Finals are always special, but Challenge Cup Finals are unique.

The lead-up to the Challenge Cup Final is distinctive for the fact that the local media really get in behind it and promote it as the showpiece of the Northern Cricket Union season.

Captain and player interviews are shared on social media, the history of the event is noted, as is each club’s recent history, there’s talk of how many supporters will attend on the day, clubs organise a marquee to offer members lunch and drinks and it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and forget about sticking to the processes that have got you there in the first place.

 2011

I was lucky to play in the 2011 Challenge Cup Final for CSN against Waringstown. We lost by a comfortable margin in the end, failing to chase a very gettable total at Wallace Park in Lisburn.

While, for most of our squad members in 2018, that final was either a distant memory or they were still playing junior cricket, I can vividly recall the disappointment of the performance.

To begin the chase of 190 that day, I hit two boundaries in the first couple of overs to calm my nerves. I managed to get to the point in my innings where I felt in control on 30-odd.

Waringstown took their seamers off, replacing them with spin and I tried to make a statement. I succeeded in playing a rash stroke to be out caught at mid-wicket.

I let my ego control my decision-making, which is never a good thing.

What experience has taught me, in one day cricket in particular, is to make the most of any start you get by accumulating and knocking the ball around the ground during the middle overs, picking up the odd boundary here or there and taking next to no risks.

Upon reaching three figures, you can then explode and play your best attacking strokes when your eye is in, your body is moving in rhythm and you have the best chance of success.

As harsh a lesson as it was, I was adamant I wasn’t going to let myself down like that again.

Match preparation

I’d paid due attention to my routine in the days leading up to the final, making sure I was physically ready by ensuring my skills were in good shape and then spending more time than usual on meditation as a way of calming any nerves and anxiety ahead of the day.

On the morning of the match, I rose early and did 15 minutes of meditation and actually felt quite fatigued.

We met for breakfast as a team and individually shared our most enjoyable finals experiences, which was a nice positive way to start the morning.

The toss

There was a little rain in the air and the covers had been on overnight, and we weren’t unhappy to lose the toss and let Waringstown decide what they wanted to do first.

Greg Thompson sent us in to bat and with reasonable cloud cover it probably made sense to do so, especially given Comber’s history as one of the best batting wickets in the country and with the pitch unlikely to deteriorate as the day wore on.

Heightened senses

Feeling the weight of the occasion, my senses were heightened and there were a few nerves during the first over as I faced up to Shaheen Khan’s outswingers.

I’d made the decision pregame to make sure I committed to playing positively. In speaking with some of our senior players, we had the feeling that we were going to need to make a score somewhere in the vicinity of 300-plus if we were to stand a chance in the final, given Waringstown strong batting line up and the quality of the pitch at Comber.

For me, a positive approach meant that I didn’t want to allow myself to become passive. I wanted to try and exert some kind of pressure on the bowler and, in practice, that meant advancing down the track in the first over.

It’s something I’ve done with great success over the years but it’s an option that has brought me most success when I’m calm and relaxed; not two emotions I embodied so early in the final.

The ball I did advance down the track to in the first over was in the slot to loft over cover, but I played and missed.

It was a good reminder to make sure I track the ball all the way onto the bat.

A little bit of luck

I advanced again in his second over and Khan bumped me.

I hooked high to long leg off the top edge and thankfully it landed safe and rolled away for four.

That was the only false stroke I remember playing.

There were a couple of close LBW appeals against me, but other than on those occasions, I was able to execute my plan nigh-on perfectly.

I got a tidy cover drive away in the first few overs – not a stroke I played a lot last season given my preference to remove the chances of me nicking the ball into the cordon – and felt as though I was able to access my attacking instincts nicely.

We lost Archie Johnston early with the score on 25 and then I was joined by our pro, Andre Malan.

Brother from another mother

‘Dre’ and I really connected during the away trip to Bready in the Irish Cup.

Spending four hours next to one another in a car is probably the best way to get to know one another and that journey allowed us to get a real handle for what makes each other tick.

It certainly stood us in good stead as the season progressed.

So, every time ‘Dre walked out to join me in the middle this summer, I felt a real sense of excitement for what was to come.

‘Dre showed throughout the season that if he can get through his first 10 balls, he’s very difficult to get out.

On this occasion, his stroke play was crisp and precise, and he raced to 50 in just 35 balls, providing our innings with some real momentum in the process.

In control

I recall advancing down the track against James Mitchell and the ball was put right in the slot, allowing me to loft straight back down the ground for six to the sightscreen. He dropped short and I pulled him out of the ground for another maximum. There are just some days where things go in your favour and you almost feel one step ahead of the bowler.

I was happy to take a back seat as ‘Dre got going, but after we had added 89 in quick time, he fell to the bowling of Lee Nelson.

When momentum is up for grabs

It’s always a shock when a wicket falls in the middle of a dominant partnership. You quickly realise how important momentum and rhythm are when you lose a wicket. The game seems pretty easy when you and your partner are able to comfortably rotate the strike and the boundaries end up just appearing.

As soon as the wicket is lost, you often find yourself questioning how you will continue to approach your innings – do you keep doing what you’ve been doing, or do you shield your partner from the strike and try to be the dominant partner? How will the new player handle his arrival at the crease? Will he be able to keep the strike ticking over or will he struggle? Most often, the simplest answer is always the best.

When one is worth more than its value

For any young player out there, I can’t stress the importance of training specifically to know exactly where your singles are at the start of your innings. Being able to drop the ball close to you and run or hit a gap and scamper a quick single is an invaluable skillset to have.

By training hard on this skill to the point that you can execute it from the moment you arrive at the crease, you allow your partner the opportunity to continue to play with the rhythm they had before the loss of the wicket and it also allows you as a player to get underway and into your innings as quickly as possible.

Within the space of a couple of overs, we’d fallen from 114 for one to 116 for three and a mini-rebuild was required.

Dealing with the cards you’re dealt

When you lose someone of Dre’s ability, you realise you quickly need to reassess your expectations about what a good score would be.

With ‘Dre at the crease in the form he was in, on a wonderful batting wicket, 300-plus is on the cards.

Captain James Kennedy was at his reliable best, making 37 off 64 balls and we shared in a 91-run partnership, which gave us a chance of making 300.

Waringstown’s spinners Gary Kidd and Lee Nelson bowled well to restrict the scoring and dry up the boundary opportunities through the middle overs.

As soon as ‘Dre was dismissed, I felt it was my responsibility to bat the innings. What that meant was taking less risks through the middle overs, particularly against spin. The pitch was so true that boundaries were almost a formality with pace on the ball, less so with a lack of pace.

As I neared three figures, I found my mind wandering to how it would feel to pass the mark. Experience has taught me how dangerous it is to let these thoughts wander too far. So, while acknowledging the significance a hundred would mean to me and the team, it was crucial I focus on the ball in front of me otherwise I needn’t worry about batting for too much longer!

We managed to make our way to 285 for four at the end of our 50 overs which was a reasonable score, but I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable as we walked off the pitch.

Waringstown have a fantastic top six and all it needed was for a couple of them to get going for our score to appear mediocre. 'My most emotional hundred' - I finished 139 not out off 143 balls with 10 fours and seven sixes.

As I saw the ball cross the boundary rope to bring up my hundred and I ran down the wicket towards the non-strikers’ end, emotion got the better of me. With my head down, trying to soak up the raw feeling of the moment, tears welled up in my eyes.

I desperately wished my son, MJ, could have been present in the crowd to see me enjoying doing what I love to do. I hadn’t seen him and the kids in three weeks and I was really starting to feel their absence.

This was a moment I hoped would make him proud and understand why I’ve put so much time into the game over the years. I lamented the fact that he wasn’t there to witness it. We were definitely 20-30 short of a winning score but there was hope that if we got two to three wickets early, it might be enough.

A challenging start

Unfortunately, former Irish international Graeme McCarter was in a bad way. We didn’t know the extent to which he was suffering at the time, but he managed to bowl six balls at about a quarter of his usual pace before it became clear that he needed to leave the pitch. He had arrived the night before from Scotland and looked a shadow of the man that had won us the game with two big wickets against Instonians four weeks previous in the Semi Final. The more effort he put in on match day, the more we realised how much he was struggling.

He appeared to have very little life in him and he was rushed to hospital immediately after completing his first over. Thankfully, over the next 24-72 hours, ‘Grum’ made a strong recovery and has been putting healthy weight back on ever since. Seeing him struggle to complete his run-up, let alone release the ball one of the hardest things I’ve watched on a cricket pitch. To see him make a full recovery is a real god-send.

When you’re beaten by a gem

As it turned out, Adam Dennison continued his rich vein of form and made a magnificent 145 not out off just 130 deliveries with 12 fours and seven sixes. It was the highest score in a 50-over Challenge Cup Final.

Little did I know at the time that he’d pipped me as the previous highest! He was absolutely brilliant. He executed a delightful plan by placing the ball perfectly into the gaps in the first 10 overs, before showing wonderful footwork to turn good deliveries into ones and twos in the middle overs, particularly against spin. He kept the scoreboard ticking over while James McCollum peppered the boundary 11 times in his 73 off 77 balls in a sumptuous second wicket partnership of 142.

From that moment on, we were playing catch up and despite nabbing three wickets for 38 runs at one point, Greg Thompson’s experienced showed at the death, making a run-a-ball 28. In the end, ‘Denny’ was impossible to bowl to, striking the boundary at will once he passed three figures, leading his side to victory with a whopping 27 balls to spare and six wickets in hand.

Waringstown were deserved winnners. We were immensely disappointed.

Why so emotional?

Listening to the match presentation was really difficult. I’d had a challenging week and I’d hoped this would end it on a high but it wasn’t to be. I felt I’d given all I had to try and get us over the line. It would have felt like a massive achievement to be standing there alongside my teammates with winners’ medals around our necks, hoisting the trophy aloft. Accepting reality and fuelling the fire

But, sometimes, your best just isn’t good enough and you have to find a way to accept that. ‘Denny’ was superb and to play the way he did, chasing a decent score, in a final, showed some serious kahunas. He’s still very young but by the time he finishes up with the game,

I’m sure that innings will stand up as one of his best and most memorable. As our skipper, JK, rightfully pointed out in his post-match interview with Johnny Morton, the overwhelming sense of disappointment that we felt only makes you come back that little bit more determined next year.

It’s that emotion that will fuel the fire for 2019!