The pressure was building and time was running out. At 31 years of age, you only get so many opportunities before it’s time for the selectors to try someone else, preferably younger with a long career ahead of them.
My previous efforts from four first-class innings had returned just 15 runs. My stats made for rather sorry reading. Something had to change.
I needed to want it more and be prepared to be more patient. Patient enough to make the bowlers bowl to me by leaving the ball well when it wasn’t hitting the stumps and by batting for a long period of time – for a minimum of one session.
My confidence was also something I needed to enhance; being confident enough to trust my game plan and technique. Well, since my last start at Comber for the Knights, I’d contributed 3 off 10 balls in a losing effort for Civil Service North in the T20 Cup Semi Final against North Down and then made 33 off 49 balls the next day in the League in a loss to Muckamore before being given out LBW despite getting a substantial inside edge to the ball.
The following day, we were scheduled to host Clontarf in the Irish Cup Quarter Final, but the match was abandoned without a ball bowled because of rain. That allowed me to travel up to Derry/Londonderry a little earlier than planned, ahead of our IP50 clash with the Warriors at Eglinton, followed by a three-day IPC match at Bready.
Thankfully, for this trip, I had my dad with me. He’d flown over from New Zealand and arrived a few days earlier. It was so good to see him, and the car ride was full of discussion about life and cricket. It was great to have him with me in person as a sounding board, which has been a rare occurrence over the last 13 years since I left home. My dad never played cricket, he was a rugby and softball man himself, but he’s certainly watched his fair share of it over the years and so has developed a reasonable understanding for what’s really happening out in the middle.
It was good to talk him through my batting plans for the two matches against the Warriors. Even if he couldn’t add any thoughts, I just found it useful to solidify the plans in my mind as to what I was trying to achieve and the discipline I would require in order to pull it off.
We arrived at Eglinton on the Monday and the persistent rain over the previous 24 hours had found a way onto the pitch, making it a little sticky. Thankfully, we won the toss and bowled the North West out for 139, with 'Sparky' Adair taking three for 16. In reply, we lost two early ones and I walked to the crease with the score on 18 and needing to face six overs before the luncheon interval would be taken. Having watched the wicket closely while fielding and assessing how players were getting out, the pitch appeared to be a little two paced, with some balls sticking in the wicket and bouncing like a tennis ball might (popping rather than skidding straight through). I felt a positive approach was the best option.
I hit my fourth ball through the covers for four to get underway, before lofting my seventh ball over mid-on from a free-hit (got to love those early in your innings!). I drop-kicked Andy McBrine over mid-wicket for three before driving a half volley of his through the covers for a boundary just before the interval was taken. I’d managed to get myself into a nice rhythm and was striking the ball well which was putting the pressure back on the bowlers to take a wicket. Patience wasn’t going to be their friend given their small total, so we could let that play into our hands with our approach.
After lunch, I didn’t last much longer before back-foot punching a back-of-a-length ball from McBrine straight back to him. He’s a smart bowler and a real competitor and it’s always great facing him because even though he doesn’t say much, you know you’re in a real contest. I’d come back out after lunch and lost my way a little. The rhythm I had before the break had been stymied and I couldn’t get going again before my soft dismissal. I trudged off with 19 from 35 balls, knowing I’d left plenty of runs out there again but also learning a little bit more about their bowling attack. We managed to limp over the line and win by the small margin of two wickets. The boys were rapt!
We haven’t experienced too much success in the inter-provincials recently, so it’s always great to win, no matter what the performance is like. Chris Dougherty was our key contributor, scoring a graceful 46 off 79 balls.
Next, we were onto Bready for the three-dayer and the real cricket! Fortunately, we won a crucial toss again and sent the Warriors into bat. They’d managed to make 226 after James ‘Princer’ McCollum claimed a career-best five for 32, having ripped through their middle order.
The timing of when the last wicket fell gave us 36 overs to bat in a long final session. As an opening batsman, it’s an ideal scenario walking out to bat at the beginning of a session rather than having to rush to get your gear on during a 10-minute change-over between innings. Walking out to bat, I sensed I was ready for battle. The experience of the previous four first-class innings had stung me, but my preparation in between three-day matches had been beneficial, and I felt prepared to do whatever it took to get the job done.
As it turned out, I had to fight hard. Davy Scanlon and Craig Young got the ball to move beautifully through the air – Scanlon getting me to play more often. I played and missed on a number of occasions to some serious out-swingers from Scanlon, and missed some scoring opportunities when the bowlers got too straight. In between times, however, I left the ball well and could sense the bowlers beginning to get frustrated. The outcome of that was that they went searching for a wicket and bowled either too full or too straight which was when I was able to capitalise.
Having taken 12 balls to get off the mark with a defensive prod into the covers, I then edged through the cordon thanks to some soft hands for my first boundary. It was hard work. And, I certainly wasn’t at my fluid best. But I was up for a scrap. In the 10th over, I was on six off 33 deliveries. You’d think I was starting to get edgy and let my mind wander to think about where my next run was coming from. I’ve certainly let that happen many times before. Their slip cordon were trying to make me aware of my strike-rate. It only steeled me more. On this day, nothing was going to prevent me from focusing on my game plan: leave anything that wasn’t hitting the stumps, play with soft hands, only drive when it’s a genuine half volley and tuck into anything short.
As it had been so often throughout the club season for CSN, it was the pull shot which got me going, breathing life into my innings. Because I’d been so patient on the front foot when the bowlers had gone full, they tried to push my weight back by bowling short. I pulled Scanlon for four first and then drove the left-armer Graham Kennedy through cover point and a few overs later when he dropped short, I pulled him over square leg for six. Once I began scoring more freely, I found the rhythm I had lacked up until that point and my feet started moving more precisely. My decision-making improved.
After 20 overs, I was on 26 off 63 balls and we were 51 for two, having lost Dougherty for 11 and McCollum for 10. The momentum was just starting to shift and I late-cut Stuart Thompson for four through third man, before driving Kennedy neatly through the covers for four more in the next over.
Sensing the shift, North West skipper Andy McBrine brought himself into the attack to dry up the runs. He certainly achieved that. I was happy to be patient against McBrine and try to wear him down with a solid forward defence and then collect my ones off the back foot. His spell lasted seven overs and he conceded just 11 runs, with three maidens. Quick Craig Young came back on from the northern end and he dropped short with his second ball which ended up in the bushes over backward square leg. From the first ball of his next over, I pulled him over mid-wicket this time for four to bring up my maiden first-class 50, off 87 deliveries with seven fours and two sixes.
It was an enjoyable moment and I raised my bat to the applause from my teammates, pausing for just a moment to acknowledge my dad amongst the small smattering of people. I could sense his pride purely based on his body language. He never shows too much emotion, but he was giving just enough away to let me know he was enjoying it. And, fair play to him, having travelled 12,000 miles to be there!
Scanlon replaced Young a few overs later and I then pulled my third six of the innings over square leg to move into the 60s. A couple of overs after that, stumps were pulled and Harry Tector and I walked off with the score 96 for two, 130 runs behind the Warriors. It was one of the better days we’d had all season and there was a sense of satisfaction that we’d fought hard and got ourselves into a reasonable position.
A number of people close enough to me who know how hard and purposeful I train were in touch that evening, sending messages of support, which was really nice. For the first time in the white Knights clothing, I felt as though I had made the bowlers change their plans and put them under pressure, It was nice to know I could actually do it. Unfortunately, I allowed myself to become satisfied with my innings. Batting has taught me that ‘satisfied’ is a dangerous place to be. It removes you from that high level of concentration required to ensure you’re giving your best every ball. 36 balls into day two, Harry was adjudged LBW to Davy Scanlon and, two balls later I was LBW to Craig Young.
Young had delivered one full and straight and my bat clipped my back pad on the way down, pushing it slightly out of line with the ball, enough for me to miss it and be trapped dead in front. I walked off having added three to my overnight score to finish on 65 from 136 balls. I batted for close to three hours and, at that point in the game, had contributed the only fifty-plus score. However, I pride myself on converting starts into match-winning scores and this was certainly not one of them. I left the field disappointed that I’d spurned the opportunity to go big.
We went from 108 for two to 188 all out, still 38 runs behind on the first innings. If we thought we were closing in on the Warriors, we thought wrong. William Porterfield came out and batted with wonderful intent, slamming a majestic 152 off just 172 balls to power his side into a commanding position. Set a target of 342 to win, we were two down in the fourth over and ended the second day on 28 for two.
I’d unfortunately been given out caught behind to a cracking delivery from Scanlon which he angled into me and then swung away. I’d played and missed but the Warriors erupted with a convincing appeal and the umpire believed I’d hit it. I was bitterly disappointed. I didn’t want my first innings effort to be a flash in the pan. I want to be a consistent and reliable opening batsman, but I’d let the team down on this occasion. Had I played the delivery perfectly, I would have left it as it wasn’t hitting the stumps. But, the skill of the bowler made me feel like I had to play – credit to you Davy.
We were eventually bowled out for 201, losing the match by 140 runs and handing the Warriors the IP Championship, which they rightfully enjoyed celebrating. I left Bready later that afternoon, safe in the knowledge that I knew I could compete at this level, but disappointed on two counts; 1) that I hadn’t made more of my start by going on to three-figures in the first innings, and; 2) that I wasn’t more of a pest in the second innings to give us an outside chance of victory on the final day.
It was just the right amount of hope and motivation to spur my training on over the six-week break before the final three-day match of the season against Leinster at my old home ground, Malahide.
There couldn’t have been a better way to finish the season and I had been eyeing that fixture up for a while. In the meantime, there was the small matter of an NCU Challenge Cup Final against Waringstown at Comber to enjoy.
# Next up in the series of blogs is a story about how even when you execute your plan to perfection, sometimes it's still not enough.