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The Judge: Fakenham cannot take eye off prize

PUBLISHED: 14:44 07 September 2011

Fakenham's Luke Findlay has played his part this season.

Fakenham's Luke Findlay has played his part this season.

Copyright Ronnie Heyhoe 2010

Fakenham can deservedly celebrate their Norfolk Alliance Premier Division title success, but they know the job is only half done as they must win two play-off matches later this month if they are to regain East Anglian Premier League status.

First they have to beat the Two Counties League winners and, if they get past that hurdle, they face the Cambs and Hunts League champions in the promotion decider.

I don’t recall a play-off to decide an EAPL place since Fakenham themselves beat Sudbury to stay in the league in 2007.

There have been various reasons for that, including the fact that four-times Alliance champions Downham Town did not want to move to higher status, plus the fact that the league has been expanded to 12 teams recently.

The one concern to me is when these play-off matches are taking place. As the Alliance Premier and the other two feeder leagues all run until Saturday, September 17 – and Fakenham’s opponents may not be decided until the last day, such is the tight situation at the top of both tables – the play-off games will be played on September 18 and 24, which is getting very late into the year and taking a big risk with the weather and the light.

The Alliance had the problem in the winter of how to resolve the issue of an extra team dropping into the league and, after much debate, they resolved it by expanding the Premier Division and extending the season to September 17.

But it would have made more sense to have played matches – and arguably East Anglian Premier League games – on the May and August Bank Holidays in all three feeder leagues to allow the play-offs to be scheduled earlier in September. These dates could have been set at the start of the season, because late September is, in my opinion, too big a risk. Having played 50-over cricket all year to win the league, why would organisers and clubs want to run the risk of having games decided on a shortened format or on a “rain rule”?

But even though they have to win two games, I believe Fakenham will be strong enough to come out on top, whatever happens on the day. If they put out their strongest team, they will be a very difficult side to beat.

• MALLARDS HAVE A CASE WHERE FIXTURE CLASH IS CONCERNED

We all want the best side to win the East Anglian Premier League, and there is no doubt Cambridge Granta have steamrollered everyone in the second half of the season, putting together an impressive string of victories.

Each time one of the Norfolk challengers failed to win a game, they could see the gap opening up. Swardeston and Great Witchingham have done well to hang on to their coat tails and stay in contention with two weeks to go, but Vauxhall Mallards’ challenge has foundered after their weekend defeat by Sudbury, though in fairness they have had more games rained off than their rivals.

There has been controversy over the fact that Granta were allowed to move their scheduled final match, at Saffron Walden, to August Bank Holiday Monday, because of their involvement in the ECB National Club Championship final on September 17.

Beating Saffron Walden last week when the other clubs were idle has made Granta even stronger favourites to retain their title, and I sympathise with Mallards chairman Roger Finney up to a point when he argues that the whole programme should have been brought forward. How practical that would have been at the time he suggested is only for us to guess.

Also, the ECB should have known better than to schedule a national club final on the last day of a Premier League season – surely the ECB competitions organiser should have checked this detail first and seen that fixture clash coming.

And perhaps once Granta had progressed to the latter stages of the most prestigious national club competition and their likelihood of reaching the final increased, it would have made sense for the EAPL to have moved every game to the Bank Holiday rather than just the one match, though logistically it might have been more of a problem moving six matches than switching one game where both teams were happy to do so.

So, we just have to hope there is no rain on September 17 and the rest of the teams do not lose a fixture when the leaders have already played. But with Granta at home to Sudbury on Saturday, they could seal the title there and then and, having fought so hard to retain their crown, I don’t see them letting it slip through their fingers now.

At the bottom of the table, Norwich have a “must win” game against Horsford at Postwick on Saturday if they are to keep alive any chance of avoiding relegation. Horsford, on the face of it, have only pride to play for but they will be tough opponents and with an away game at Swardeston to come in their final match, I fear the worst for my old club, Norwich.

Their performances have certainly improved in the second half of the season, but just one league win all season simply isn’t enough. They must be hoping a Granta title this week may mean Swardeston have less to play when they face each other a week later.

• INDIA’S TOUR HAS BEEN CURSED FROM THE START

Sachin Tendulkar’s absence from the rest of the one-day international series against England because of a toe injury is just about the final straw in a disastrous summer for India.

They have had a ceaseless catalogue of injuries affecting no fewer than eight players – and nearly all the top names have missed most or part of the tour.

Tendulkar has not had the kind of summer he would have wished for, with that 100th international century eluding him, and he must wait until at least October for the chance to reach that landmark.

It could be argued that players feel injuries more when they are getting hammered on a regular basis, but sometimes it is simply one misfortune after another. There is not much you can do with broken bones, finger and toe injuries.

India arrived with not only the top-rated batting side in the world, but also the oldest, and I believe that was a contributory factor in accumulating injuries.

They were facing the best attack in the world and they didn’t cope well with the hostility of the England bowlers.

Virender Sehwag was not truly himself when he returned to the side after a shoulder operation, as demonstrated by his king pair at Edgbaston.

As for the bowlers, losing Zaheer Khan to a hamstring injury on the first day of the series at Lord’s must have been a massive psychological blow. He had played very little first-class cricket this year and has since suffered from an ankle problem. And with the world’s second best spinner, Harbhajan Singh, sidelined by a stomach muscle injury, the Indians lost their two best bowlers for most of the summer.

India simply did not have the strength in depth, the quality of replacements, to cope with their injury problems and after losing top spot to England, I expect them to drift down the world Test rankings.

For England, things could not look brighter at Test level. They have not only the best side, but the best structure in place to help keep them at the top – a model even the Australians are looking to copy.

The home series against South Africa next summer should be a real belter.


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