1   Sydney University might need to change its victory song

The song that Sydney University teams sing at the end of each win ends by asking “How did we do it?” to which the answer (stretched out over about eight syllables) is “easy”.  Well, maybe.  But Sydney University’s University’s nail-biting, three-run win over Sydney was its third successive victory by less than a single stroke, following its one-run T20 win over Bankstown and the five-run win against Mosman.  Some of the frayed nerves in the side will benefit from the Christmas break, but teams that win the tight finishes often end up playing finals cricket at the end of March.  University’s win was set up by a beautifully-constructed century from captain Nick Larkin (his ninth in First Grade, during which he passed 4500 First Grade runs), whose 138 came from only 147 deliveries.  He had good support from Ed Cowan and Damien Mortimer (whose 60 continued his exceptional run of form), and University’s eventual total of five for 253 was competitive though by no means unassailable.  Sydney’s ploy of opening its innings with Ben Manenti was highly successful, as the spinner retaliated for some of the rough treatment his bowling had received by blasting 50 from only 28 deliveries.  But he fell to Ben Joy, after which University’s all-rounders applied the brakes on Sydney’s middle order.  Ashton May took the key wicket of Joe Denly, Liam Robertson mixed up his pace deceptively, and Greg Mail struck three times in as many overs.  With two wickets in hand, Sydney needed 33 from the last three overs, and some furious hitting by Dan Jacob and Nic Bills reduced that target to eleven from the last over.  Tom Rogers held his nerve, firing in yorkers on a fourth-stump line, and University finished up just in front.  With that result, they leap-frog Sydney into fourth place on a very clustered table: now only two points separate the top five sides. 

2   Parramatta’s challenge is real

Parramatta hasn’t featured in the finals of the First Grade competition for so long that some of its current players weren’t born when it last happened.  But this year’s side might just change that.  It was something of a surprise when an outright win over St George in Round Seven propelled Parramatta into the top six, but there was no fluke about the team’s very solid win over Manly on Saturday.  Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Parramatta’s victory was that Nick Bertus failed.  Parramatta has relied so heavily on the left-hander this year (he’s already notched up 722 runs for the club) that it was encouraging to see the rest of the top order stepping up and taking control of the game.  After tidy bowling (led by Scott Copperfield and Brad Taylor) contained Manly to six for 227 (in which opener Ryan Farrell notched a maiden century), Ben Abbott (55 from 28 balls), Brenton Cherry, Will Affleck and Adam Turrell all played so well that Parramatta reached its target with 13 overs to spare.  You could argue that Parramatta has benefited from a soft draw in the first half of the season, but any side that defeats St George and Manly in successive matches needs to be taken seriously.

3   There are no unbeaten sides left in First Grade, but Northern District won’t mind too much

It was a mixed weekend for Northern District, who surrendered its unbeaten record in First Grade but compensated for it by taking out the Kingsgrove Sports Twenty20 title the following day.  Northern District was comprehensively dismantled by Eastern Suburbs on Saturday, a result that would have been even worse but for the remarkable lone hand played by Jonathan Whealing, who contributed an unbeaten 91 to his side’s total of 183.  Sam Robson made the target look paltry, blasting 100 not out from 97 balls, with 8 fours and 4 sixes; his second-wicket stand of 130 with Simon Chu occupied only 65 minutes.  It wasn’t the best preparation for T20 finals day for NDs, but they had Daniel Hughes back in the side for Sunday, and he made a crucial difference, striking 64 in the preliminary final against Parramatta and 82 from 62 balls in the final against Mosman.  Chasing 154, Mosman looked out of the running when it lost its fifth wicket at 84 with only eight overs remaining, but Johan Botha produced another spectacular effort, thrashing 81 from 55 balls.  The last ball of the game was a showdown between Botha – who needed four to win the match – and regular Second Grade opening bowler Ross Pawson.  Pawson, who has played in the Riverina and Canberra, has done nothing exciting in Seconds this year, and had allowed 32 runs from his first 23 deliveries in the final.  But his last ball of the night was fast and straight and beat Botha’s hopeful swipe to shatter the stumps.  Botha’s performances in the competition were epic, but Northern District thoroughly deserved to win the first trophy of the season.

4   St George is never beaten until the last ball

For 99 overs, Campbelltown-Camden did almost nothing wrong in its match against St George at Bowral’s Bradman Oval.  They batted first, consistent opener Aaron Yabsley posted a solid 93, Jack Preddey and Jason Colliss accelerated nicely towards the end of the innings, and the eventual total of five for 297 was a very good one.  Then Jaydyn Simmons removed Nick Watkins and Stewart McCabe in his first three overs to reduce St George to two for 18.  Nick Stapleton (96), Jonathan Rose (74) and Luke Bartier (50) kept St George in the hunt, but it was always an over or two behind the required run rate after Monty Panesar produced his most effective spell of the season to date, taking 3-44 from his ten overs.  At the start of the 49th over of the innings, St George needed 30 runs with two wickets in hand.  Nathan Ellis swiped Luke Webb’s second ball over the fence, and then took a single, so the equation was 23 runs from nine balls with four wickets standing.  Left-armer Webb sent down a wide, but then removed Bartier and Harry Finch with successive balls.  Ellis was on strike for Simmons’ last over, with 22 still needed.  Simmons’ first ball was a no-ball; Ellis smashed each of the next three over the fence and, to make matters worse, the fourth delivery was a no-ball as well.  Ellis took a single from the fifth ball of the over to level the scores, and Matthew Lacey scampered a leg bye from the next delivery to give St George the most unlikely of victories with just one ball to spare.

5   Bankstown has put together a useful attack

Historically, there’s nothing unusual about Bankstown fielding a first-class pace attack: quite apart from being the home of the fiercest grade attack ever (Thomson and Pascoe on uncovered pitches in the days before helmets), in more recent years the club has been home to the likes of Nathan Bracken, Aaron Bird and Scott Thompson.  But it’s never had an attack quite like the one it fielded on Saturday, with three first-class bowlers of very varied pedigrees.  Mitch Claydon began his career with Campbelltown many years ago, but has qualified as an English player and carved out a successful career in the County Championship with Yorkshire, Durham and Kent.  He’s now in his first stint with Bankstown.  Nathan McAndrew has been a Bankstown mainstay for four and a half seasons, taking over 150 First Grade wickets, but he actually broke into first-class cricket last season in New Zealand, playing three games for Auckland.  And on Saturday, Claydon and McAndrew were joined by Sydney Thunder player Alister McDermott, who was making a guest appearance for Bankstown.  McDermott, son of Test bowler Craig, was only 18 when he made his first-class debut for Queensland in 2009-10, and he took 75 wickets in 20 first-class games.  Although he lost his State contract at the end of 2014-15, he’s still only 25 and, as he showed on Saturday, still has the potential to resume a first-class career.  At first, Penrith seemed untroubled by Bankstown’s new pace attack, hammering 47 without loss from the first six overs of the innings, but Claydon showed the value of his experience, McAndrew struck twice, and McDermott bowled beautifully to take 3-27 from his ten overs.  Penrith subsided to 130 all out in the 40th over and Bankstown made short work of the chase.  Bankstown’s conclusive victory gave it second place on the table, equal with Northern District on points but slightly behind on quotient.