Ballymena First XI ended their season on Saturday with a low-key performance against already-relegated Muckamore.
With nothing at stake, the game had a real end-of –season feel to it – and this was probably the reason for Ballymena’s lack-lustre performance, as they lost by eight wickets.
Ballymena’s batsmen never really got on top of a lively Muckamore attack which was boosted by a fine debut performance by fast-medium bowler Cameron Staveley who took 5 wickets for 23.
The only real batting resistance came from Steve Lazars (21) and Michael Glass (15 not out) as, has happened far too often this season, Ballymena failed to make full use of their 50 overs.
Muckanore began their reply tentatively and Ballymena looked to be well in the game with the score at 22 for 2 after 17 overs. Muckamore’s Australian professional Carl Micken was struggling as he tried to play defensively against Ballymena’s spinners and he was drpped twice before he had scored.
However Micken then seemed to decide that defence was the best form of attack as he began to hit out at virtually every ball. He quickly raced to 54 not out as Muckamore won by 8 wickets – a win which spared the Moylena men the indignity of going through the entire season without a league win.
Despite their tame end to the summer, Ballymena will feel that seventh place in the Premier League was as good as they could have expected in a difficult season. The team could hardly have expected such a disruptive start to the summer – Indian professional Yogesh Takawale did not play until mid-June due to IPL commitments.
Injuries and unavailabilities added to the problems and it was July before the Eaton Park side was back to anything like full-strength. With the six stronger teams , who have virtually semi-professional set-ups, well ahead of both Ballymena and Mauckamore , it became clear that whichever of thes two teams could pull off a couple of wins would avoid relegation. In the end wins over Muckamore and CIYMS ensured Ballymena would stay in the Premier League.
Ballymena find themselves with decisions to make during the winter. The captain Simon McDowell is stepping down after doing a fine job for three of the last four seasons. The left-arm spinner can take a lot of credit for the way he kept his head in many of the tight finishes in the relegation battles during his tenure. Whoever takes over the reins will need similar qualities, since there is little doubt that Ballymena will face relegation struggles again next summer.
A different overseas professional will almost certainly feature at Eaton Park next summer. Admittedly Yogesh Takawale’s late arrival did not give him much chance to settle in, but in truth he never looked like becoming the influential presence, both on and off the field, that the club needed him to be.
There may well also be other changes to the Ballymena senior squad. For example, key players Robert McKinley and Michael Taylor have university commitments in England and it is unclear how much time they will spend in Northern Ireland next summer.
Other team members’ intentions for next season are also unclear, as they are approaching the end of their playing careers and are finding the demands of high-pressure Premier League cricket increasingly difficult.
One player who had definitely announced his retirement is Robert Kennedy.
Robert is the eldest of the four Kennedy brothers who have played a huge part in Ballymena’s success over the last twenty-plus years. Indeed he was vice-captain in 1998 when Neil Fullerton’s team memorably won the Senior League for the only time in Ballymena’s history.
Although he did not score just as heavily as his brothers David and James, Robert was an exemplary “team” player and a more than useful stand-in wicket-keeper.
In recent seasons he seemed to find his batting niche in the lower middle-order and turned many games Ballymena’s way by hitting 20s and 30s (often at a run a ball) at a crucial stage.
Indeed it is fitting that, when Ballymena beat CIYMS two weeks in a thrilling game to ensure their Premier League survival, it was Robert Kennedy, in one of his last games for the club, who saw them home with a typically cool-headed 23 not out.