North Otago cricket stocks are looking buoyant as a new Hawke Cup campaign approaches.
Player-selector Duncan Drew and fellow selectors Pete Cartwright and Craig Smith could have the very pleasant problem this summer of deciding who to leave out, not worrying about where to find 11 capable players.
Nathan Smith is unlikely to be available for districts cricket now he is a contracted professional, but turnover from last year’s regular squad has been extremely low. Only Thomas Shields – playing rugby in England – is set to be unavailable.
Leading top-order batsman Jeremy Smith is bound for club cricket in Dunedin but can still represent North Otago, while regulars like Regan George, Brad Fleming, Blake James, Drew and Craig Smith (pending a return from knee injury) form a solid nucleus.
The exciting news for North Otago fans is the return of the king, Francois Mostert, and possibly a couple of handy former players.
South African player-coach Mostert is back in Oamaru for a fifth season, and unless he gets an opportunity with Otago, he will hold the key to North Otago’s hopes of winning the Hawke Cup for a second time in three summers.
Mostert claimed a North Otago record 56 wickets in 2015-16, and plundered two centuries last summer.
Almost as significant as the retention of the classy Mostert could be the return of Ben Cant and Jordan Horrell.
The pair, who were part of the cup-winning side in 2015-16, are both in Christchurch but remain eligible to play for North Otago, and have expressed some interest in returning.
Cant scored 427 runs in his last season for the province and his batting would be a huge gain for the team.
Other players who could boost the squad include all-rounder James Ferris, who lives in Christchurch but is commuting to play for Oamaru-SKC, available-again Valley batsman Lachie Kingan, and club imports Jordan Cafferkey (Albion) and Ash Abraham (Oamaru-SKC).
North Otago should have few problems taking wickets but the key to getting back to a Hawke Cup challenge was scoring runs, Drew acknowledged.
“It’s always an issue in this zone. You look at the other teams, and not many can regularly score 300.
“In the years we’ve done well, it’s come down to batting overs. Teams were batting 50 overs and we were batting 60 or 70 at the same run rate. That was the difference.”
North Otago came within a whisker of a challenge last summer but ran out of luck.
A promising effort with the bat (309 for eight) against South Canterbury before rain intervened, an outright win over Mid Canterbury, and a first-innings loss to Southland followed an agonising one-wicket loss to Otago Country in the opening round.
The whole season could have turned on that first game, Drew said.
North Otago has warm-up games against South Canterbury (November 12, Timaru) and Mid Canterbury (November 26, Oamaru) before Hawke Cup qualifying begins.