Ballymena Cricket Club First XI start their NCU Premier League campaign on Saturday with a trip to Comber to take on North Down.
This will mark a record for the Eaton Park side – it will be their seventh successive season in the NCU Premier League, their longest-ever spell at the top level.
Once again, as has been the case every year since 2009, Ballymena will start their season as favourites for relegation.
In a sense this is hardly surprising, since the Eaton Park side operates with a small squad and is the only Premier League club not to have gone down the route of paying locally-based players.
Yet, due to a combination of their remarkable team-spirit and consistent individual performances from their most experienced players, Ballymena have continually confounded the critics.
However 2015 looks likely to be even more demanding than previous summers.
For a start the Kennedy brothers, David and Robert, have retired - leaving the side without two fine batsmen and two hugely-influential players. Derek Lynch has gone back to North-West cricket and injury seems to have ended the career of hard-hitting batsman, Gareth Fisher. To make matters worse, talented all–rounder Robert McKinley will spend the first half of the summer at Loughborough University and reports suggest that has had offers to stay in England to play either County 2nd XI or Minor Counties cricket during July and August.
Indeed the situation could have been even worse, had the youngest of the Kennedy brothers, James, accepted an attractive offer to join one of the Belfast clubs during the close season.
Ballymena are indeed fortunate that club loyalty persuaded James not just to remain at Eaton Park, but also to take on the captaincy for a fourth spell. His batting ability and experience will be vital as will the contribution of the new overseas player, Azeem Ghumman from Hyderabad in Pakistan.
Azeem is primarily a batsman who can bowl useful leg-spin and, although only just turned 24, has almost eight seasons’ experience in top-level cricket.
Even, more importantly, given Ballymena’s increasing reliance on young players, Azeem has a reputation for enthusiasm and ability to influence players around him – demonstrated by the fact that he has captained both Pakistan Under 19s and the Pakistan A side.
Certainly Ballymena 1st XI will have a younger complexion this summer as home-produced 2nd XI players such as Ricky McNeill , Matthew Purse, Jack Gibson, Ethan Archer and others even younger will have opportunities to cement a place in top-flight cricket.
Indeed, the bigger picture suggests that the longer term future of cricket at Eaton Park is bright.
In the last few weeks an NCU Under 15 squad toured South Africa and three of their outstanding performers were Ballymena players - James McClean, John Glass and Johnny Browne. These three and others of around the same age such as Sam Glass, Owen Dick and Jack Archer all clearly have the attributes needed to become 1st XI cricketers.
James McClean, a talented wicket-keeper/batsman, has already played 1st XI cricket and, even though he is still eligible to play Under 15 cricket, looks to have the ability and temperament to justify him becoming an automatic selection for 1st XI cricket this season.
And the Eaton Park selectors will be hoping that other players from this talented young group will be performing well for the 2nd XI and “putting their hands up” for an opportunity to play senior cricket before the season is out.
In the meantime, Ballymena could have no better start to the summer than to win at Comber, something which has not been a frequent occurance recent years.
Yet this may be a rare opportunity, because North Down have lost their three top batsmen Haire, Larkin and Terrett over the winter and, not unlike Ballymena, will be rebuilding.
Certainly the Comber team have lost their “invincible” look, but, with home advantage, will still be favourites in this game. However, if Ballymena’s key batsmen and bowlers can all manage to “hit the ground running” in their first league outing, they could well put pressure on the Comber side’s new-look batting line-up and possibly give themselves a fighting chance of a surprise victory and a huge boost going into what will be a demanding season.