After picking up my first Bangor CC "TFC" (Thanks for Coming!) award on Saturday - dropped their pro and a first ball duck - it was good therapy to travel to Clontarf on Sunday to see if Ireland could add the Under 17 title to the Under 19 and Under 15 ones already collected this summer. Two matters must be cleared up at the outset; Under 17 is something of a misnomer since with the qualifying date set at last 1st. September it is really an Under 18 event. Furthennore calling them European titles does iguore the non-participation of the English. This is strange since with their current record at most levels they might be glad of some opposition they could regularly better. Realistically the inclusion of an England Under 18 side in the Under 19, an Under 16 in the Under 17 etc., might be to the benefit of all.
As it was, both Ireland and Scotland had disposed of the Danes and Dutch so that this match was a true decider, and if some of the iron fences erected for the World Cup game of last year have, for the moment a rather bare, harsh look to them Clontarf was still the colourful verdant venue of my memory. The day was made even more pleasant by meeting and chatting to such as Enda McDermott and JB Bunworth of the host club, Donal O'Sullivan and Bob Kerr of the ICU, the present President (Big Roy himself) and most of all Derek Scott. How good to see him looking so well and enjoying the cricket in his own analytical way. As a practising team coach I could sympathise with the intense and nervous watching of Alan Neill and the altogether calmer (apparently) approach of Ginger O'Brien.
By the time my travelling companions and I arrived, Ireland had made a useful start with Harper and Bell removing an opener each. However the Scots recovered through an excellent stand by Haq and Brendan McKerchar during which Ireland seemed to lose their way. The fielding was not as alert and competent as one might expect and the direction on the pitch not as inventive as one might hope. It must be observed that at this level boys are often so used to the painting by numbers type of biff-bang short game that the thought of breaking a stand by producing one of your not-so-regular bowlers may not be a familiar concept.
It could also be observed that Ireland serving up 31 wides did not help; this was a figure which the Scots later matched (give or take a few) so that the conclusion must be that far too harsh a standard was being applied. Why apply "World Cup" levels at Under 17? Can we expect 16 year olds to do the 100 metres in 10 seconds, win the Open golf with sub-par rounds, or haul Jonah Lomu regularly to the ground, for that appears to be what we are asking them to do.
Eventually we headed off for some lunch at the second drinks break which seemed to double up for "Time Outs", and it came as a pleasant surprise that Scotland had been restricted to 250 for 6, for they looked on target for 20-30 more. It was also worth noting that Kenny Carroll's chinamen and googlies had removed both top scorers: never mind that it took a frill toss to break the stand such variation is often worth a go. Nonetheless Ireland embarked on the daunting task of keeping up to a rate of 5 an over throughout their innings and were glad to have the forthright Brian Allen at the top of the order. Alas after he had quickly reached 20 with some clean blows and a fine judgement of length he got under another attempted pull and was well caught at wide mid on by Haq. Soon after fellow opener David Munn was clean bowled and like the Scots before we were 20 odd for two.
Also like the visitors, a substantial stand ensued. John Blakeney and William Porterfield dug in and showed lots of character and technique in pulling the innings around. Blakeney plays for Merrion (and Wesley College) and apparently his club opportunities are much restricted by the number of overseas players in his and many other Dublin clubs. Surely this is a problem (I have heard many respected Leinster Cricket persons express deep concern about this situation) which the Cricket Committee of the ICU must get to grips with straight away, otherwise the range of choice at Inter-Provincial and International Level will be greatly reduced? Worse still, young cricketers will give up as they will hardly wish to field for, and occasionally run with, the transients. On the other hand Porterfield already opens the batting for Donemana, is still Under 15, and for good measure had kept wicket! By the time the second "drinks/time out" came along Ireland with only 2 wickets down now required just over 100, but crucially it was now at just over 7 an over.
Well though this pair had performed the required sense of urgency especially in their running between the wickets had not been present. With hindsight the old ploy of sending out new gloves, or a cap etc. could have been employed to push things along just a bit sooner, and with so many wickets still in hand to transfer some of the pressure back onto the Scots. Both reached well deserved 5Os, and when Blakeney holed out to deep square leg Paul McKenzie was promoted and produced 22 in quick time though perhaps more frantically than was wise. With captain Duncan Smythe at the crease, and the rate now reduced to less than 6 an over all seemed well, but what followed was not a pretty sight.
In the twinkling of an eye the last pair, Smythe and Ryan Bell, were now expected to produce almost 30 runs and though they found 10 of these in quite impressive style the dismissal of the skipper came still 20 runs shy. The shot, and run selection, in-between is hard to describe and for the benefit of all concerned no names will be mentioned! If lessons are learned then it will all have been worthwhile: if we play interprovincial cricket at the appropriate levels we will know better who our best players are, and we will be better able to cope with the tight finishes.
In advancing our coaching we must concentrate more on fielding and running between the wickets, for in these disciplines there is no hindrance in the weather or the pitches, wherein we cannot always hope to match the conditions of the warmer, drier countries. And above all let's approach age group cricket for what it is: a learning stage wherein we must involve all players in a small squad, and if they are found wanting try others when the next chance comes along. Finally, please umpires, a little more sympathy in the adjudication of wides. My companions enjoyed their day so much they slept for much of the journey home; apart from the traffic I felt that I had plenty to think about and trust that the officials present too will have left somewhat the wiser.