1   This season, it will be harder than usual to make the finals

Warning: contains basic arithmetic.

With five rounds remaining, two-thirds of the teams in the First Grade competition are reaching for their fixture lists and calculators and trying to figure out what needs to be done to win their way into finals cricket in March.  Whatever answer they reach, one thing is clear – this season, it will be harder than usual to play finals cricket. 

To explain: most seasons, a team can expect to reach the top six if it wins slightly more than half its matches.  So, for example, last season, the team that came sixth scored 49 points and in 2014-15, the sixth-placed side had 48 points – winning, in each case, eight of its 15 games.  That won’t be any good this season.  Already, after ten rounds, sixth-placed Northern District has 38 points from six wins.  In its last five matches, it plays the teams that are currently coming 19th and 20th, and only one side (Gordon) placed above it.  So, leaving aside outrights, washouts, ties, bonus points, inexplicable form collapses and other disruptors, it’s reasonable to expect that Northern District will end up with at least 56 points, and probably more.  Parramatta, in fifth place, with 40 points, plays only one team (Sydney University) in the top six, so if its form holds, it would expect to end up on at least 58 points. 

What all this seems to indicate is that, in order to be certain of a place in the finals, a team is going to need about ten wins or 60 points.  The odd thing is that this tends to suggest that the competition is lop-sided, with the top half winning a lot and the bottom half losing consistently.  But, in fact, 13th-placed Hawkesbury (on 30 points) could still get to 60 by winning its last five games.  There are a lot of teams with a lot to play for.  And it’s possible that quotients might become important, because only a single first-innings win separates the six teams from fifth-placed Parramatta to tenth-placed Manly. 

Of course, we could be absolutely wrong about this – after all, the period after Christmas is notorious for outrights, washouts, ties, bonus points, inexplicable form collapses and other disruptors. 

2   Another obscure record is under threat

Batting records seem to be broken most weeks in this competition (on Saturday, for example, Sydney’s Joe Denly hit the highest score recorded by an English professional in the Grade competition) – here’s one you may not have considered.  After Round 10, Sydney University’s First Grade side has lost only 55 wickets while scoring 2888 runs – an average of 52.51 runs per wicket.  We can’t identify any First Grade side that has finished a season with a higher collective batting average than that – in 2014-15, Bankstown lost only 75 wickets in 15 matches, at an average of 46.93, which seems to be the highest on record.  University certainly has the potential to exceed that mark if its batsmen continue to show anything like their present form.  Captain Nick Larkin has led the way with his remarkably consistent batting – in all matches this season, he now has 855 runs, and during his century against Sutherland on Saturday, he passed 7000 runs in all grades in his career for University.  Larkin shared a second-wicket partnership of 222 with the excellent Ryan Carters, who was unbeaten on 167.  There isn’t a better top three in Premier Cricket at the moment than Larkin, Ed Cowan and Carters – in their last two matches, these three have scored 433 runs between them while conceding only two wickets.  The only drawback to their dominance has been that University’s middle order – Greg Mail, Ashton May and Liam Robertson – have had scarcely any time in the middle since November.  

3   This has been a breakthrough season for Danul Dassanayake

The easy thing to do would be to write about Mason Crane again.  And why not?  With 7-93 and another half-century, he was dominant in Gordon’s victory over Mosman.  But we mentioned his all-round improvement last week, so we could hardly learn it again, unless we called this bit, “We were right about Mason Crane”, which would be immodest.  Slightly more interesting was the showing of another young, slow-bowling all-rounder, Mosman’s Danul Dassanayake.  This has been something of a breakthrough season for Dassanayake, who first played First Grade in Mosman in 2012-13, when he was still a student at Trinity Grammar School (and represented NSW Schoolboys).  Dassanayake had obvious talent as a neat batsman and an off-spinner with plenty of drift who could turn the ball on most surfaces.  But Mosman was never quite sure how to make best use of him, and had another handy off-spinner in Jason Kreijza.  Dassanayake spent most of last season in Seconds, making no discernible progress.  This season, though, he’s found his niche, opening the batting and backing up the main bowlers with some useful overs.  He hit an attractive maiden century against Sydney University, and against a Gordon attack led by Charlie Stobo, he followed up with a lively double of 34 from 32 balls and 56 from 49 balls, playing with new-found confidence and freedom – as well as taking three wickets.  In all matches this season, he’s scored 675 runs, and he’s now firmly established in the top grade.

4   Brenton Loudon kept Penrith in the race

Mid-way through Sunday afternoon, Penrith’s hopes of staying in touch with the top six hung by a very slender thread.  After Matt Halse had declared at nine for 284, Matthew Harival (with 67) and Luke Ohrynowsky (62) had steered Fairfield-Liverpool to five for 252, a position from which few teams lose, especially at Howell Oval.  Penrith began the year with Pat Cummins and Josh Lalor sharing the new ball, but on Sunday they were on representative duty and instead, the bowling was opened by Brenton Loudon.  Loudon, who learned the game playing for the Deniliquin RSL in the Riverina, is in his third season with Penrith, but previously has made only a modest impact.  He started this season in Thirds, where he collected four wickets in three matches; promoted to Seconds, he did better, taking seven wickets over two innings against Randwick-Petersham.  Technically, Loudon made his First Grade debut as a second-day replacement player in Round Seven, but he didn’t actually make it onto the field in that game.  He had never bowled a ball in First Grade before the weekend, and had never taken a wicket in Firsts until Sunday afternoon, when he trapped Ohrynowsky in front.  Two balls later, he also hit Gurinder Sandhu’s pads, and soon afterwards he accounted for Raveesh Srivastava.  Fairfield-Liverpool lost four wickets for only eight runs, but remained in the game – Jeremy Cashman and Liam Hatcher hit off 19 of the 25 runs needed for victory.  But Loudon had the last word, having Cashman caught by Tom Kohler-Cadmore to clinch an improbable victory.  It was a vital spell, not only for the match, but for Penrith’s season – the Panthers have held onto eighth spot, only one point outside the top six.

5   There’s no match you can’t lose if you try hard enough

George Black, Eastern Suburbs’ Fifth Grade captain, has probably spent the last few days wondering exactly how his team managed to lose to Blacktown on the weekend.  After Blacktown batted first, two of its top three batsmen ran themselves out, after which Black and opening bowler Liam Course each grabbed a couple of wickets, so that the home side slumped to six for 48.  Blacktown’s Hassan Rauf ground out a patient 33 to lift his side’s total to a very gettable 128 – a target that seemed even less intimidating once Easts reached six for 114.  At which point, the last four wickets disappeared for only four runs, and Blacktown walked away with the points.  But that wasn’t the truly self-destructive aspect of the Dolphins' cricket, because in a match in which the two sides were separated by ten runs and managed to score only 246 runs between them, Easts’ bowlers gifted Blacktown no fewer than 30 wides.  If this had been a race at Randwick, there would have been a stewards’ inquiry.  And, while they were at it, the stewards would have a close look at Black’s own form with the bat: his scores this season have been 2, 5, 9, 22, 115, 6 and 6.