With our wam-up games out of the way, it was time for the real thing: a league match back up in Junior 3. Our first challenge was NCI's fourth team, although given that we were able to beat their seconds a few years back, we ought to have been favourites coming into today's game. However there was a problem: we were missing much of our regular top order, with openers Nick Clarke, Rod Dennis and Roy Page all absent. So we decided on a radical - well, obvious, really - alternative strategy: we'd bowl first on the rather spongy-looking Luard Road pitch, dismiss NCI for a hundred-odd, and then chase their sub-par total. And it might have worked too, but for one cruel fact: we lost the toss, and the NCI captain had no hesitation in inviting us to bat first.
Richard Rex (31 off 90 balls) and Arnie Garside (14 off 53 balls) were promoted to the opening spots and got us off to the most solid of starts through a combination of good footwork and straight bats. We were sitting pretty at 51/0 after 16 overs, and Richard and Arnie were maybe only a few more good overs away from putting Nick, Rod and Roy out of a job.
Unfortunately, we got rather bogged down in the middle part of our innings - only 22 runs came from the next 11 overs - and the only acceleration came in the wickets column. We lost three wickets for 6 or less runs on three separate occasions, and lost our last 6 wickets for 17 runs as we failed spectacularly to build on our good start. The NCI bowling was tight, but no more than that - Ralph Lamble and Richie Young each ended up with four wickets primarily due to our continued desire to try and smash straight balls out of the park. The fact we only lost one wicket playing a defensive stroke says it all.
Our innings had the same rhythm as the film Aliens, with everything calm and orderly for about an hour, followed by some bad decisions and a series of calamities coming at an ever increasing rate. The cinematic highlight of our self-destruction came in the last over: after Andy Owen (16 off 48 balls) came down the track, only to be stumped by a mile, Russell Woolf (2* off 3 balls) kept trying to hare off for potentially suicidal runs, and only survived when the NCI bowler mucked up what should have been a straightforward run out by breaking the wicket without having collected the ball. The scene of Russ and the bowler lying in tangled heaps on the ground with the ball several metres away was farcical enough, but then our umpire, possibly worried by the fact that a wicket hadn't fallen for at least two deliveries, gave a resigned nod and raised his index finger, indicating the Russ was out. The decision was quickly overturned, but we even managed to lose our last wicket on the final ball of the innings, as Adrian Mellish selflessly tried to hit his only delivery for the boundary we needed to get to 120.
NCI started their innings much like ours, with a steady half-century opening partnership - although we only had ourselves to blame, as we contrived to drop both batsmen several times. The match seemed to be in the balance as Russell Woolf (1/15) made a critical breakthrough and Roger Shelley (0/22) was proving as troublesome as always . . . at least until he pulled his intercostal muscle mid-over and had to leave the field in what was clearly a great deal of pain. Down to ten men and with our attack plan off balance it seemed our brief opportunity might have departed along with Rog.
But then Daniel Mortlock (4/33) brought himself back on to great effect, bowling four batsmen in a spell of 4/10, and suddenly NCI were 93/5 and we were in with a real chance. A few more wickets was all it needed, but the luck was on the side of the opposition batsmen today, as a seemingly endless sequence of inside edges squirted past the stumps and a similar number of outside edges flew past slip. Add in the fact that we dropped a few more sitters, and our chance really was was gone. Andy Owen (0/6 from 6 ultra-economical overs) managed to delay the inevitable by keeping things tight from one end, and Marcelino Gopal (1/29) got a last-minute wicket when we finally took a catch (Richard Rex grabbing hold of pull that was smashed towards him at mid-wicket), but we just didn't have enough runs to defend, and NCI completed their fairly comfortable victory with 50 still balls remaining.
So, not the start we wanted, but then again we also lost our first match last year, so maybe we can go undefeated from here on in . . .