ST ANNES are anxious to end the most disappointing of seasons on a high, and nobody more so than outstanding opener Atiq-uz-Zaman.
The popular Pakistani has decided to make his fifth season at Vernon Road his last.
And although he won’t be competing for a third Northern Premier League title as he would like, the Bolton-based batsman at least hopes to see St Annes reach mid-table respectability after a campaign spent mainly in Division One’s lower reaches.
The 37-year-old is quick to point out his departure has nothing to do with the team’s loss of form – he is ready to reduce his travelling commitments and play closer to home.
Atiq explained: “I’ll be playing for Westhoughton next season.
“I’m a Bolton boy, it’s just round the corner from me, and I’ve coached there for the past two years.
“It’s a new ground, they have some good senior players and I’m helping the young lads come through.
“It means a lot less travelling after 12 seasons in the Northern League.”
Like most St Annes players, it isn’t easy for Atiq to explain the reversal of fortunes for a team crowned champions for the third time in five seasons last summer.
He feels bad luck has played a part, and said: “We are obviously disappointed because we have always finished in the top four or five, but things have not gone in our favour this season.
“We have lost players and the rain hasn’t helped, especially when we have been rained off in matches we’ve been winning.
“I think we should have thought more about what we did last season and carried that on.
“But we have been unlucky too – last season we seemed to win all the tosses and get results in all our home games.”
Skipper Andy Kellett has admitted the key difference this year is that the other players have failed to support the key duo of Atiq and spin sensation Dinuk Hettiarachchi, the club’s Sri Lankan pro, who invariably bowls unchanged.
Atiq wouldn’t disagree with the assessment, saying: “Dinuk and myself have done okay, but we have felt on our own. We’ve needed a bit more support from other players stepping up to the plate.
“The second-highest scorer after myself has 200 fewer runs than me, and it’s a massive gap. We’re missing (injured) Nathan Armstrong, who did very well last year, and others did too.”
Atiq has still managed almost 800 runs in a struggling side, and has two centuries to his name.
With just four matches left, he’ll do well to reach the thousand for the fourth time in his five years, but the he is determined to go out with a bang, starting at Carnforth tomorrow.
“Hopefully, we’ll win two or three and finish in the top seven, but it sums up our luck this season that when we finally pick up some momentum by winning two games in a row, we got rained off last weekend (when they should have played Morecambe and the Lancashire Cricket Board on successive days).
“I’d like to say a big thank you to St Annes for the last five years.
“I will miss the Northern League – I really love the competition – and my decision was purely about staying closer to home.
“I’d love to come back to St Annes one day, and maybe play one more season.”
It’s a safe bet he will be welcomed back wholeheartedly.
It’s also fair to say most Northern League attention won’t be focused on St Annes’ game tomorrow, but there will be plenty of eyes on Fleetwood’s match at Lancaster in what could be a decisive weekend in the title race.
Mat Clark’s second-placed side trail leaders Barrow by nine points, but this could be their big chance to close the gap – Lancaster have struggled this season, while the leaders face a tough trip to third-placed Kendal tomorrow.
However, Barrow then entertain Carnforth on Monday, when Fleetwood are without a fixture.
There’s plenty of bank holiday spectators to enjoy on the Fylde coast, however, with St Annes at home to Blackpool on Monday.
Like St Annes, Blackpool are playing only for local bragging rights.
They welcome Netherfield to Stanley Park tomorrow.