21st place out of 35 entrants may not sound so good but for Northumberland, given its location and relatively limited playing resources, it was quite an achievement. This is also put into perspective by our results in recent years which, after the 20th place in 2003, have almost always been 30th or lower and even down to a sad 41st eight years ago.
This year’s ICT, the fiftieth indeed, took place at the end of Easter week, as usual on the wonderful campus of Nottingham University, where it has been held since 1971. Although last year’s boys were all available and chosen again, the girls had lost three players. What is more, we felt that we really only had our two under 15s, Emily and Lexie, available and of suitable experience: and so, we took the slight risk of travelling with only the four girls. Nevertheless, the coaches and managers were confident that a finishing position around 20th was a realistic aim. As always, however, the draw would be important, and particularly who we had to play in the crucial second round.
We started as the bottom seed in a group of four counties. We knew that Sussex would be very strong but felt that we might just have a slight chance against either Oxfordshire or Hertfordshire. Anyway it was Sussex first and they had two national champions in their team. We went down by 1-9 but that came nowhere reflecting the nature of the match. Both our mixed and girls doubles pairs provided serious competition, the girls both losing very close three-enders. And then there was a magnificent singles match with Philip taking on the under 15 national champion Zach Russ and only going down by 16-14, 6-15, 16-18 in a match that had everybody on the edges of their seats. That was a pretty encouraging start. The second match was against Oxford. We got off to a flying start with Philip/Sarah, Gyan/Emily winning their mixed and Ashraf winning his singles, all in two ends. Then came two fantastic, and crucial, singles. Having put our stronger girls in the mixed doubles, we had given Ellie the difficult task of playing a highly ranked girl at top singles. She lost the first end to 3 but then rallied quite magnificently to win the second end 15-13 and kept the form going in the third, before just being pipped 17-15. But she had shown us the way and there were several more such performances from her over the next three days. Philip was pushed very close in his singles but won a good victory by 15-12, 10-15, 15-12. Sarah and Emily also won a good three-ender, the first of several good wins at first girls’ doubles. However, this left the score at 5-all, but we lost the match by one measly end. In the last match of the day, we faced Herts: memories from last year indicated that we could have a good chance of a win here – but we lost three of the four three-enders and the match slipped away by 3-7. And so, to bed after a long, hard day, knowing that we would not be in the top half and that 17th would be the best we could achieve.
This took us into a group of 5 counties and we would be playing three of them over the course of Friday. The likelihood was that several of these would be close and so it proved. The first match of the day was against Lincs. The management took a bit of a chance here, having noticed that the opposition appeared to be loading their stronger boys in both doubles: and this tactic paid off – but only just! We had also decided to swap Sarah into the singles with Emily joining Philip at top mixed. All three gave us a great start, although Sarah lost an end and only just took the win 18-16 in the third. Lexie put in a fine performance to win the end back again but lost her match. All square after four matches. Two excellent wins from Ashraf and Jonathan in their singles and another comfortable win from Sarah and Emily at doubles took the match score to 5-2. Almost there! Ellie and Lexie pushed the Lincs second pair very close but they had given us good points. It would all be down to the boys’ doubles. David and Gyan fought hard but could not quite make it, going down 15-17, 18-20. Philip and Jonnie’s match was even closer: they lost 11-15, 15-11, 14-16 but they had taken the vital end and we won the 5-all match by 12 ends to 11.
Next up were the new entrants from Herefordshire. It was great to see them there but they were a very young and inexperienced team and we took the match, only losing one end. The evening’s encounter with Gloucestershire was likely to be much harder. We had tweaked the team a little more by this stage, with Ellie taking over at second girls’ singles and Lexie pairing up with Gyan in the mixed and this was the formula that we retained for the remainder of our matches. It served us very well in the Gloucester match which we took 9-1, with only two matches going into the third end. Unfortunately Gyan and David again flirted with victory before succumbing 20-21, 17-19. And so, our second round grouping was left on an overnight knife-edge with both us and Notts undefeated. How would it go the next morning? We got off to a great start with wins from Emily and Philip in the mixed and from Ashraf and Sarah at singles. But Philip found a tough opponent at top singles, as did Ellie at second girls’ singles, both losing in two ends. Three all – and if we could take two more matches, we might just be able to aim for Northumberland’s best-ever placing. Both boys’ doubles were lost and although Ellie and Lexie scored a very good win, Emily and Sarah could not quite make it, losing another very close one by 15-8, 13-15, 15-17. So we lost the match 4-6.
That then took us into the group playing for positions 21 to 24. First up was Devon. Another good start from our reliable mixed pairs, plus a singles win from Ash took us to 3-nil. But Devon had some good girls and we lost both of the singles: however, Ellie had played really well in her match, only just losing out 10-15, 17-15, 13-15. Nevertheless she had done a great job, as ends won looked like being very significant. Philip took a close three-ender to put us at 4-2 before Ash and Jonnie chalked up the fifth win. The crucial matches would be the second boys’ singles and the top girls’ doubles. Gyan and David again found it difficult to cross the finishing line but they did take the second end before losing 7-15, 15-11, 14-16. It was the same for Sarah and Emily who lost 6-15, 15-11, 12-15. It was 5-all again (for the third time!) but we took the match by two ends. The last match of day three had us up against Norfolk. We quickly went 3-1 up with wins from the reliable Emily and Philip at mixed and Ash and Sarah at singles: a particularly good win by Sarah against an opponent with a good record. Philip added a routine singles win and this was followed with victories in both girls’ doubles and then Gyan and David produced a good fighting win in their doubles to give us the match by 7-3.
Saturday evening was a time for relaxation and gentle chilling, a bit of pool and team banter, followed by pizza. Sunday morning would see our last match against Avon: could we win that to finish unbeaten in our last group and take 21st place overall? Last year we had played Avon twice, winning the first match 7-3 and then perversely losing by the same score. This one was close. Again the mixed pairs scored well for us. Ellie had a really good 15-12, 15-11 win at second singles and Philip, perhaps tiring after all his efforts, was pushed into a tight second end before winning 15-6, 16-14. Meanwhile both Sarah and Ashraf were involved in mammoth singles matches, both of which were lost to leave the score at 4-2. Emily and Sarah scored the vital fifth win. The remaining three level doubles were all lost. However, and very unusually, our five wins had all been scored in two ends whereas the five losses had all been three-enders, meaning that we took the match 5-all, winning by five ends. A great result – and a very useful learning point for the future.
And so, we finished 21st, having won six of our last seven matches and able to travel back feeling well satisfied with the combined efforts of the whole team over four great days. The overall event was won again by the team from Buckinghamshire, with Yorkshire slipping to fourth place. Our first round conquerors Sussex were 7th, Herts were 14th, Oxford 18th and Notts 20th – all of which seems to indicate that we were about in the right place. It would have been nice to have scored Northumberland’s best-ever placing: maybe next year. But we will have to do it without our talisman of the last many years, Philip, as he moves on to play regularly for the senior team. All the girls should be available again next year, plus three of the boys, so it would be good to think that we could build further from this relatively strong position.
Many thanks to the support team of Rob and Alison, Robyn, Tom and Garrylee. It had been a really good team effort overall. And what is more, all the players had really gelled as a team, had played for and supported each other, and had all made great contributions to another memorable “ICT”.
Team: Emily Harrison, Lexie Howard, Ellie Roberts & Sarah Wilson
Ashraf Alam, David Murray, Gyan Chadda, Jonathan Elsdon & Philip Pahatouridis,
Managers: Alison Wetherell & Richard Taylor
Coaching & Support Team: Rob Wetherell, Robyn Luckley, Tom Appleyard &