Tomorrow should be the day when romance returns to the NCU Challenge Cup.
Who would have thought a couple of years ago that Academy, for so long occupying the lower reaches of the local game and sometimes struggling for players, would on Saturday be getting ready to welcome mighty Waringstown to their castle grounds?
But that’s exactly what will happen, weather permitting, in a first-round tie pitting a cricketing David against Goliath.
The dream started to become a reality on Tuesday night when Academy gained the upper hand on Derriaghy in a tense Twenty20 replay at Queensway. They eventually won a thriller by 13 runs and Matthew Palmer and his team can’t wait to take on the 2011 and 2013 cup winners.
“Both of us wanted a crack at Waringstown, but after where our club has been, it probably means more to us than Derriaghy,” said Palmer.
“There’s a lot of excitement amongst the lads about the chance of playing against the likes of McCallan and Nelson. As a club cricketer this is what you really want to do.
“You want to test yourself against the best. We are in a win, win situation. If we lose it’s what everyone is expecting, but if we can bat first and get 130, 140 or 150 then you never know.”
Waringstown and Academy might have locked horns regularly over the last decade, but those matches involved the villagers’ second eleven in the Junior Cup.
Intriguingly, Academy became their bogey team, starting in 2003 when they ended Waringstown’s defence of the trophy at the first-round stage and culminating in a victory in the final in 2010. Academy won the tournament four times in the last decade, including last year, but now they are rubbing shoulders with the big boys.
“For the older people who have been around the club for a long time this will be the biggest game the club has had in 25 or 30 years, especially because it’s at the castle grounds,” Palmer said.
“In the space of five years the club has gone from struggling to get out a seconds to having four teams on a Saturday and fielding an under-15s, under-13s and under-11s.”
Two men potentially represent Academy’s best hopes of an upset, the New Zealand pair Andre Halbert and Mitchell Atkins.
Halbert smashed close to 1,000 runs last summer and Palmer believes he is one of the “top two or three” cricketers in Section One. He will return to New Zealand this winter to pursue a career in the first-class game.
Atkins made around 600 runs in 2014 and his bowling (he took 30-odd wickets) will be a threat on what is likely to be a slow and low pitch.
“We bat quite deep and have a lot of options with the ball,” said Palmer. “But that will be tested like never before on Saturday.
“The pitches at the castle grounds are much better than they used to be but they are nothing like what Premier League grounds are like in May.
“It will be interesting to see how James Hall or Lee adjust from playing at The Lawn or The Green, to facing slower bowlers with the ball not coming on.”