The Ulster Schools' party returned to Belfast rather bleary-eyed at 2.30 am last Saturday morning after a most useful week's work having achieved, amongst others, the distinction in this blighted season of playing (almost uninterrupted) 4 consecutive day's cricket. Indeed since many went on to play for their clubs on that afternoon it was 5 days on the roll for them.
As seems inevitable, the squad which travelled was denied the services of several potential first choice players. This was for a variety of reasons; Gareth McKee, Paul McKenzie, Jonathan Neill, Boyd Rankin, and Gary Wilson were all at Oundle with the Irish Under 18 group. Tim Cockram and Mark Gleghorne were winning the European Under 18 Hockey title in Rotterdam, a feat for which we would both congratulate them and excuse them their absence, though the need for hockey tournaments to be played at this time of the year fully escapes me. Nicky Cooke and David Fleming, both tourists last year are somewhere in the antipodes on the Foyle College rugby trip, which might just seem more attractive than 5 days in Durham!
However the management team of Alan Kennedy and I can assertively report that every one of the 13 players who partook of the tour fully justified their selection and we would like to think that they all go home better for the experience. Certainly they were a most gregarious bunch and did themselves proud.
After the travelling day on Monday we proceeded to the Richmondshire Cricket Club in the small, historic North Yorkshire town of Richmond to play North Yorkshire Schools. This was a most attractive venue, close to the town centre with a large, undulating playing area and an excellent wicket. The poor forecast was defied at first, the game beginning in warm, if hazy, sunshine and David Simpson was disappointed to lose the toss. However excellent opening spells by Neil Black and Stuart Kidd had the home side in trouble right from the start. Opener Kundi had shown a couple of wristy square drives, but when Kidd dug in a short ball he spooned it to Robert Rankin at square leg. Skaith, after a dress rehearsal, was run out when he failed to beat Stuart Kidd's throw to Mark Shields from deep square leg, and when Richard Sterling dived to his left to catch Giles off the busy Kidd the score had only reached 27 for 3 in the 12th. over.
With the skies growing ever more ominous Yorkshire dug in but the introduction of Gary Kidd to the attack dropped them deeper into trouble. In his first over Philip Parr took a marvellous running back at mid-off to dismiss Darwin who had been shaping well. Strober and Snell fell to the same bowler backed by catches by Shields and, again, Parr and when captain Simpson removed Driscoll the home innings was in tatters at 57 for 7 wickets. There followed a very spirited stand between Boyle and Pringle the former adopting a belligerent approach while his partner provided stolid support. A variety of bowlers were tried, but it required the recall of Stuart Kidd to dismiss them both and wrap up the innings. By this stage light rain had been falling for quite some time and it became clear that our more than 2 hour allowance to achieve the target would be reduced.
When the skies relented more than half an hour had been lost, and with Robert Rankin going to the second ball this was not to be an easy task. However David Tweed and Richard Sterling settled in adding 46 with some sound shots and excellent running between the wickets. Simon Wells chipped in with a quick 15 and David Simpson contributed the bigger share to a stand of 53 with the impressive, collected Tweed. When Simpson fell Tweed went on to complete a most accomplished half century and with the busy assistance of Richie Gallagher ensured that the target was reached with 1.4 overs in hand. This was a fine victory based on a very competent and committed team performance.
For the next 2 days the opposition was provided by Durham School at their most impressive ground. Although the opposition were not as strong as on the first day this proved to be a testing match with much effort having to be put in to dislodge the home batsmen. Once again the bowlers combined well to work their way through much of the batting when Durham took first knock with 6 different wicket takers. Excellent catches by sub. Simpson and Tweed backed them up and there were also sharp offerings by Stuart Kidd and Gallagher. Having taken 65 overs to dismiss the home side Ulster then batted with great purpose to all but equal their score on the first evening.
Alan Duddy and Robert Rankin added 77 in quick time only to both fall on the same score. Simon Wells was then joined by Mark Shields and by close of play Ulster were only 6 runs adrift. On the second morning Wells went on to celebrate his elevation to the full NCU side by completing an impressive ton; Shields fell at his overnight score, but the momentum provided by Simon McMichael's 18 was solidly built upon by Richard Sterling so that captain Simpson was able to declare when he reached his 50 a quarter of an hour before lunch., with a significant lead.
Ulster then spent the rest of a very warm and mainly sunny day trying to work their way through the home batting for the second time. To say that the approach was cautious would be an understatement, but in truth too many leave alone balls were bowled. Tea was approaching and the score on 87 when Robert Rankin took 3 wickets in his 7th and 8th overs and it was 'game on' again. Robert went on to take 5 wickets in a marathon effort of 25 overs, and a wicket apiece for Gallagher, Parr and Simpson kept the possibility of outright victory alive. However there was always the necessity to capture yet another wicket and with 6 overs only remaining it was mutually agreed to halt proceedings leaving Ulster with the satisfaction of first innings win only.
These players will hardly again field out for 140 overs in 2 days, but their appreciation of how to try to capture wickets when they are required, and this can happen even in overs cricket, will have been hugely enhanced.
The last act of the cricketing experience took place at Sedbergh School set in the Cumbrian village of the same name. It would be hard to describe the grandeur of the backdrop to the ground; I can only recommend that you visit it yourself. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. Unfortunately, from a cricketing perspective, we were. Having agreed to a straight overs game we elected to bat in somewhat humid conditions and on a drying pitch. Tweed went early an inswinging delivery just clipping the top of his off-stump. Rankin and Duddy did a good repair job reaching 45 without further loss only for 3 wickets to go on the same score. McMichael launched a few blows but gave no air of permanence and it was left to S. Kidd and Sterling to try to rebuild the innings. Unfortunately Sterling fell just before lunch, and when Gallagher and Black went soon after the interval it fell to the Kidd brothers to salvage what they could from 111 for 8. In fact Gary showed good sense to compliment his brother's accomplished innings and ultimately we almost reached the twin targets of 150 and batting the full 50 overs.
Although by now the wicket was more benign our opening attack of Stuart Kidd and Neil Black gave the Cumbrian openers a torrid time. At 16 for 2 there seemed to be hope but the 2 unrelated Masons, who have both already played for the full Cumbrian Minor Counties XI , watchfully worked their way out of trouble. Although in all 8 bowlers were tried the only further success came when McMichael forced Bobby Mason to play on. With time and wickets to spare the home batsmen were able to be patient and in trying to dislodge them the Ulster bowlers all too often provided a 'four ball'. It was a disappointing finish but there is every reason to believe that we will get an invitation back to try to improve our performance next year.