Clitheroe could become only the second side in Ribblesdale Cricket League history to win the title three years in succession.
The champions begin their defence on Saturday against Baxenden at Chatburn Road armed with new signings Alastair Ross and Laiq Ur-Rehman. Familiar faces Neil Bolton and Andrew Pearce have returned to the club while former youth players Mark Sharp and Tahir Amin have joined Paul Gaskell’s ranks.
The skipper, who has lost Farooq Butt but retained the services of paid man Janaka Guneratne, who took 71 wickets last term, said: “We’ve had a good couple of seasons. It’s up to us to continue that but we’re there to be shot at again. It would be a nice record to have but we won’t pay too much attention to it. Regardless of the two seasons previous, everybody just wants to be champions again.”
He added: “It’s the same again in terms of the pro. We know how good he is and his first class stats say it all. We’re glad to have him back and he’ll hopefully continue where he left off.”
Gaskell’s men were a force on all fronts last term. Defeat to Ormskirk denied the club a place in the LCB Lancashire Cup final while they reached the last eight of the Ramsbottom Cup where they were beaten by Padiham.
“We’ve got Oswaldtwistle away in the cup so it’s a tough opener. It’s never easy going there but we’re determined to do well in the Ramsbottom Cup. It’s a competition where we’ve let ourselves down in the last couple of years.
“I don’t see why we can’t go on another run in the Lancashire Cup either. We’ve strengthened and in the 50 over competitions we know we are strong because we’ve got a good group of bowlers. We always back ourselves and we’ve got a home draw against Star Eleven in the first round. We want to be challenging on more than one front and we’re looking forward to getting started now.”
Meanwhile, fresh from a winter of cricket in Australia, Read skipper Kyle O’Connor is hoping to push the club towards a first Ribblesdale Cricket League title in 11 years.
The 28-year-old notched 183 runs and claimed seven victims during his stay in Melbourne where he represented Williamstown CYMS.
But after landing on home soil the Whalley Road captain is eager to guide the Twenty20 kings back to the Section A summit having culminated last term in fourth.
“Expectation this season is to finish in the top four again and keeping pushing towards the title. We are a very young side this year but the youth at the club are very strong and they’ve now got a couple of years experience at senior league level. That should help us achieve what we’re building towards.”
Having beaten Cherry Tree in the Twenty20 final at Preston Old Road nine months ago, the club’s first success in the competition, he added: “We’d love to have a Ramsbottom Cup run this season as we haven’t had one due to being knocked out in bowl outs because of the weather. Also it would be great to make finals day again in the T20 and retain the trophy. I really can’t wait to get going.”
O’Connor has strengthened his squad with the addition of former Lowerhouse batsman Ben Gorton, though they’ve lost Kieran Grimshaw and Mohammed Zafran to Accrington and Droylsden respectively while Jon Harvey has announced his retirement from the game.
“Ben has been very impressive at nets and he’ll strengthen our batting,” he said. “He scored some good runs last season at Lowerhouse and I’m expecting him to be a big player for us this season!
“We’ve lost Kieran, which is disappointing, but I wish him all the best while Zafran has joined his brother Jamal. The retirement of Jon is a big loss but this now opens up a place for our juniors who were impressive in the second string last season.”
O’Connor, who has landed South African Keegan Petersen as professional for the term, added: “He’s a highly rated batsman that bowls leg spin. Looking at his stats he looks very impressive and I’m looking forward to watching him bat and I believe he will help us push for a place in the top four.”
Elsewhere, record-breaker Ian Britcliffe has been re-instated as Ribblesdale Wanderers captain.
The Church Meadow skipper, who in 2013 became the first amateur in 88 years to take 100 wickets in a season, replaced Charlie Jackson after the club was relegated to the bottom tier last year.
Jackson has moved on to Enfield while Brannon Varley and Barry Spencer have teamed up with Padiham and Salesbury respectively. Overseas amateur Ben Dougall has also moved on.
But former Nelson professional Ryan Canning has offered his services for the campaign while Martin Briggs has returned to the Ramsbottom Cup holders.
“We lost our way a bit last season,” said Britcliffe. “We are aiming to bounce back in to the top tier. I was quite vocal in going for a professional rather than an overseas amateur this season. Ryan Canning was released by Nelson and I’d heard plenty of good things about him.
“I’m glad we’ve got him on board because he’ll bring that bite back to the dressing room which has been missing a bit. He’s a good talker so there’ll be plenty of encouragement from him. I’m not being critical of Ben though at all because he was absolutely superb for us.”
Having beaten Great Harwood, Brinscall, Padiham and Cherry Tree on the way to lifting the Ramsbottom Cup for the third time in four years, Britcliffe went on: “We want to retain our cup crown. We’ve won it three times in four years and this season the final is being held at Church Meadow. We’ll be pushing to go all the way in that because it would be great to play in a home final.”
Salesbury, who missed out on promotion to the A Division by five points last year, are hoping to go one better this time.
The Red Caps welcome back professional Susantha Pradeep for his fifth year at Ribchester Road, and open their campaign at Edenfield on Saturday.
Salesbury have lost Aneeq Hassan, who scored 887 runs last season, but have signed former Darwen all-rounder Andrew Mercer, who was at Orrell last year.
Skipper Steve Brown said: “We were a bit disappointed to miss out last year, and we’re definitely going for promotion again.
“We’d like a Ramsbottom Cup run as well – I don’t think we’ve won a game since getting into the Senior League.”
Finally Whalley, who have brought in Hiken Shah as overseas amateur, have been handed a free date on the opening weekend of the new campaign. They’ll tackle Great Harwood at the Cliffe next Saturday.