And so, another year gone already and it’s off to Nottingham for the 52nd running of the Under 18 Inter County Tournament. With a young team and lacking several of the stronger players of recent years, we had no great expectations other than not finishing in the bottom group. After a tough start we had a great finish with a run of 5 matches undefeated, placing us 27th of the 35 competing teams, only two places down on the 2016 result. County Coach Rob Wetherell was pretty pleased with the overall performance, as were his assistants Ellie Roberts (recently qualified at Level 2) and David Murray.
The team was Abby Grogan, Anna Railton, Maddy Atkinson, Rachel Bogan and Sarah Bambrick; Alex Jay, Ashraf Alam, George Moran, Jamie Tinnion and Melvin Cherian. Four of them were new to the ICT and this can be very daunting, given that the atmosphere is always very vibrant and noisy.
In the first round, all teams were in groups of four – except Northumberland which was with Leinster and Derby. These would be two tough matches. We lost 1-9 to Leinster. Ashraf lost the first end at top singles but steadily gained control to take our one win. Jamie at second singles and Anna & Sarah in the top level doubles won their first ends but then lost very close games. The other games were all lost in two ends. Ash scored an easier win against Derby and followed that up by partnering Jamie to a good doubles win. Anna and Sarah again took their first end before losing 7 and 7. The match was lost 2-8. Leinster and Derby proceeded into the top half of the draw and ultimately finished in 6th and 16th positions respectively.
Northumberland then moved into a second round group of 5 teams and we felt that we had reasonable hopes of winning two or even three of these matches. First up was Hampshire, a county with a long history of good results in the ICT. Although we lost 2-8, there was real encouragement here. Ashraf again gave us a bit of a scare by losing the first end but steadied as he often does to take the game 8-15, 15-10, 15-7. A change to the team format had Ash paired with Alex at top doubles: they got close but lost the third end to 11. Jamie joined George at second pair and they scored a good win 13-15, 15-10, 15-8. Maddy and Rachel lost a very close game at second doubles and the match was lost 2-8. Next up was Norfolk, against whom we have had several close encounters in recent years – and so it proved yet again. We got off to a flying start with wins in both mixed, courtesy of Rachel & George (15-11,15-12) and Sarah & Alex (11-15, 15-11,15-6), plus the expected win from Ashraf (15-10, 15-6). The other singles, with Jamie, Anna and Rachel, all went against us with a significant points advantage to Norfolk. So it was 3-all going into the level doubles. Ash & Jamie took a close three-ender while George & Melvin comfortably won their first match together at second doubles by 9 and 9. The girls’ doubles would be the deciders. Maddy & Rachel lost in two ends but Anna & Sarah were in a real battle, squaring the match at one end each before losing a very close third end. The score was 5-all but the match was lost by a mere single end. Almost inevitably, as the tournament reaches its later stages, the matches tend to be closer and so the number of ends and points won becomes ever more important. There were several matches in other groups which ended 5-all and were won or lost by very few points.
Tuesday was a full day’s play for us with four matches and the last two sessions saw a marked change in our fortunes. First came Gloucester who, like us, still had to register a win. Again we got off to an excellent start with mixed wins from Rachel & George and Sarah & Alex, followed by Anna taking her first win at top singles. Ash took a straightforward singles win and Maddy & Rachel then opened their account at level doubles. Two more two-end wins from Anna & Sarah and Ash & Jamie brought up an excellent 8-2 victory. The last match of the day saw us up against Northants. The mixed pairs were unchanged again and the spoils were shared. Singles wins from Ash and Jamie, a really tight match that he fought well to take by 15-9, 20-18, made the score 3-1. Both girls’ singles went to Northants, despite a titanic battle from Abby, losing her first end 18-20. And so it was now 3-all but we need not have worried as the level doubles pairs all played great matches to give us a 7-3 win.
We now knew which positions we would be playing for as we went into a group of four counties aiming for places 27 to 30. First up was Staffordshire, who had two strong number ones. Ashraf fought back strongly after losing the first end in his singles and, as he has done several times in recent years, worked out a way to win, which he did by 10-15, 15-8, 15-11. Jamie and Sarah also took singles wins and Abby partnered Alex to her first win in the mixed. The match was won comfortably 8-2.
The last match on day three pitted us against Worcester, another county with whom we often have close encounters. Anna & George took a good mixed win to kick us off and this was built upon with three singles wins. Ashraf‘s was fairly straightforward but Jamie and Maddy were both involved in tight struggles. Maddy took the first end to 9 but lost the second and then found herself facing a substantial deficit: but she dug deep and endured some very long rallies against an opponent who kept returning brilliantly. Maddy pulled herself slowly back point by point, fighting hard to take her first singles win 17-15 in the third end. Jamie also went to three ends against a very worthwhile opponent: he often finds it difficult winning the matches that his talent merits but this time he got there 15-13 in the final end. An excellent win at level doubles from Maddy & Rachel was followed by another one from Ash & Jamie gave us the victory by 6-4.
We were on a run now, having scored four wins in a row. But with the evening off, it was time to relax – ten-pin bowling, table tennis, air hockey and pool, followed by pizza. It had been a very good day and the team were very buoyant.
The last match was against Bedfordshire. We were clear favourites to take our group and finish 27th but a combination of results could have seen us finish below both Worcester and Bedford. The Manager’s suggested team format was, therefore, felt by his colleagues to be too risky and the strength was retained at singles and level doubles. Bedford had strong players at top boy and top girl and they combined to win the first mixed doubles comfortably against Rachel & George. Sarah & Alex took their match with relative ease and then Jamie was on the wrong end of another long, tough match. Following that, we had a run of good wins, from Anna, Rachel and Ash at singles and from George & Melvin, Ash & Jamie and Anna & Sarah at level doubles. We took the match 7-3 and thus secured 27th place overall.
It had been another excellent ICT and “the management” were delighted with the way that our team had performed and especially with the way that the younger members had settled in to cope with what can be a demandingly noisy and pressurised playing environment. Ashraf’s performance over the four days had been fantastic, with only 2 games lost out of 18 played: and he leaves a great record over his four years on the team of 51 wins and only 21 losses, mainly in his younger years. We will miss his super team ethic. The other senior players were not far behind him. Well done to the whole team – and many thanks to the coaches and supporters. Make a note of next year’s date: 5th to 8th April.