For the first time in over a quarter-of-a-century, the local cricket derby will take on great significance as it relates to the likely champions of the 2016 BCA Elite division.
In the penultimate series of matches starting Saturday, third-placed Massy Stores Spartan are desperate to either beat or gain the majority of points from front-runners ICBL Empire on home turf at Queen’s Park.
It could not be a more fitting showdown.
Empire, seeking to recapture the title they last held just two years ago in the 100th anniversary of the Bank Hall club, are on 92 points – 12 ahead of Spartan, whose last taste of silverware in the island’s top three-day Championship was six years ago in a share with Sagicor Life UWI, the defending champions, but who are now experiencing their worst ever season and languish third from the bottom of the ten-team table.
Realistically at this stage, second-placed Brathwaite Construction/Crane Resort St Catherine on 81 points and CounterPoint Wanderers, fourth on 76, are the only other teams in serious contention for the coveted cup.
Mathematically, however, the next four teams – Home Improvement/Sierka Rentals Maple (68), Massy United Insurance Wildey (65), BDFSP (60) and UWI (56) – can still win the title but the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ for such to materialise are bizarre.
Police (45) are desperately seeking to avoid becoming the first team ever to be demoted three times since the promotion/relegation system was introduced in 2009, while rock-bottom Guardian General Barbados Youth (21) are exempt from demotion.
While Empire stepped up their bid for the title from the fifth series by beating Police by ten wickets at Weymouth, thus moving to the top on 71 points, Wanderers have slipped badly and Spartan also stumbled before regaining some ground by defeating Barbados Youth by an innings and 49 runs inside two days at Queen’s Park.
Wanderers, who won their first four matches and led the table with 68 points, have managed only eight points in the last three rounds in sharp contrast to Empire who gained 39.
During that period, St. Catherine made the biggest jump among the now serious title contenders, amassing 46 points after being in joint fifth position with Police on 35 points. Spartan picked up 20 points during those three rounds including 16 against Barbados Youth.
As its stands, St. Catherine can be described as the “dark horses” to take the title. Their last two opponents are BDFSP at Bayfield and Maple at Trents.
Empire will climax against Wanderers at Dayrells Road and Spartan oppose Police at Weymouth, while Wanderers will be trying to step up immediately with a win against Police at Weymouth.
UWI are expected to brush aside Barbados Youth at Lester Vaughan before ending their campaign against BDFSP at 3Ws Oval.
Wildey’s last two matches are against Maple and Barbados Youth – both at SJPP.
But for all of the intrigue that is expected in the last two rounds, and even though the spectator interest is a far cry from what it was up to the turn of the 1990s, the Spartan-Empire match definitely has a special meaning on this occasion.
Co-incidentally when the teams last met at Queen’s Park two years, Empire (39 points) also had a 12-point gap over their closest rivals, who then were Spartan, going into what was the fourth series.
In an exciting finish, Empire won by one wicket and never looked back, going on to capture the title by the penultimate series as they also set a modern era record of six wins in the first six rounds. All told, they had seven wins and ended on a whopping 145 points – 46 more than second-placed UWI.
Both Spartan and Empire have won the top league 21 times (Spartan have shared five including one with Empire in 1963, and Empire have shared three), but Empire have easily dominated Spartan since 2000 with five wins, leaving their opponents still seeking a victory during that period.
Apart from the 2014 victory, Empire’s other wins over Spartan since 2000 were very comprehensive: by nine wickets at Queen’s Park in 2005; by ten wickets at Bank Hall in 2006; by 121 runs at Queen’s Park in 2007; and by seven wickets at Bank Hall in 2013.
Prior to 2005, the last time Empire had beaten Spartan in a Division 1 (rebranded Elite division in 2012) match was in 1978 by six wickets at Bank Hall.
Since then, Spartan won only twice – by an innings and 66 runs in 1982 and two wickets in 1990 – both at Bank Hall.
The 1990 showdown attracted a vey big crowd and was also a top-of the-table clash in the then 14-team competition. It was the 11th series and Spartan were the front-runners on 53 points with Empire second on 47.
Spartan, under the captaincy of wicket-keeper/batsman Livingstone Puckerin, went to take the title with 69 points and Empire finished second on 54 points. Spartan also performed the ‘double’ that season by lifting the Barbados Fire Cup (now the BCA Super Cup).
After 1990, there were no outright wins in the Division 1 championship between the teams until Empire’s success in 2005.
With the knowledge that this series will be the last for some of their key players who have been selected to represent Barbados Pride in the WICB PCL first-class Championship, which starts November 11, the teams in contention for the title, as well as others jostling for positions are sure to go for the kill.
Hence the likes of all-rounders Kevin Stoute and Justin Greaves (Empire), batsman Shamarh Brooks (Spartan), opening batsman Omar Phillips and all-rounder Kenroy Williams (St. Catherine), leg-spinner Nikolai Charles and fast bowling all-rounder Kevin McClean (Wanderers), along with Aaron Jones (Wildey) and fellow batsman Anthony Alleyne (UWI) will be looking to end their local domestic season in glory.
And one hopes that there will be glorious cricket as well over the remaining two rounds, with the biggest attraction in the Park.
Keith Holder is a veteran, award-winning freelance sports journalist, who has been covering local, regional and international cricket since 1980 as a writer and commentator. He has compiled statistics on the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) Division 1 (now Elite) championship for three-and-a-half decades and is responsible for editing the BCA website (www.bcacricket.org). Holder is also the host of the cricket Talk Show, Mid Wicket, on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation 100.7 FM on Tuesday nights. Email:Keithfholder@gmail.com