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…