For many players and officials, the beginning of the new NCU Section One season today will come as a blessed relief from the administrative headaches that have dogged recent months.
The saga over the eligibility of overseas professionals in the union’s second tier, stretching back many months, has threatened previously good relations between the 10 clubs, and ultimately spelt an end to the NCU careers of three highly respected cricket professionals.
You would need to go a long way in local cricket to find anyone with a bad word to say or who would doubt the credentials of Niranjan Godbole, Indrajeet Kamtekar or Kaushik Aphale, three Indian cricketers who have given a considerable amount to the NCU game for well over a decade, on and off the field.
But with the Home Office’s UK Borders Agency now pledging to rigorously enforce rules barring all cricketers with previous first-class experience from playing below the top flight of both NCU and North West cricket, all three men have had to wave a forlorn goodbye to the grounds they have graced for so long.
Kamtekar had signed to return to Armagh for a second season, Godbole had obtained a visa to return to long-time home Lurgan and Cliftonville had wanted to sign Aphale, a distinguished player/coach for Ballymena and Derriaghy.
Cliftonville were one of seven clubs who concluded in the winter that bringing an overseas player was fraught with danger because of strict new attitudes within the Borders Agency, but three others, Lurgan, Armagh and Donacloney Mill, pressed on.
All three were in contact with the Northern Cricket Union hierarchy who advised them that there was nothing necessarily new in the rules and if visas applications were granted, there was no reason why an NCU committee would turn down their registrations.
Unfortunately though, things turned sour. Several crisis summits were organised by the clubs, ill-feeling mounted and rumours of possible legal actions, and anonymous complaints to the Borders Agency, stalked social media.
Then came a bombshell just over a fortnight ago. In the North West’s second tier Glendermott were told to shelve their visa application for Oraine Williams after the West Indian all-rounder played a first-class match for Jamaica in the Caribbean domestic competition. That, Glendermott were told, made him ineligible.
On that basis, the NCU ‘updated’ their advice, a Home Office statement came out, making it clear that it was following the principle of ‘once a first-class cricketer, always a first-class cricketer’ and anyone who had played the first-class game was barred from playing outside the top flight.
At this point, Lurgan and Armagh were advised that the registrations of Godbole and Kamtekar would be turned down.
Anger and frustration at both clubs was understandable and the NCU have taken it in the neck in some quarters. But officials, stuck between a rock and hard place, have been trying their best amidst confusing messages and mixed signals from the Borders Agency.
The blame should lie with the Borders Agency which has effectively ruled that three veteran cricketers, in the twilight of their careers and with no first-class experience in the last decade, are not eligible to play in Section One.
Make no mistake, the clubs and the young cricketers are the losers here. Unlike some ‘pros’ who have graced their shores, Kamtekar, Godbole and also Aphale embraced all aspects of their clubs.
The credentials of Godbole in particular are absolutely without question, and it was his coaching abilities and selfless attitude that prompted Lurgan to bring him back season after season in favour of players who would have scored more runs and taken more wickets.
To suggest that any of the three players is too good for that level of cricket is frankly, ridiculous.
So if anyone wants to apportion blame in this sorry saga, please don’t direct your ire at each other, or at the volunteers in the NCU. Write to the Borders Agency instead.
* The NCU Premier League season starts this afternoon with two appetising fixtures. Champions Instonians host CIYMS at Shaw’s Bridge in the game of the day while North Down and Waringstown renew their rivalry at The Green in Comber. Ruhan Pretorius, Waringstown’s professional two seasons ago, makes his debut against his former club while fellow South African Shaheen Khan is back in the villagers’ ranks after an absence of two seasons.
Elsewhere, it is understood that CSNI have named Shane Getkate in their 11 against Lisburn, but the wantaway Northern Knights and Ireland Wolves star is unlikely to turn out as he presses for a move to Instonians.
In the other game newly promoted Muckamore, whose attempt to sign former Coleraine paceman Jarred Barnes has hit a major snag, face a tough start against Carrickfergus at Middle Road. In Section One Mark and Ross Adair are playing for Holywood against Cliftonville.