Coleraine First XI travelled to Strabane Park on Saturday for a top of the table clash with joint league leaders Strabane.
Both teams knew that a win was vital for their respective league title hopes, but it was a frustrating start to the day as overnight rain meant that play did not get underway until 3.30pm and by then the game had been reduced to 31 overs per side.
Strabane gained first advantage by winning the toss and had no hesitation in putting Coleraine in to bat on a damp and slow pitch. The decision was soon justified as the visitors struggled to make runs. When the first wicket fell in the seventh over there were only 12 runs on the board and two overs later the score was 14 for 2.
Captain Ian McGregor was still at the crease and he was joined by the experienced David Cooke, but even this pair found runs hard to come by. When Cooke fell for 12 in the 16th over and McGregor (23) followed three runs later, Coleraine looked to be in serious trouble with the score on 46 for 4 and 18 of the 31 allotted overs gone.
Eighteen-year-old Paul Douglas, however, had replaced Cooke and with a combination of fine shot placement and good running between the wickets, he injected some impetus into Coleraine’s innings. While he lost a succession of partners, he was still there at the end of the 31st over on a top-scoring unbeaten 32 as Coleraine closed on 106 for 7.
Strabane’s opening batsmen responded positively and with the total on 23 without loss after four overs, the hosts appeared to be comfortably in control. However, Andrew Douglas delivered six precious dot balls in his first over to stem the flow of runs and in the next over Stevie Dunn removed opening batsman Andy Lynch.
Both Dunn and Douglas continued to bowl very economically and crucially also took wickets – Dunn dismissing Peter Gillespie and Douglas claiming the wickets of the other opening batsman Kevin Martin and the prize scalp of Pakistani Faisal Iqbal. With Strabane on 52 for 4 after 15 overs, the game was finely balanced but Mark Gillespie and Mark Roulston batted doggedly to take the score to 94 without further loss in the 27th over.
At this point Strabane required just 17 runs to win from 24 balls and with six wickets in hand. Four runs off the next five balls saw the target reduced to 13 but with the last ball of that over Jarred Barnes took the key wicket of Mark Gillespie.
With the next ball Rishi Chopra dismissed Mark Roulston and followed up with the wicket of Tommy Barr in the same over. In the next over Barnes took two further wickets and suddenly 94 for 4 had become 102 for 9 and going into the final over the equation for Strabane was five runs required off six balls, but crucially with only one wicket in hand.
Phil Eaglestone hit a single off the first ball but Ryan Patton struck the second to mid off where it was fielded by Andrew Douglas. He completed a superb piece of fielding with a direct hit on the stumps to run Patton out and seal an excellent three run victory for Coleraine.
Unfortunately Coleraine were unable to repeat the performance on Sunday when they played host to Donemana at Sandel Lodge.
Donemana batted first and although Stevie Dunn claimed a wicket in the third over, Professional Kamran Sajjid and Ricky-Lee Dougherty put on 84 for the second wicket before Dougherty was dismissed just two runs short of this half century, courtesy of a fine catch by Paul Douglas at short extra cover off the bowling of Johnny Martin.
Sajjid followed eight runs later as Craig Averill took the first of his three wickets. Donemana however, continued to amass runs and although Andrew Douglas claimed the wickets of Junior McBrine and the big-hitting Dwayne McGerrigle, and Rishi Chopra accounted for Richard Kee, the visitors were able to take the total to 189 in their 50 overs.
In reply, Coleraine lost wickets at regular intervals with David Cooke being the only batsman to make a significant score. He came to the crease in the eighth over and in spite of losing a succession of partners, he batted superbly and finished on an unbeaten 83. Unfortunately the team’s final score of 147 was still 42 runs short of the total set by Donemana.
While Coleraine finished the weekend top of the league, Donemana are snapping at their heels, just two points behind and with two games in hand. Both teams have a busy schedule over the next two weeks and there is still all to play for in a title race which is too close to call.