As any pupil or teacher will tell you, this is a time of "high stress" in the annual merry-go-round. What with examinations, internal or external, field work for coursework, work shadowing, choosing courses for GCSE (or key stage 4 if you prefer) or the new A/S levels, the school sports if you're a bit energetic, looking forward to the "long vacation", and keeping your social life alive, there's not a moment. Yet there are a large number of young men, and young ladies to boot, who manage to do all this and play cricket for their school. Indeed even in this shortest of all summer terms there are upwards of 20 schools sending 5 or 6 sides at various age and 1st and 2nd XI levels into battle each Saturday.
Quantity of cricket there is; but what of the quality? Of necessity, at the bottom of the system it is very much missionary work, for even in the age of the Kwik Cricket set, the hard ball game is a totally new concept for so many 11 or 12 year-olds. Most primary schools concentrate on soccer in the winter and mini-rugby in the summer. This year the helmet issue means that newcomers may approach the experience with even more trepidation. By the under 14 age group the Schools' Committee runs a 25 overs competition in 8 mini-groups leading to knock-out stages. At under 15 this advances to a straight knock-out cup, scheduled for 32 overs per side, with the facility to scale it down in multiples of 4 overs.
At Senior level, although it seems inevitable that it will never attain the prestige of the Rugby, Hockey, Gaelic or Soccer Cups, the fare rises to a 40 over format with 32 sides taking part in the first round. This numerically ideal number was achieved by allowing a small number of 2nd XIs to enter the fray, and since interest was so high that 8 schools offered to compete in this way, 2 preliminary matches were required. "Giant killing" is not unknown; last season Bangor Grammar II had the temerity to travel to Springtown and defeat Foyle College I. Naturally this season's draw provided for a rematch in Bangor and Foyle exacted suitable and convincing revenge!
More remarkably, Campbell College II have advanced to the quarter finals this term and with their own 1s. Xl facing a potentially more than difficult encounter with Strabane Grammar, they may just outlast them in the competition! RBAI's 2nd. XI also put up a very impressive effort going under to Armagh Royal by a mere handful of runs. For all those not fortunate enough to survive the first round there is a plate event which includes some well known names this season in BRA, Regent House, and a quirky meeting of Methody I and II! Some have queried the format - 40 overs accompanied by a 10 over restriction per bowler, although the ECB's myriad of other regulations about the number of consecutive overs under-age players are permitted to bowl also apply. The logic. as propounded by Ted Cooke, a stalwart of the Committee, was that few schools would have even four good bowlers and that, since we hoped to identify the better players through the competition, it was sensible to permit the good batsmen to be faced by the more able bowlers. Matches decided by the destruction of the unfortunate fifth, sixth, or even seventh bowler seemed to prove little.
Fielding circles were introduced a couple of seasons back, though only in the "4 inside" role. A debate as to the severity of the wides to be called eventually saw the common sense approach prevail, the often minibus driving masters in charge finally convincing the remainder that the amount of time taken to complete the games was already long enough! Next year the problem of A/S level exams for Lower Sixth pupils may well dictate that all but the opening round games may have to be played on Saturdays, which will have implications for Club Cricket. Duckworth Lewis has not as yet merited a mention though after a glorious first two weeks of May we are now back to the more typical monsoon conditions and the rearrangement of matches is often a matter requiring great diplomacy between schools, and with parents understandably anxious that their offspring may even contemplate doing some revision!
Through it all the players continue to show great enthusiasm and no little skill. For many it is their first chance to show that they can concentrate long enough to play a meaningful innings. The younger bowlers have to show the mental stamina to put together a tight spell, or spells. Fielders know that one slip late on could be crucial, and the umpires are aware of the intensity of the occasion. With this year s final to be played at the historic NICC ground at Ormeau it is an extra incentive for all to give of their best, and the committee hope that in a couple of seasons' time we may even be permitted to stage the showpiece at the Civil Service ground at Stormont, which has been earmarked as the local international venue. Plenty then to play for; congratulations to Sullivan Upper School from Holywood who have put out the holders Strabane High, in Strabane at the quarter-final stage. Perhaps we'll see you at some of the later stages?