Umpires at the ready for Challenge Cup Final
Taking part in a Challenge Cup final is the pinnacle for a club cricketer in the Northern Cricket Union, but is also a highlight for the two umpires chosen to stand in the showpiece event.
This year it will be Michael Foster and Gary Blair, with the pair knowing each other for years having enjoyed their playing days at Lisburn Cricket Club together, and they even started their umpiring journey at the same time back in 2012.
With the calibre of umpires in the Union, both Foster and Blair say it is a huge honour to stand in their first Challenge Cup final.
“There are Interpro games, but there are quite a lot of those during the season and there is only one cup final,” said Foster.
“There are a lot of very good umpires in the NCU, so it’s probably right up there in terms of our own calendar.”
Blair will join an exclusive club that have played in a final and also umpired one when he takes to the field on Friday, having lost out to Lurgan by eight wickets in 1996 with Lisburn.
The fact he is back in the final, standing with a close friend, makes the occasion that bit more special for him.
“There are a lot of great guys and girls in NIACUS,” said Blair.
“It makes it a bit more special with Michael because we started umpiring around the same time and we have done quite a few games together.
“It makes it more special on a personal level and it will also be a proud day for Lisburn Cricket Club.”
Even with the added importance of the game and extra eyes on every decision you make, Blair says it is like any other game for him from an officiating perspective.
“We are the custodians of the law and it doesn’t matter if it’s a fourth XI game or a first XI game, the laws are the laws. It doesn’t add any more pressure,” he added.
Foster has stood in finals of the National Cup, Ulster Shield plus NCU and All-Ireland Twenty20 Finals Day’s.
He got into umpiring after a long playing career and decided he wanted to give back to the game he enjoys so much.
“I found that I was still playing at a reasonably good level for Lisburn seconds, and I could have continued on playing regular cricket for a few years,” he said.
“Saturday’s were fine, but Monday mornings going into work were starting to become that little bit harder.
“It was also because I had played second XI cricket for the last 9/10 years of my career as a player, I had been doing a lot of umpiring and it was that experience of informal umpiring because I was batting down the order usually and the skipper generally turned his eyes to me to go out and do the first 15/20 overs, which I didn’t mind.
“The final driver was when I started, the number of umpires was starting to fall away, and this was my way of giving back to the game by starting an umpiring career.
“I just wanted to give it a go and see if I enjoyed it, and the simple answer is I do enjoy it. It’s the best seat in the house and I have got to see some very high standard of cricket.”
Blair got into umpiring never thinking it would turn into the career it has, but says his love for it has grown and grown.
“I had always done a bit of umpiring. When you’re on the second or third XI on Saturday afternoon, if you weren’t batting or padded up, you had the choice of going to do the scorebook or head out to umpire. I always preferred to go out and umpire.
“You get to watch the ball flying off the seam, careering towards the slips and beautiful cover drives.
“There is no substitute for playing the game, but it’s the next best thing.
“When Michael and I decided in 2012 that we would go along to help out the union, my intention was to stand in three or four games. The more I stood in, the more I realised I loved it.
“There were guys still playing that I had played against - the likes of Andrew White, Kyle McCallan and Ryan Eagleson, and also a generation I had been involved coaching with at NCU under-15.
“I was known to the players as well, so that made it easier as well and I absolutely love it now.”
Waringstown take on CSNI in the 2018 Challenge Cup final at The Green, Comber on Friday 27 July.