IT will be a classic battle between cats and dogs when the 2019-20 Mount Gambier and District Cricket Association Barber Shield season draws to a close over two days at Malseed Park this weekend.
In an unpredictable season, East Gambier and North Sportsman’s both achieved impressive feats to book grand final berths from third and fourth place respectively.
The Tigers have been a front-runner of the competition in recent years, having won two of the last three premierships and they will be on the hunt for back-to-back success.
However, they will be met by fierce opposition.
East has plenty to fight for heading into the two-day clash and it has been a long time between drinks for the side – in more ways than one.
This weekend will mark the Bulldogs’ first Barber Shield grand final appearance since 2007-08, where they coincidentally defeated North to claim the season honours.
In comparison, this is North’s sixth consecutive grand final appearance, with three wins so far during that period.
Further adding to the weight of the next two days, the last time East defeated North in the Barber Shield competition was back in round three of the 2010-11 season.
However, the Bulldogs have found a new lease on life this year and have shocked many with their improvement.
Incoming captain Alex Hentschke has been a double threat this campaign and is capable of making an impact with both bat and ball.
In particular his bowling figures have impressed with a total of 27 for the home-and-away season.
That does not include the four-wicket haul in last week’s semi-final against South Gambier, which was a deciding factor in the Bulldogs’ nail-biting win.
Outgoing skipper Dion Stratford remains a respected leader in the team and has contributed a couple of impressive individual performances.
Consecutive centuries in rounds eight and nine were instrumental, while he is forever reliable behind the stumps.
Eyes will also be on youngster Emerson Marks, who has enjoyed a career-best season with both bat and ball.
He will again form a dangerous combination with fellow spin bowler Ben Hentschke, while Ben Clark is another who can take a bag – matching his skipper’s four wickets in the semi-final.
East certainly has no lack of talent, but North will take confidence from its previous encounters with the Bulldogs, which saw the Tigers’ bowling depth overwhelming on both occasions.
In round four North defended a 106-run effort, holding East to 79 with a consistent bowling performance.
Round seven was a low-scoring affair, which saw North bowlers in damage-control mode after the Tigers opened the limited overs match with an under-par 87 runs.
However, the reigning premiers fired with the ball and put the Bulldogs to bed for a meagre 42.
The likes of Declan Kenny, Tim Young and captain Nick McInerney are all dangerous and it can be difficult to predict who will fire on the day.
Youngster Elliott Fisher has also impressed with ball in hand.
Jake Schutz has again been in scintillating form with the bat and despite a slow start to the season by his standards, he more than made up for it after the Christmas break to make an impressive 359 runs.
He enters the grand final off a match-winning 101 runs against minor-premier Penola in the semi-final.
Another Tiger who can hit big is Keiran Ashby.
He partnered with Schutz for much of his journey last week to finish on an unbeaten 63, while his best effort in 2019-20 came in round six where he smashed 125 runs.
North has failed to reach its batting potential of recent years and as such Ashby and Schutz will be the two key wickets for East.
However, when it comes to the big dance the Tigers have no shortage of experience and the majority of the roster will be chasing back-to-back titles.
For East only Dion Stratford, Ben Clark and the Hentschke brothers Barber Shield grand final experience.
With both teams raring to go, only one question remains.
Will it be a fairy-tale finish for the improved Bulldogs, or will the Tigers sink their claws into another premiership and continue their reign as the league heavyweight.