1   Sydney University will be playing finals cricket

With three rounds remaining, the one prediction about this season's First Grade finals that we can make with absolute confidence is that Sydney University will take part.  University’s win over Parramatta in Round 12 preserved its place at the head of the ladder on 61 points, 21 clear of seventh-placed Manly.  Mathematically, it’s still theoretically possible for University to miss out: there are, technically, 27 points left to play for (if a team won both two-day games outright and scored a bonus point in the 50-over game in Round 15), so in some conceivable universe either Manly or Parramatta could overhaul University, but it would be a very optimistic punter who took those odds.  University’s match with Parramatta was an attritional affair, with the home side batting through the first day to reach seven for 262 – an unusually slow rate of scoring for this season.  Nick Larkin, Ed Cowan and Ryan Carters were all on Shield duty, and the Parramatta attack bowled through the heat with impressive discipline and commitment.  Ben Martin was especially impressive, moving the ball away on a great line just on or outside off stump, and his six wickets were a fair reward for a lion-hearted display in oppressive conditions.  Medium pacer Trent Crittenden was so tidy that his first seven overs were maidens.  But Damien Mortimer continued his exceptional form this season, constructing an invaluable innings of 85 in nearly three and a half hours, and there were good contributions from Ben Trevor-Jones, Greg Mail (who went past 500 runs for the season for the 17th time in First Grade) and promising newcomer Hayden Kerr.  Parramatta’s reply never really got out of first gear after Ben Joy bowled Brenton Cherry in his first over.  The dangerous Nick Bertus was run out in a catastrophic mix-up, and Devlin Malone then sliced through the middle order, while Ashton May picked up a couple of wickets with his off-breaks.  Despite missing four first-choice players (opening bowler Tom Rogers was also out of the side on Futures League duty), University defeated another top-six side by 166 runs - an ominous performance at this time of year.

2   Outrights make things unpredictable

One reason why it’s unwise to offer too many more predictions about finals places is the prospect that teams might collect outright points in the next two rounds.  Penrith, for example, leap-frogged several other sides into the top six by claiming full points against local rivals Hawkesbury.  Josh Lalor and Ryan Smith set up the result by bundling Hawkesbury out in only 37 overs on the first day; and they shared another eight wickets in the second innings, with Smith taking ten for the match.  Penrith was left to chase 146 at less than five an over, a target that was never in doubt after Johnny DiBartolo hacked 44 from 26 balls, including three sixes.  Penrith’s win didn’t only push First Grade into the top six – the 60 points from the First Grade win also helped the Panthers to snatch the lead in the Club Championship.

3   It’s time to mention Mason Crane again

We tried not to say much about Mason Crane last week because, to be honest, there’s nothing very new to learn about him – he’s already proved this season that he’s one of the more exciting young talents from county cricket to have played in Sydney for some time.  Last weekend, he went in to bat with Gordon five for 140 against Sydney – not the most secure position by any means – and although he only scored 30, he shared a sixth wicket partnership of 82 with Ashley Doolan (whose innings ended, unfortunately, on 99) that enabled Gordon to post the respectable total of 337.  Sydney’s openers then shared a threatening partnership of 80, until Crane broke through by removing Matt Rodgers.  Crane then worked his way through the rest of the innings to take 7-53 – his third bag of seven wickets in as many matches.  Pedantic aside: the SCA has suggested that this matches the feat of Penrith’s Paul Thomas (left-arm orthodox, with a slow, loopy flight) in taking seven wickets in each of three successive innings, but actually Crane’s sequence is 7, 1, 7 and 7, because he bowled in the second innings against Mosman.  It really doesn’t matter: in Gordon’s last three games, Crane has taken 22 wickets while the rest of Gordon’s attack has gathered 11 between them.  It’s his bowling that has kept Gordon near the top of the table, and no doubt the club is in earnest discussions with Hampshire to ensure that he sees out as much of the season as possible before flying home to prepare for the new English season.

4   No matter who plays, Sutherland’s last wicket is hard to shift

It was a low-scoring game.  Northern District scrambled together 196; Sutherland subsided to nine for 133.  To this point, the highest partnership of the game had been the 56 added by Lachlan Ford and Joel Foster for Northern District’s sixth wicket.  Kurt Brockley and Jake Wilson, the regular salvagers of Sutherland’s lower order, were both back in the sheds.  And yet somehow Sutherland found a way to win.  Peter Saroukas, who started the season in Seconds, has been consistently valuable since his promotion to Firsts, scoring handy runs at a good rate.  And Tom Pinson, at number eleven, is one of those tailenders who values his wicket and can play some shots.  Saroukas blazed his way to 67; Pinson faced only 18 balls, but hit six of them to the fence, contributing 25 not out.  In 45 extraordinary minutes, the last wicket added 65, and Sutherland scraped over the line to claim the points.  It was a demoralizing defeat for Northern District: a win would have placed the club inside the top six, but it now sits in ninth place, with very little margin for error remaining in the season.

5   Ash Squire has found his groove

Sydney’s dominant position in the Second Grade competition (the gap to second-placed Gordon is a ridiculous 17 points) is due to a combination of factors, none of which is more important than the performance of its captain, Ash Squire.  Squire has been a fixture on the Sydney grade scene for several years now, and he’s always been a strong competitor, but he’s never enjoyed quite the level of success he has achieved this season.  From 12 games so far, he’s captured 46 wickets at an average just above 11.  On Saturday, he choked Gordon’s innings with a spell of 2-18 from his ten overs, setting up another comfortable Sydney win – a fairly decent economy rate for a leg-spinner.  He’s also contributed handy runs at times, as well as bringing wide experience to his leadership role.  Plenty of players have made important contributions to the success of Sydney’s season so far, but none as important as Squire’s.