition).

    Whether this is the right basis on which to decide the league structure is itself a matter of dispute, and one to which we shall return in a further article, but other arguments, such as the claim that the expansion to ten teams in 2016 has failed to produce the projected increase in the number of young Dutch-produced players taking part, or that the ten-team league is more or less competitive than its eight-team predecessor, either come down to highly subjective judgements or rely on evidence which the Board is not yet able to produce.

    Everyone agrees that a key objective of the domestic competition ought to be the creation of an environment in which talented young Dutch cricketers can develop and prosper, and most agree that this is not enhanced by the elimination, in order to comply with the Netherlands’ stringent anti-discrimination laws, of any check on the influx of overseas players.

    But there is less agreement about how best to achieve that objective, and a good deal of fractiousness (to put it mildly) about the Board’s apparent inability – at this stage at least –  to convert broad strategic objectives into a coherent, consistent, well-argued plan for a stable, equitable league structure.

    The previous reduction of the top leagues from ten teams to eight, in 2010, was the result of a long, comprehensive consultation process, which ran from August 2008 to March 2009, and even then some of the conclusions were immediately undermined by compromise and continuing resistance from some intransigent quarters.

    The reversal of that change in 2016 was much more ad hoc, but both bear witness to deep-seated divisions in the Dutch game, and the absence of a clear consensus on the best way forward.

    If the current Board can achieve that it will be greatest contribution to the future of Dutch cricket it could possibly make, but it may take more than a couple of meetings, or even a winter of debate, to achieve that goal.

    We will attempt, over the next couple of weeks, to contribute to the discussion by considering each of the Board’s proposals in greater detail.

     

     

Topklasse Team of the Year 2018

Rod Lyall and Bertus de Jong 09/09/18


As the dust settles on another Topklasse campaign, Bertus de Jong and Rod Lyall discuss their Team of the Year.

Overseas players

Jay Bista
Jay Bista

RL: In my view four players stand out: Taruwar Kohli (Dosti United), Jay Bista (Quick Haag), Lorenzo Ingram (Excelsior), and Sharn Gomes (HBS Craeyenhout). Kohli’s form early in the season shot Dosti up the table, and in addition to his three centuries and two fifties in his first seven innings he took valuable wickets as well. He was less dominant as the campaign progressed, but even so, only his early departure prevented him from topping the batting aggregates. That honour went instead to Bista, whose contribution to a struggling Quick side was enormous, and he was more responsible than anyone for his team staying in the top flight.

Gomes, too, was at his most consistent in the first half, with six half-centuries and a hundred in his first ten innings, but thereafter he fell away, while Ingram, after hitting back-to-back centuries at the end of May, was less influential as Excelsior’s title defence foundered. Kohli and Bista are therefore my pick for the two overseas player spots.

BdJ: Yep, Kohli and Bista are probably the easiest picks in this little exercise. Without them it would be hard to see Dosti or Quick surviving the season. Kohli’s efforts saw Dosti top the table early and ensured they were never in any real danger of relegation, with four centuries and leading the run aggregates when he departed with 722 runs at an average of 60+ he faces no real competition for his spot. Bista meanwhile would be my pick for season MVP, holding Quick above water all-but single-handedly, making 800+ runs largely from the opening spot and stepping up to take the captaincy in Jeroen Brand’s absence.

Were we permitted a third overseas player my pick would be Bryce Street ahead of Gomes or Ingram though. In trying to fill the shoes of Jonathan Vandiar, Street probably had the toughest assignment of any of the league’s overseas coaches, and he delivered admirably for HCC. With 650 runs at a shade over 40, as well as chipping in a valuable 23 wickets over the season the young Queenslander has had an excellent debut season and is pretty unlucky to miss out on a team of the year spot in my book.


Opening batsmen

BdJ: With Bista having scored heavily from the top of the order I’d say that one of the slots here has already been filled, and indeed it’s not easy to say anyone’s made a convincing case to take the second. ACC’s Richardt Frenz is ruled out as the overseas slots are full, though his contribution to the Amsterdammers’ fortunes after being promoted to open should not be underrated, with 657 runs at 40 he is statistically the most successful opener behind Bista. A case might also be made for his opening partner Rehmat Zulfiqar, who has rather outshone his siblings in domestic cricket this season and memorably smashing the season’s top-score of 188 against Quick from the top of the order.

Tobias Visée
Tobias Visée

A more conservative option might be VRA’s Dan ter Braak, who has accumulated an unshowy 620 runs at 38 over the season, but my preference would be for aggression at the top. With 523 runs at a strike rate over 150, I’d be tempted to have HBS skipper Toby Visée as a specialist batsman even were he not also top of the dismissals table with the gloves. In a season where “decent but unspectacular” could be applied to most of the league’s openers, I’m picking the one who can win a game in the first few overs.

RL: No disagreement from this quarter about opening with Visée: his ability to knock new-ball bowlers off their stride makes him an obvious choice. But given his methods you have to allow for the possibility that he won’t come off, and for that reason I’d be inclined to have Jay Bista at three rather than as an opener. That creates room for Rehmat Zulfiqar who, as m’ colleague notes, has been the most consistently successful of the four brothers this time round. A top four of Rehmat, Visée, Bista and Kohli should be enough to daunt any opening attack.


Top and middle order

RL: My proposal would then leave us with two, or at most three, specialist batting places to fill – three if, as is often the case, one or more of the batsmen is also a useful bowler. (Bista and Kohli, indeed, would also be likely to feature in the attack, as perhaps would Rehmat, so maybe we could go all the way down to No. 8 with the batsmen . . . )

The leading contenders on my list would be Ben Cooper and Peter Borren (both VRA), VOC captain Pieter Seelaar, Mohammad Hafeez (Dosti), and Wesley Barresi (HBS). These are all, of course, well established names, and it’s a little worrying that there are so few young guns forcing their way into consideration. Tonny Staal (HCC) played some valuable innings, and despite injury Sikander Zulfiqar (ACC) did so as well. But in a crowded field, it’s hard to go past the left-handed Cooper (third in the aggregates with 661 runs at 47.21), Seelaar, Borren and Hafeez, with Barresi possibly just edging out Borren.

BdJ: Indeed going purely on stats it would seem churlish to exclude Cooper, but then I am nothing if not churlish. Aside from being reluctant to disturb Kohli from his position at first drop, where he’s scored four centuries, I feel it should be pointed out that of his five fifties in the season, only Cooper’s 69 against HBS won VRA a match that mattered.

Pieter Seelaar
Pieter Seelaar

I’d also be hesitant to chance Bista as a front-line bowler given his mixed results with the ball for Quick, though obviously I’d not say the same of Hafeez, who is the only player this season who would likely make the team on the strength of both his batting and bowling. Peter Borren probably comes closest on that front, despite having what he himself described as a “pretty ordinary” season (though having averaged over 100 last year perhaps his expectations of himself have become somewhat unreasonable). The former Dutch skipper picked up 29 scalps to finish joint 5th in the wicket-taking tables, as well as scoring 565 runs from number 5. His successor at the helm of the national team, Pieter Seelaar, has had an equally successful season, with 555 runs and 50.5 and 21 wickets at 13.7 not to mention captaining his side to the title, the VOC skipper is surely a must-pick.


Wicketkeeper

BdJ: Having settled on Visée at the top of the order our hands are rather tied here, though with 34 dismissals behind the stumps HBS’ skipper’s glove-work is hardly in question. One might otherwise make a strong case for VOC’s Scott Edwards, who despite trailing Visée by eleven dismissals has arguably shown himself the tidier keeper, conceding just 9 byes in 16 matches as well as racking up 576 runs at an average of 52.36 – one of only four players to average over fifty over the season.

RL: Indeed, including both Visée and Edwards, one of them as a specialist batsman, would not be a daft move. That’s probably worth looking at when we review the overall balance of the team. And we’re agreed that they are the two outstanding keepers of the season.


Seamers

RL: This is an interesting one. If we assume seam from both ends initially, there are several contenders for the new ball: Sparta’s Mudassar Bukhari, who was pipped by Hafeez as leading wicket-taker but who claimed 34 wickets at 13.82; Ali Ahmed Qasim and Hidde Overdijk, both of HCC and both with 32 wickets; and Fred Klaassen (VOC), who took 29. There are pros and cons in all four cases: Bukhari played half his games at bowler-friendly Bermweg; Ali Ahmed took 14 of his wickets in just two devastating performances; Overdijk mostly bowled first change for HCC, who preferred pairing Ali Ahmed with spinner Ryan Ninan; and Klaassen surely benefited from having Pierce Fletcher at the other end. But the VOC man was outstanding in claiming early wickets, and his left-arm pace could be genuinely threatening.

Hidde Overdijk
Hidde Overdijk

A few other seamers are certainly worthy of consideration, even if their statistics are less impressive than those of this foursome: the HBS new-ball pairing of Wessel Coster and Berend Westdijk, the latter plagued by injury, as well as their team-mate Farshad Khan; VRA’s Quirijn Gunning, and Sikander Zulfiqar, who despite also being injured has a reasonable claim as an all-rounder.

But my pick would be Klaassen and Ali Ahmed, with Overdijk as first change.

BdJ: Klaassen is a sure pick for me, consistently finding early wickets and outstanding at the death, though the question of who he shares the new ball with is a little trickier. Bukhari’s duties with Belgium took precedence over his bid to best Hafeez at the top of the wickets table in the final round, but sheer weight of wickets is hard to argue with regardless of where he took them, and as it happens he took more than half of them away from home. He would just edge Ahmed in my book, though reasonable minds may differ on that. We agree on Overdijk though, if anything, his ability to take wickets with an older ball is a plus, as first-change is a somewhat less hotly-contested spot and a creditable average just shy of 20 with the bat only strengthens his case.

Rather overlooked in the role of seam-bowling all-rounder, however, is the veteran Doc Mol, who has quietly played an absolute blinder for Quick, and is arguably as much responsible for their survival in the top flight as was Jay Bista. In the midst of what might charitably called a transitional phase for the club (less charitably as a shambles of a season) Mol’s 480 runs (including a maiden century) and 26 wickets make him their lead wicket-taker and second behind Bista in the runs. Mol’s numbers may still be modest in the scheme of things, but given the context and the pressure Quick were under from the start, it’s hard to think of a player who’s been more crucial to his side this year.


Spinners

BdJL With Seelaar and Hafeez sure of their spots the slow-bowling question more or less takes care of itself, but there’s certainly some honourable mentions to be made. First among them is Seelaar’s spinning partner at VOC, Max O’Dowd. He had the help of traditionally spin-friendly conditions at Hazelaarweg of course, but nonetheless 21 wickets at a shade over ten apiece is a remarkable effort. Leon Turmaine (VRA) also bowled better than his (still perfectly decent) figures suggest, whilst Lorenzo Ingram would be a tempting option had we another overseas slot.

RL: Turmaine’s team-mate at VRA, the evergreen Adeel Raja again demonstrated that he is, when available, still able to winkle out opposing batsmen, while Wesley Barresi would no doubt also wish to be seen as a spinning option, having claimed 16 wickets in his limited opportunities with the ball, at a strike rate of 26.06. But only O’Dowd (with a strike rate of 19.33, the best in the competition) is a real contender to balance off-spin against the very different left-armers in Seelaar and Hafeez.


So, with all the above in mind, we have:

Our Topklasse Team of the Year:

Jay Bista (Quick Haag), Tobias Visée (HBS, wk), Taruwar Kohli, Mohammad Hafeez (both Dosti United), Wesley Barresi (HBS), Peter Borren (VRA), Pieter Seelaar (VOC, captain), Geert Maarten Mol (Quick Haag), Hidde Overdijk (HCC), Mudassar Bukhari (Sparta 1888), and Fred Klaassen (VOC).