Richie Kelly (CricketEurope)
Ardmore Cricket Club (formed in 1879) first appeared in North West Senior cricket about 1893 but a century would pass before they would win local cricket's most coveted piece of silverware, the Senior Cup. For some unknown reason the Gods appeared always to conspire against them.
Eight times the Bleachgreen men had been to the final and eight times they had lost. It was an unenviable, depressing statistic. The law of averages suggested something was wrong. And maybe it was. It was said that back at the start of the 20th century a ‘gypsy woman' had put a curse on the club.
Most club stalwarts believed the story was piffle but as the years rolled on and Ardmore continued to fail at the final hurdle there was just the faintest hint of unease that maybe after all there was something to it. After a hundred years of North West cricket 15 clubs had won the famous old trophy - and by the late 20th century the only one well known name was missing, Ardmore's.
Connie McAllister, who played in three losing finals for the club, says the players in his time were always conscious of the ‘curse.' "It was supposed to be that a gypsy woman was refused alms at a door in Ardmore. And she put a curse on the parish that Ardmore would never win anything," he explained.
"It's a story I was brought up with. Of course many people were very sceptical about it."
And he underlined why the focus was more on the cricket club than on any other sport played in the parish. "In gaelic and soccer Ardmore were winning trophies so the only significant piece of silverware that hadn't come to Ardmore was cricket's Senior Cup so of course the curse - if it existed - then tended to focus on the cricket club only," he said.
Ardmore's first appeared in the final in 1936 when Strabane beat them by six wickets.
In the 1950's the club got to the final twice - losing in '53 to Eglinton and in '58 to Donemana.
In the 1960's the malaise continued: two finals were lost in succession - each to Donemana(1966,1967).And in the 1972 decider they put up little resistance against Brigade - going down by an innings and 84 runs. Ardmore's tentative trips to the crease yielded only 96 and 35.
The Bleachgreen club also figured in one of the most exciting finishes ever to the final. In the 1975 showpiece game they were just three runs away from lifting the trophy when the last wicket went down. That game was against St Johnston who scored 184 and 193; Ardmore got 211 and 164.Pakistani Raza Jawad, who was working with the Du Pont Company, contributed 104 not out to the Ardmore second innings score. George Gillen was last man out. He was the youngest ever player in a North West Senior final - 15 years of age.
The result against St Johnston - losing by just three runs - gave rise again to the feeling that some kind of hoodoo was hanging over the club. "There is no doubt the curse gained more momentum after the St Johnston defeat by three runs," Connie McAllister said.
In the 1983 final Sion Mills beat Ardmore by eight wickets. "Every final we lost increased the talk of the gypsy's curse," insisted McAllister. "Is there something in it was how people began to view it?"
But finally a chance came to put to rest the ghosts of failures past. The year was 1994 and Ardmore had reason to believe that finally they had a team good enough to end their uncanny cup drought. They might well have taken encouragement from other improbable events unfolding elsewhere that year. The Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of war, cancer and Stalin's death camps came back to his native land after an exile of 20 years in America and Nelson Mandela, who was incarcerated for 27 years as a prisoner of South Africa's apartheid regime became his country's first back president.
Adding to the confidence that year was the quality in the Bleachgreen dressing-room: the professional Sanjeev Sharma was a former Indian test player, teenage pace-bowler Gordon Cooke had won a regular place in the Ireland team, his brother David had produced sufficient runs to earn his first international call-up, the skipper, all-rounder Nigel Thompson, a former Ireland player, was in excellent form with both bat and ball and Gerald Brolly's pace was proving invaluable.
Eglinton were their opponents in the final. The teams had met just once previously in the decider - 1953 - and Eglinton were four wicket winners (Ardmore 104 and 183; Eglinton 199 and 90 for 6.)
The Bleachgreen club dominated the opening day of the 1994 decider. Ardmore scored 163 with Sanjeev Sharma getting a half century (56) and then with spinner Dessie McCourt claiming 6 for 24 - he was brought on to allow Cooke and Thompson change ends but he took a wicket and was kept on - and Sharma, as effective with the ball as he had been with the bat, finishing with figures of 4-20, Eglinton were back in the pavilion for just 59.
It appeared the cup hoodoo was about to end.
Earlier in the season, though, when Ardmore - a hundred years without a cup or league win - eliminated the cup holders Strabane and were sharing the league leadership with Donemana, the Bleachgreen professional Sanjeev Sharma felt it necessary to put a damper on the rising tide of optimism surging through his new club.
"Cricket's an unpredictable game," he warned. "I've played this sport too long to take anything for granted," said the man who on his test match debut for India in 1988 took 3 for 37 at Hyderabad against New Zealand.
And the warning was timely for the Ardmore camp were indeed left to ponder upon the game's unpredictable nature and indeed on their own well-documented frailties during those many losing cup finals when skipper Nigel Thompson having decided not to enforce the follow had to endure an Eglinton fight-back. The skipper's explanation - "We didn't relish the prospect of batting last" was understandable.
Ardmore began their second innings slowly but solidly but suddenly they were rocked on their heels. With the score at 76 West Indian all rounder Hendy Wallace dismissed David Cooke for 12 and then trapped Sharma leg before, first ball.
Suddenly Ardmore's cup demons cut loose. Nigel Thompson and Gordon Cooke were sent back without troubling the scorekeeper and when George Gillen went for six edgy runs Ardmore were looking vulnerable at 94 for 6. Was the jinx real after all? Surely a game so firmly in their control couldn't slip away? But the mini crisis passed thanks to a brisk stand of 36 between Paul Brolly and Paddy Semple. Frayed nerves soothed.
The Eglinton target was a difficult one. However, chasing 252 they made a fight of it. Hendy Wallace conjured up a typically robust innings and some steady performances by the top order kept the outcome in doubt.
But the old, much debated cup hoodoo began to crumble when Shanjeev Sharma had Hendy Wallace taken behind for 47. Thereafter, Sharma and the captain Nigel Thompson quickly ended the Eglinton resistance.
After a century of toil, bitter disappointment and the odd inquest on what might have been the Senior Cup was finally on display in the Ardmore dressing room. Cricket's perennial cup final losers got know at last what it felt like to be winners.
The scoring that ended a century of ill fortune had gone like this: Ardmore 163 (S Sharma 56,N.Thomspon 32, G.Gillen 23, H.Wallace 3 for 24) and 147 for 9( P.Brolly 53, D Cooke 22, D Ward 18, P. Semple 17 C. Martin 3 for 40) Eglinton 59 (D McCourt 6 for 24,S Sharma 4 for 20) and 175 (H Wallace 47 S.Sharma 5 for 55 N Thompson 3 for 30) Ardmore won by 76 runs and the umpires were David Caldwell and Alan Wallace.
But a note of caution: club stalwart Connie McAllister - with just the faintest trace of a mischievous grin - told me that some in the parish of Ardmore believe the curse still stands. McAllister explains: "There's a line of thought that because there were quite a few outsiders (players not born in the parish) and the captain was not from Ardmore that maybe the curse was simply neutered for that particular season."
And there was further ammunition for those who were sceptical - believing that the victory of 1994 hadn't completely exorcised the curse - when four years later in the 1998 decider Ardmore were literally blown away - dismissed for 17 in their second innings.
However, it should be said that the relief was so palpable after the famous win of 1994 that the celebrations in the Ardmore parish lasted for three days. So sustained was the merrymaking that local humour had it that not alone did Smirnoff's share prices shoot upwards but McCourt's ‘shares' (the local bar) also rose.