THIS could be the year the Highlands establishes itself as the north’s cricket power bloc.
The Senior League title more often than not ends up in Moray but with success in cup competitions and the Reserve League last year, teams further west have closed the gap.
At the Northern Meeting Park, progress abounds. Three years ago they had insufficient players to field a team in the Senior League but had a fledgling side that stormed to the Reserve League title.
Now they are able to field competitive sides in both leagues, with the Seniors finishing an impressive fourth last season.
“We’re looking to better last year – we’re always trying to progress. There’ll be no pressure on anybody. We’re just trying to improve,” said first-team captain Dave Dugdale.
“I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up but I can see us bettering fourth. If we play anything like we did last year and pick up a few more results, we can do it.”
Getting bowler Jess Mills, who represented a Rest of Scotland side last season, back up to her brilliant best will be key for Counties.
Mills was the league’s leading wicket-taker, hitting the 30-scalp mark last year as the potent face of Dugdale’s attack. But if they are to better their top-half finish from 2016, they cannot afford to be a one-woman show.
“Richard Smith played for us about five years ago and has come back into team. He looks pretty sharp. I’m also looking for Will Ford, our vice-captain, to do good things with the bat,” said Dugdale.
“Cricket is getting more popular up here. We’ve had some new faces in to go with the older ones that have come back, and hopefully that continues as the summer progresses.”
Counties have the unenviable task of starting the season away to champions Fochabers.
Along the A96 on the picturesque track at The Links, clambering up the league table is also the aim for Nairn County.
Talented youngsters showed up well last season for Nairn, with their second team storming to the Reserve League title. Several will be expected to step up to the first string this season, with 2016’s young player of the year Alex Green one to keep an eye on.
“He’s got an influential part to play but we don’t really look at ourselves as individuals,” said firsts’ captain Iain Macleod. “We bond as a team; when one person plays well, we all raise our game.
“We’re looking for Alex and Shane Hayward to bring what they did for the reserves into the first team. Everyone who played in that reserve team last season has potential to do well in the firsts.”
This weekend we're at home to Elgin (Senior League) Saturday and Highland (Reserve League) on Sunday.— Nairn County Cricket (@NairnCricket) April 19, 2017
Green, at just 19, will open the batting for the Senior side, while his brother Tom will feature in the bowling attack against Elgin tomorrow. Consistency is high on the agenda for Nairn this season, as they look to improve on their second-bottom place last year and move into the top half.
“We’ve never really been able to get the same 11 out regularly, because of people’s work commitments away from cricket,” said Macleod.
“We had mixed performances against Elgin last season. In the first game Steven Neill hit 137 and we bowled them out for 70. But in the second game they made a similar score that we didn’t reach.
“We didn’t manage to get ourselves going. We’re looking to hit the ground running and improve on last year. There were still a lot of positives to take from it.”
Highland, title contenders a year ago, start their season away at Buckie tomorrow. They last won the title in 2010 and will be keen to end a six-year dominance by teams from Moray.
They have been lifted by the return of Regan Francis and Ryan Main for the new campaign.
For skipper Rob Nixon, getting a consistent team out could see them challenge for the league title.
“We’re still relying on Jon Crabtree, Euan Smith and Dave Wolton in the batting line-up. We’ve managed to get Steve Laidler in, who played for Lossiemouth a few years back and is a very good wicket-keeper batsman.
“The top seven looks very good and if we can get the boys out regularly, we’ll have a very good team.”
Selection problems hamper Nixon this weekend with Main, Adnan Shah, John Paul and Richard Thomson unavailable. Thomson will be missing for the first few weekends due to the lambing season, while several of the squad are in the army and on guard duty.
“It’s a big honour for me to be captain this season in our 60th year,” added Nixon. “We’ve got the backing of Scotbark and Cobbs to do work on the wicket, so hopefully we’ll see the benefit of that.”
Three out of the six available titles made their way to Fraser Park a year ago, with Highland winning the Senior Cup, Reserve Cup and Reserve T20. Shah picked up two man-of-the-match awards in both the Senior and Reserve Cup finals.
In the Reserve League on Sunday both Counties and Nairn County are at home, against Fochabers and Highland respectively.