THREE distinct groups have emerged at the halfway mark of the Newcastle district cricket season.
Hamwicks, Merewether and University are fighting for the minor premiership; Western Suburbs, Stockton-Raymond Terrace and Cardiff-Boolaroo are battling for one spot in the semi-finals; and the rest need a miracle to reach the final four.
HAMILTON-WICKHAM (60 pts)
A loss to University in the final round has been the only blemish to a cracking start for the three-time minor premiers. Three outright wins over Toronto, Charlestown and City over a stellar six-week period gave the Pumas the start on Merewether, who endured a wash-out during that run. The round-16, two-day match between the two is likely to decide the minor premiership.
With a squad featuring an ex-Australia A fast bowler and numerous NSW Country batsmen, it is little wonder Merewether are undefeated going into the new year. The Lions will be without Simon Moore and Pat Darwen in early January due to NSW Country commitments, but their squad depth should ensure a safe journey to the finals. Merewether have proven in the past they revel in the grand occasions and for that reason they deserve title favouritism over Hamwicks.
University’s season seemed to be stuck in neutral until late November. Over the past three rounds, outright wins over City and Charlestown and a resounding 50-over win against Hamwicks have catapulted Uni into title reckoning. Josh Emerton’s men have a relatively easy run into the semi-finals, and if they can bag another two or three outright wins, they have the potential to steal the minor title from the more fancied Hamwicks and Merewether. Keeping in-form batsman Kurt Neely on the paddock could be key.
WESTERN SUBURBS (36)
Wests are facing pressure for fourth spot from Stockton and Cardiff and the Rosellas will face both sides before the season’s end. Those two matches, along with two-day games against Hamwicks and University, will likely decide if Ben Woolmer’s troops can qualify for the play-offs for the first time since 2005-06. Wests are yet to deliver a victory over one of the competition heavyweights, but with all-rounder Anthony Hobson in form, they have the class to shake up the finals.
STOCKTON-RAYMOND TERRACE (35)
Stockton’s impressive start to the season was tempered by losses to Hamwicks and Cardiff in November. A moderately smooth run into the finals will keep Stockton fighting Wests to the death for that fourth spot. Two-day matches against lowly City and Toronto will be the peninsula club’s best chances of maximum points. A question mark still hangs over their ability to bowl teams out twice. Prediction: 5th
The CBs have been the surprise package of the season. After failing to win a match last season, Cardiff have been undefeated in two-day and 50-over cricket since round three. However, three of those four wins have been against lowly opposition and a fortunate wash-out saved them from a probable heavy defeat against University in round four. A two-day game against Hamwicks and two matches against Wests will reveal if Cardiff have the quality to make a realistic run at the semi-finals.
Wallsend’s young side spent the first rounds of the season undefeated due to victories and wash-outs and appeared set to challenge for the semi-finals. However, despite captain Brett Jackson’s heroics with the bat, inconsistency has infected their game in December. Last round’s heavy loss to Toronto was particularly damaging for their play-off hopes. Post-Christmas, the Tigers play Waratah, City and Belmont in two-day matches and several outright wins will be required during that period to give Wallsend a shot at finals cricket.
TORONTO WORKERS (19)
If several results had fallen differently, Toronto could be higher on the ladder. They lost outright to Cardiff in the final over of the day in round seven and City hung on by one wicket to deny the Kookaburras maximum points in round three. At times their inexperienced batting order has clicked, but those glimpses of promise have been offset by numerous collapses. Toronto are always harder to beat at Ron Hill Oval and having only two home games in the new year will not help their cause.
It is hard to find a more disappointing side this season than Charlestown. The Magpies batsmen have been ordinary. They have scored 1279 runs, 232 fewer than the next worst outfit, Belmont. Their batting woes have resulted in three outright losses, but with quality players Steve Mace, Jed Dickson and Dane Macourt in the side, the Magpies have the troops to bounce back in the second half of the season.
Waratah finally cracked their first victory of the season two weeks ago in the Twenty20 against Charlestown. They built their confidence further with a nail-biting 50-over win against Belmont. English import Luke Blackaby has been a marvel for the Tahs, scoring 270 runs at 33.75, but has received little support. Waratah should continue to be competitive after the new year, but if Blackaby fails, they lack the depth to trouble most teams in the competition.
After almost beating Merewether in the semi-final last season, Belmont have crashed spectacularly this summer. Their sole victories have come against Cardiff in two-day and Twenty20 matches. Senior players Mark Littlewood, Marcus Hainsworth and Jace Lawson have received little support from their inexperienced teammates. Only a bumper second half of the summer from Littlewood will give Belmont any hope of challenging for a finals berth. Prediction: 9th
NEWCASTLE CITY (7)
This season has been a disaster from start to finish for City. First their captain and star all-rounder Mark Dries chose not to play, and he was later followed by teenage opener Morgan Clune, who moved to Randwick-Petersham. Injuries to other young guns Greg West and Dylan Hunter have further tested their depth. City were competitive in patches against Merewether and Hamwicks and an easier draw in the new year should result in a drought-breaking victory, but the wooden spoon is already secure.