While the foremost focus is at Queen’s Park for the local derby between Spartan and Empire in Series 6 of the BCA Elite division three-day Championship starting tomorrow, Crane Resort St. Catherine and their loyal supporters must be hoping and praying for a big change in fortunes to avoid relegation for the first time.
At mid-season, Empire and a resurgent Wildey are joint leaders on 72 points, while Spartan are third on 59 in the ten-team Championship.
But St. Catherine, who last captured the title just three years ago, are rock bottom on 18 points, joining Barbados Youth who are second last on 21 points and exempt from demotion, as the only teams without a win.
Furthermore, the gap between St. Catherine and eighth-placed Barbados Defence Force Sports Programme (BDFSP) is 19 points. That amounts to virtually the maximum points awarded for a match, thus putting more pressure on St. Catherine.
In a nutshell, it looks like a very rough road for St. Catherine to travel with just four rounds of matches remaining.
It is by far their worst showing after the first half of the island’s premier league championship since the promotion and demotion system was introduced in 2009 with 16 teams. Since the competition was rebranded as Elite from First Division in 2012 and reduced to ten teams, the lowest they have finished is seventh – on three occasions – 2012, 2013 and 2017.
And not since 2013 have they failed to win a match in the first half of the season.
With only three match points, along with another three for batting and 12 for bowling, the table for St. Catherine looks awful. They must win matches outright from hereon and hope for slips from other lowly placed teams, or else face the consequences.
Even more discomforting is that while teams tend to wriggle out from low positions, St. Catherine have not moved from being dead last place since the second round after title holders Sagicor Life UWI held that position in the opening round with an unforgettable forfeiture against Wildey when they refused to continue play after tea on the very first day of the season, July 6, complaining about the condition of the field at the SJPI.
Insiders, fans and those with a general concern about St. Catherine have pointed to the fact that for various reasons, the clannish Bayfield, St. Philip team suffered from the outset this season by an inability to be at full strength.
But they are not the first or will not be the last team to go through such challenges.
Let’s face the facts. And one of the hard ones is that increasingly over the past 16 seasons, St. Catherine became too heavily dependent on all-rounders Derick Bishop and Kenroy Williams.
For whatever reason, Bishop, a diminutive 35-year-old left-arm spinner and right-hand batsman, has not played a single Elite division match this season. Instead, he has turned his attention to the obscurity of the Division 2 Championship after taking 826 of his 923 top division wickets all told for St. Catherine, along with scoring over 5 000 runs.
Williams, a middle order batsman and off-break bowler, and also aged 35, has made over 5500 runs and grabbed more than 350 wickets for St. Catherine.
Unfortunately, health challenges kept him out of the side for the first three rounds this season.
In common, St. Catherine became the only club Bishop and Williams have known since they both graduated from the same school – Deighton Griffith Secondary – after playing three seasons each for Combined Schools South and Combined Schools (now called Barbados Youth) between 2000 and 2002.
Three other seasoned players – pace bowling all-rounder Ulric Batson, hard-hitting batsman Alcindo Holder and wicket-keeper/batsman Mario Rampersaud, were also missing for the early part of this season.
Holder and Batson did not play before the fourth round – Holder was overseas and Batson was recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident – while Rampersaud is set for his first match tomorrow against BDFSP at Paragon. He was out of the island.
But hold it! Last season, Holder was also absent for the first three matches and Rampersaud for the first two but then Bishop, Williams and Batson were all playing.
Following the battle with BDFSP, St. Catherine’s remaining matches are against Spartan at Queen’s Park, Barbados Youth at Bayfield and Empire at Bank Hall.
While they would have viewed it as encouraging in holding Carlton to a draw at Bayfield in Series 5, St. Catherine managed only three points. At the same time, however, two of the other relegation worried teams going into that round, BDFSP and Gladiola, pulled off resounding wins over UWI and Barbados Youth to gain 18 and 19 points respectively.
St. Catherine lost their first two matches this season against Wanderers and Wildey – both at home – but the more hurtful was by nine wickets against Wildey as they failed to gain any points. St. Catherine scored 185 and 168, while Wildey amassed 334 for one declared and 20 for one.
St. Catherine gained promotion to the First division in 1978 and have captured the top league title four times – 1981 (shared with Carlton), 1997, 2008 and 2016.
As a “country” club, they have always held a special place in the history of local domestic competitions and it would be a pity if they were relegated this season on the heels of another so-called “country” club, Maple.
Bishop and Williams have become household names at St. Catherine but arguably no one feels the love, commitment and respect for that club more than their long-standing coach Thelston Payne, who made over 12 000 runs including 18 centuries in the top division – all for St. Catherine.
And if I know Payne or “Carew” well, he would still be itching at the age of 62 to return to the middle to help the team, not least with the bat.
In relation to the Spartan-Empire battle, by sheer statistics in the past 20 seasons, Empire hold a psychological advantage in all formats of the game.
From a league perspective, since 2000 Empire have won six times including three in succession with Spartan still searching for a victory.
Empire triumphed 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; by seven wickets at Bank Hall in 2013; by one wicket at Queen’s Park in 2014 when they captured the title in their 100th anniversary year and by 180 runs at Bank Hall last year.
Prior to 2005, the last time Empire had beaten Spartan in a top division 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 by two wickets in 1990 – both at Bank Hall.
Empire have been bolstered by the return of the Barbados Pride and West Indies all-rounder Roston Chase, who will be playing his first Elite division match for the season. He replaces veteran seamer Tennyson Roach, who is unavailable.
Spartan welcome back their captain and left-arm spinner Chad Williams, who missed the last two rounds because of a side strain. Opening batsman Akeem Springer led the side in his absence.
So rolling on to the second half of the season, there is tremendous interest at both the top and bottom.
Points: Empire 72, Wildey 72, Spartan 59, Wanderers 51, Carlton 42, Gladiola 40, UWI 39, BDFSP 37, Barbados Youth 21, St. Catherine 18.
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 over three-and-a-half decades and
is responsible for editing the BCA website (www.bcacricket.org).Email: [email protected]