And so, another year has gone already and it’s off to Nottingham for the 53rd running of the Under 18 Inter County Tournament. With a mainly young and inexperienced team, and lacking really strong singles players, we had no great expectations other than not finishing in the bottom group. Unfortunately, the number of competing counties was down by three to 32 and several of our closer competitors from recent years were missing. It was clearly going to be tough but two good wins saw us into 27th place, the same as last year. Our new County Coach Martin Fagan was pretty pleased with the overall level of performances, as were his assistants Alison Thompson and Jamie Tinnion.
The team was Anna Railton, Libby Hall, Maddy Atkinson, Rachel Bogan and Sarah Bambrick; Arif Alam, George Moran, Jack Thorpe, Melvin Cherian and Vikram Nayyar. Four of them were new to the ICT and this can be very daunting, given that the atmosphere is always very vibrant and noisy. They can be seen here in their new team hoodies, generously sponsored by British Engine.
With an entry of 32 teams, the format was straightforward – 8 groups of four teams in each of three rounds. In the first round, we faced one of the top seeds, Essex, and two of the middle group of seeds, Notts and Avon. These would be three tough matches. We lost 1-9 to Essex. Arif & Melvin and Anna & Sarah took their level doubles to three ends but it was not until the last match that George & Anna fought back to win their mixed in three 14-16, 15-13, 15-10. George & Anna scored another win against Notts but that match was again lost 9-1. Our late match on Thursday evening was against Avon and wins by Rachel and Anna left the score at 2-all after the singles. But the six doubles only yielded the one win from Sarah & Rachel with none of these matches going into a deciding end. The match went to Avon by 7-3. Essex and Notts proceeded into the top half of the draw and ultimately finished in 8th and 10th positions respectively.
Northumberland then moved into a second round group with Devon, Sussex and the Isle of Man. In many respects, this is the crucial stage of the competition, deciding roughly where the teams are going to finish up. Both Devon and Sussex were middle-ranking seeds and would be tough matches but we felt that we would definitely have a good chance against the IOM. And that was how it worked out. We managed to take four games against Devon into the third ends but lost them all, ending in a 10-0 scoreline. However, the mixed and the boys’ doubles gave us a real chance against Sussex and the score was 4-all with the girls’ doubles still to play. Melvin, Arif and Jack had all scored their first wins. The girls’ pairs fought hard with Maddy & Rachel getting really close before losing to 12 and 15. Avon took the match 6-4 overall. And so, after the evening meal, we faced the Isle of Man in the late match. We had been working on the mixed to get us off to good starts and Melvin & Sarah and Anna & George did the business this time with two strong wins. Rachel got very close in her singles but then Maddy excelled in the second singles, giving us a crucial 15-10, 15-9 win. If it had gone to 5-all, we would probably have lost on ends, but thankfully we took three of the four level doubles to run out 6-4 winners. Melvin & George took a really close match by 11-15, 15-13, 15-12, followed up with comfortable wins from Anna & Sarah and Maddy & Rachel.
This took us into the group playing off for positions 25 to 28, with Berkshire, Norfolk and Northamptonshire. We got off to another good start taking both mixed against Berkshire but Melvin & Sarah had been a touch careless and lost an end which could be important later on, particularly as we lost all four singles. There was a great effort from Jack in his match, only losing the first end to 13 but being unable to maintain the pressure. Melvin & George got very close to giving us some breathing space but lost a great match 16-18, 16-18, leaving the score 5-2 to Berks. We took all three of the remaining level doubles but in the end the match was lost by those two important ends: without them we would have won on points. Against Norfolk we again got off to a good start taking both mixed doubles. Libby came close to recording her first win in the level doubles partnering Rachel, but it was not until the final game that we scored a third victory. This was an important one, however, as it got Vikram off the mark in partnership with George, with a fine win 9-15, 15-11, 15-12. Norfolk had taken the match 7-3.
Our final match was on Sunday morning against Northants. Two more wins from the mixed pairs, this time George & Rachel and Melvin & Anna, gave us another great start. There was another fine effort from Jack at second singles but he ran out of steam, succumbing 9-15, 16-14, 15-7: so close! Vikram and Maddy both did well at top singles before Sarah took her match to 11 and 12, making it 3-all going into the level doubles. Melvin & George lost a close three-ender but Arif & Jack, Anna & Sarah and Rachel & Libby took us home to a 6-4 win. Libby had had a long wait for her first success but it was an important one and was well deserved for a player who was very inexperienced at this level.
It had been another good ICT and “the management” were delighted with the way that our relatively inexperienced team had performed. We have to say goodbye to Anna and to George who have served our junior teams so well in recent years and also to Jack. But there will be places to fight for next year. Well done to the whole team – they have all represented the county commendably well. Many thanks also to Alison, Martin and Jamie and to the travelling band of parents and supporters. Their support was very much appreciated, even though it may have been difficult to hear them above the cacophony from the air horns. For all the aspiring Under 18s and younger next year, make a note of the dates – 15th to 18th April: Nottingham will be the place to be!
Richard Taylor, Under 18 Team Manager