When I think of the NCU Challenge Cup final, it is the childhood memories which are the fondest.
Almost from the crack of dawn, the fevered anticipation as you pulled the bedroom curtains back and the sound of mum already downstairs, busily preparing the family packed lunches.
The notoriously bumpy road from Waringstown to Downpatrick was next, so bumpy that I vividly recall a primary school friend of mine in the back seat hastily calling for our car to be stopped so he could deposit the contents of his earlier breakfast at the side of the road.
Then came the drive down Strangford Road, perhaps once Ulster cricket’s equivalent of Magnolia Lane, men in suits already sipping wine outside the hospitality tents (yes plural) in the weak morning sunshine and the two sets of players warming up in the shadow of the great old pavilion.
There was surely nothing that came close in Irish club cricket to those iconic cup final mornings in Downpatrick.
In those days the NCU final was still staged over two days, a Thursday and a Friday, two working days, but back then taking two days off work didn’t seem to matter, even to neutrals.
Perhaps it is the naivety and illusion of youth, but I recall crowds packed two deep around The Meadow, enthralled by the action from ball one, even it was often painstaking viewing, especially in the first innings of 120 overs of cat and mouse cricket.
If you scraped to 180 you were said to be firmly in the driving seat.
But like a failing marriage, the romance of those Challenge Cup occasions has been dying for many years. The last two-day final was in 2006, a rain-ravaged affair between Waringstown and CIYMS, with the format by then regarded as out of step with modern limited-overs cricket.
Frankly, with the two-day final went the mystic and aura of the Challenge Cup. Downpatrick, struggling with its pitches and a wet outfield, lost the final, with a largely soulless Stormont at one stage taking over, and the NCU eventually settling on the The Green in Comber, which unquestionably boasts the best cricket pitches in the union.
Dogged by poor weather, and the uncertainty over whether a Friday or Saturday final is best, the Challenge Cup final crowds have been gradually ebbing away but last Sunday was perhaps the first time that I, and many others, felt it had finally be en usurped as the number one occasion in NCU cricket.
Those heading to the Lawn in Waringstown shortly before the start of the Lagan Valley Steels T20 final between Waringstown and North Down would have been immediately taken aback by a sight from years gone by, the line of cars parked along the Clare Road and the car park is full signs already up. Crowds that used to adorn Challenge Cup final days were already poised in anticipation of 40 overs of what traditionalists might claim is slapdash cricket.
It was anything but. James Hall struck a century as good as anything you could wish to see, Waringstown just holding off a determined North Down challenge to lift the trophy for the second year in succession.
Admittedly, everything played into the hands of a successful finals day. The decision to stage the T20 Trophy final between Armagh and Woodvale at the same venue first was vindicated, with players and supporters of both teams staying on for the main event. The sun shone and in Waringstown and North Down, the two finalists are arguably the best-supported clubs in the union. The Lawn is handily placed too, with so many clubs situated nearby, with a group from Donacloney Mill particularly avid watchers when they are not playing themselves,
If you had asked any player amongst the NCU Premier League’s eight clubs before the start of the season about their trophy priorities the T20 Cup would not have featured highly. But surely that is going to change. You only have to look at English county cricket where T20 finals day has become the unquestioned highlight of the domestic calendar. The 50-over final meanwhile continues to flag, with Lords barely half-full last month to watch Nottinghamshire beat Surrey. There doubtless won’t be a spare seat to be had at September’s T20 finals day at Edgbaston.
So what can the NCU do to turn around the flagging fortunes of what was once the jewel in its crown? The move to a Saturday this year was unavoidable if the star players from CIYMS and Instonians were to be available but a personal view is that neither Friday, a day of work, nor Sunday, when full league programme is in place, is the answer.
Clubs do not take well to an entire Saturday programme being closed to facilitate a cup final but they might be more inclined to attend on a Sunday, as last week so emphatically demonstrated.
A Sunday 50-over final would be worth a go. There is nothing lost by trying. Go for it NCU.