Weekly Round-Up

2018 NECL Preview

It was perhaps the toughest close season the NECL has endured in its 42 year history, with no less than nine teams withdrawing from the competition, which has seen the weekend league drop from 32 to 23 teams for the 2018 season.

A league restructure means that there will be just three divisions in 2018, with seven teams in Division One, and eight each in Division Two and Three. The points system is the main change for the season, with tables now being decided by total points rather than average points. In an effort to get more cricket on, points will also be awarded up to the point of abandonment.

The T20 competition will have ten teams again this season, with Galleywood replacing Great Bentley. Two groups of five will contest a round robin competition, with the top two from each group proceeding to Finals Day on 27th August at Castle Park.

The pre-season weather of a Siberian blast in March, followed by wet weather of biblical proportions has seen many ground staff scratching their heads as to how to get pitches and grounds prepared for the start of the season. Luckily, the Division Two and Three programme does not commence until the first week of May this year, but a number of Division One games in April are already at threat. However, with warmer weather scheduled for this week, it is hoped that the NECL season will get up and running at the weekend.

So in a pre-season tradition, where do I expect the silverware to be heading in 2018, and who are likely to struggle.

In Division One, Wivenhoe lifted their first top flight title in 33 years last season with Matt Durrell and Liam Hope-Shackley being major contributors with both bat and ball – I don’t think their dominance will be as strong this year, but I do expect them to claim back to back titles. The team I think that will push them furthest this term will be Elmstead, who eventually slipped down to fifth last season largely through two late season concessions. They were the early season pace setters in the NECL, and were deserved winners of the Two Counties Division One title in 2017, and probably prioritised that over the NECL at the business end. However, the question will be whether they can maintain the heady heights in the Two Counties, and if they can’t will they push for honours in the NECL ?  Elmstead were the only side to defeat Wivenhoe in Division One in 2017, with a 16 run win at Wivenhoe in August, and coincidentally, after two early season cancellations between Wivenhoe and Colchester & E.E., the opening fixture of the season will pitch Elmstead up against Wivenhoe on Sunday.

Colchester & E.E. will always be able to call on quality players and could beat any side on their day, however, I feel they will be largely dependent on their younger players during the 2018 season, so predict them to finish third. Copdock & Old Ipswichian return to the top flight for the first time since 2013, having won Division Two in 2017 with just one reverse. I expect the young Copdock side, led by the wise head of Nick Meakin to go fairly well and be placed in fourth place. Mistley will be depending on youth for 2018 season, and will be at the lower end of the league, although I think they will have just a little in reserve to avoid the drop.

That leaves, with a heavy heart, Clacton and Galleywood as my relegation pairing, although I think both sides have enough ability to score victories over anyone in the division. Clacton were in the relegation battle for most of 2017, but were competitive in a number of games against top of the table sides.  Galleywood have made a significant jump in the league structure, having lifted the Division Three title in 2017, they accepted an invitation to the top flight for 2018. Galleywood were last in the top division in 2006, and have a number of players that have caught the eye over the last few seasons (Ben Rayner, Dan McIntyre, Clay Westwood and Zack Hicks to mention a few) in the lower echelons and it will be interesting to see how they fair, although I fully expect that they will give a good account of themselves.

Division Two looks mouth wateringly competitive and is very difficult to predict on paper. My predictions for promotion are Halstead and Eight Ash Green. Halstead have been developing a consistent side in the NECL over a number of years, and I would expect them to make the next step at some point in the next season or two. Eight Ash Green have tasted the top flight, and were relegated last year. However, they also have a good balanced side that should be able to blossom in the lower division this term, the only doubt is that they have been promoted in the Two Counties and whether the club focus will be on that competition. Braintree were Division Four champions in 2017, and have made a two division jump for 2018, however, I expect them to push the top two all the way and could even claim a top two finish. I expect mid ships in the Division will be contested by Abberton, Springfield and Chappel & Wakes Colne. Abberton and Springfield were both promoted from Division Three in 2017, and should have enough about them to maintain Division Two status in 2018. Chappel & Wakes Colne were runners up in Division Two in 2017, and they certainly have enough ability to once again push for the higher reaches in the league. However, my question mark over them is that they have become the latest NECL side to join the Two Counties Saturday competition, and will that distract from the Sunday playing strength ? I think it will ! At the bottom of the division I predict close neighbours Witham and Great Totham will make the drop, although as I said at the start of the piece about Division Two it is a very competitive division and margins between success and failure could be very slim. Certainly, Witham and Great Totham have players who can influence the course of games.

Into Division Three, and I would expect Kelvedon & Feering and Coggeshall to be in the hunt for the top of the table honours. Depending on their respective Sunday player availability both clubs have sufficient strength to see off the majority of opposition in the division to seal promotion. Of the rest of the teams, I expect to see Real Oddies, West Bergholt and Great Horkesley & Lexden to be in the chase for the minor places. Oddies finished as runners up in Division Four in 2017, and I see no reason why they will not again figure at the top end of the lowest division. West Bergholt finished fifth in Division Three last season, and have enough about them to push anyone on their day. Great Horkesley & Lexden are a little unknown at this level, having had two teams in the competition last season, with their first team in the top flight and their second team claiming the wooden spoon. They withdrew their first team at the end of last year, and felt that their 2018 playing strength would be more consummate of their second eleven. I think it will be a little bit stronger than that, and although they will not be pushing for promotion, they will not fear retaining the wooden spoon. The scrap for the lower places will between Boxted, Cavaliers and Stebbing. Boxted finished in mid division in 2017 in Division four, and I think they will be able to avoid the wooden spoon, but do not think they will threaten the promotion battle. That leaves Cavaliers and Stebbing to fight out bottom spot, Cavaliers have struggled on Sundays over a number of seasons and are perhaps thankful that they have reached the bottom division. However, the strength of the division three this year will possibly not make their season any easier, although I expect them to be more competitive than previous years. Stebbing have had a hard few years, and are looking to invest in youth for 2018 season – their teams could largely be made up of family affairs which hopefully will pay dividends over the next few seasons, although I think it may be a little too early to see the benefits of their policy for this season.

The T20 lottery throws up more questions than answers each year, with the competition entering its third season, six sides have reached the two Finals Days to date, with two Wivenhoe and Little Bardfield Village, reaching both.

The T20 West division looks to be a very tight group to predict. Last year Little Bardfield Village and Kelvedon claimed the honours, however, Braintree and Coggeshall certainly have the strength to reach the Finals Day. Galleywood are the newcomers to the competition this year, so are an unknown, although a relatively young side there should be plenty of athleticism in the field. I have a hunch that Coggeshall and Braintree are going to make it through to FInals Day from the division. Coggeshall had a disastrous year in 2017 as they tried to defend their T20 crown won in 2016, and failed to reach the last four, so think they will be a little more galvanised for 2018. Braintree scored big on a couple of occasions last season to show that they have the credentials with the bat to beat anyone, and I think they will also qualify. Little Bardfield Village are always dangerous on their day, especially on their home turf, and have a proven track record in the T20, so I wouldn’t discount them completely. Kelvedon’s were a surprise Finals Day qualifier last term and gave a very good account of themselves in the semi final to eventual champions Wivenhoe. They have two key home matches in the round robin part of the competition, as they host Braintree and Coggeshall – if they were to win those games then they could repeat their success of 2017. Debutants Galleywood will be testing the water this term, and although I expect them to be competitive I can not see them progressing.

T20 East sees champions Wivenhoe as favourites to progress. I would then suggest that it will be between Colchester & East Essex and Ipswich who claims the other place. Colchester failed to reach Finals Day last year, after losing the first T20 final in 2016, so will look to redress that this season. Ipswich will be hoping to play their first T20 game – all four of their group matches in 2017 were conceded, two by themselves and two by opponents. They seem to be a bit more organised with fixtures this season, and I would suggest they could be more of a proposition for other teams in the East Division. A key date for them will be the triangular day at Colchester & E.E on 17th June, when they play 7 Para RHA and Colchester. Mistley were eventually losing finalists in 2017, but I think the strength in Wivenhoe, Colchester & E.E and Ipswich will make qualification difficult for them this year. 7 Para RHA make up the division for 2018, and after a difficult first season for the army side I am afraid I can’t see them outdoing the established sides this season.

So my final four – are Coggeshall, Braintree, Wivenhoe and Ipswich with Wivenhoe retaining their T20 crown by beating Coggeshall in the final.

Hopefully, the weather will settle quickly and we will get a fairly undisrupted season of cricket. Good luck to all the players and teams playing in the NECL in 2018, wishing you all a competitive and exciting season full of runs and wickets.