Despite the persistent inclement weather in the week leading up to the 5th XI opening fixture of the 2012 campaign the trip to Anglesea Road, to face Merrion, went ahead last Saturday and took place, in the main, under blue skies and bright sunshine. The result, in the end, was not more of a damp squib for Phoenix but 80 overs of tough cricket against one of the best sides in their division will serve them well.
In the end the margin of defeat was quite large, 102 runs to be precise, but, to use and some old boxing parlance, the only bad defeat is one you learn nothing from. And Phoenix certainly did learn a lot about themselves in this opening game. An excellent start in the field faltered in the middle of the innings as Merrion stormed away to set up an imposing total. The visitors came back strong at the end of the innings but couldn’t stop the home side from posting 238 for 6 off their 40 overs.
It was always going to be an uphill task for such a new look side to chase down such a large total. It was never really on the cards, in truth, thanks to a veteran bowling attack that held tight lines and hit the right areas. However Phoenix refused to capitulate and gained some good experience by occupying the crease for their 40 overs. In the end it wasn’t to be enough but the experience gained will be invaluable in the coming weeks.
Phoenix lost the toss and were inserted into the field under azure skies that came as a shock to both hosts and visitors. The 5th XI had no less than five debutants heading into the game. Conor Hughes, Pajo McKinney, Ian Heaton, Paddy McClean and Keemar Edwards all came into the fray and looked to impress.
It was Hughes who was handed the toughest task of the lot being asked to open the bowling despite never having bowled in anger until pre-season nets just a couple of months ago. He made a very solid start in tandem with John Anders at the other end. After a tricky first couple of overs Phoenix adjusted their field settings to cope with the fast, bouncy new mat in Merrion as well as the quick outfield and the opening bowlers refused to let the hosts get away. It was clear early on, though, that wickets would be hard to come by and the Merrion openers ticked the scoreboard over at a decent rate.
Phoenix decided on a change of approach when it was time to call on the first and second change. On came the off spin duo of Marc Gibson-McKenna and Pajo McKinney. Gibson-McKenna found his rhythm early starting with a maiden and giving the ball a good tweak. McKinney provided a different approach as his Off Spin had less flight, in general, and more dart to it. The pair bogged down the Merrion openers and the pressure told when Merrion skipper, Oliver Rye (22), was clean bowled by Gibson-McKenna trying to cut a ball that skidded through.
It was a breakthrough Phoenix could not build on, though, as a couple of chances went to ground and Gibson-McKenna and McKinney finished their spells without adding any more runs to the wicket column, although, the run rate had been stilted. Bajan import, Keemar Edwards, was brought into the attack before the drinks break but found the Merrion batsmen in aggressive mood and the home side took their tally to beyond 80 for 1 at the drinks break. He did, though, come close on a couple of occasions with hooks to backward square leg falling just short of the fielder.
Craig Nicholson came on and was very unlucky bowling (4 – 0 – 22 – 0) as he got far less than he deserved with his leg spinners as Phoenix sought another breakthrough. Ian Heaton did his best with his leg cutters from the opposite end and was unlucky not to pick up a wicket as he saw a skier off his bowling drop into no mans land. Paddy McClean, also making his debut, came in and toiled away manfully but couldn’t breach the Merrion defences as both batsmen at the crease, particularly Bob Howell, looked well set.
Phoenix dropped off a little in their intensity during this period as Merrion piled on the runs and began to take the game away from the 5th XI. A change was needed and the spin pairing of McKinney and Gibson-McKenna were brought back on. The move paid dividends straight away as McKinney cleaned up Ravi Kosgi (43) with his first ball of his new spell. It was no less than he deserved as his bowling had been excellent throughout and he would finish with 8 – 0 – 39 – 1. At the other end Gibson-McKenna came back on after a slight delay, having injured himself diving in the field, and found his rhythm once again. He found some turn and bounce again and picked up another wicket, Tony Gilmore (19), clean bowled. He ended up finishing with figures of 8 – 3 – 23 – 2 and, with a bit more luck, could have had even more impressive stats to his name. His day was a long way from over though.
Phoenix knuckled down in the closing stages of the innings once again and finished up with the bowlers they began with. Hughes struck to remove Howell (74) and bring to an end a superb knocking by splaying his stumps. Anders came back on just as Merrion were looking to blast everything into oblivion but held his poise, as usual, and stuck to his task. He collected the wicket of Baskar (17) when his skipper Moore held a difficult steepling catch. Any goodwill Anders held towards his fielder soon dissipated as Moore put down a much less difficult and flatter catch two balls later. The final word in the innings was to go to Hughes, though, as he picked up a second wicket. He got Saseendran (23) to splay a drive towards cover and Paddy McClean pouched his first catch for Phoenix taking a difficult swirling catch. That was just three balls from the end of the innings and Hughes finished with figures of 8 – 0 – 39 – 2 while Merrion closed on 238 for 6.
Phoenix knew they had a mountain to climb and were told that gaining something from the game was key. If the win was on they were to pursue it but, on the other hand, if the game looked beyond the 5th XI they were told to stand their ground. All too often in a big run chase sides decide to have a dash and capitulate for a small total in short order. That was not to be the case on this day as Phoenix made their opponents work for 40 overs in the field.
Phoenix opened with Alan Maginnis and Michael Fahy. Fahy showed no signs of fatigue after filling in keeping wicket for 40 overs. He produced a fine display with the gloves and had no qualms about going out to open the batting. The Merrion bowlers didn’t make life easy, though, and Phoenix had to pick their moments to strike. Maginnis favoured the cut through and behind point while Fahy elected to play much straighter. The score ticket along nicely until the 8th over when Maginnis (16) inside edged onto his stumps to leave Phoenix 28 for 1.
Things did not get much better for Phoenix as Fahy (14) departed soon after as he was bowled with an inswinger to his leg stump leaving his side 35 for 2. A gleeful Merrion fielder was all too keen to exclaim to his team mates that they would be early to the bar for a few post match pints. Such hubris failed to take into the account the fighting qualities of a group of players that has already bonded as a unit and the class and poise of Marc Gibson-McKenna.
Gibson-McKenna came to the crease in the 10th over and would be there at the finish. He was asked to anchor his sides reply and did so with great aplomb. He took advantage of bad balls, defended the good deliveries resolutely and ran and called between the wickets to great effect. He was first aided by the swashbuckling Pajo McKinney (9) who looked to take on every ball he faced and turn it into runs. It was a case of live fast, die young, though, as he perished after notching 9 from 9 balls. It’s certainly a case of ‘watch this space’, though, as he looks as though he may have destructive batting potential.
Keemar Edwards was next to join Gibson-McKenna in the middle and the two soon came to a mutual understanding about playing some drop and run cricket. Many a delivery was dropped onto, or near, the pitch and the duo would hare through for a quick single. There were a couple of close calls along the way but they did well to keep Merrion on their toes. Edwards (11) eventually backed up too far once too often and was run out but the combination looked a lively one and should yield good results in future.
The fall of that wicket left Phoenix 66 for 4 just shy of the drinks break. The chance of the win was gone but there was still work to be done. Ian Heaton, back to competitive cricket for the first time in 15 years since playing as a schoolboy in Liverpool, came to the crease and showed great resistance. He dug out Yorkers and fended off plenty of good deliveries as he gained time in the middle and helped his side resist. When Heaton (6) fell, after helping amass a partnership of 27, in the 31st over Phoenix were 93 for 5.
It was time to up the tempo a little and go from defence to offence. Craig Nicholson was watchful when he first came in and saw off some testing deliveries with great technique. All the while Marc Gibson-McKenna kept plugging away at the other end without losing patience, concentration or showing signs of fatigue.
After getting his eye in Nicholson started to unfurl a few more aggressive shot and rattled the pickets on a couple of occasions. Gibson-McKenna kept ticking along with good shots and good calling and Phoenix started to move the scoreboard over. With just 2 overs left Gibson-McKenna was just 3 runs away from his maiden senior half century. His batting partner, Craig Nicholson (15) was keen to see him over the line but backed up too far trying to pinch a single to and give him the strike and was run out with 7 balls remaining.
John Anders came to the crease to for the final act of the game and scampered through to allow Gibson-McKenna a quick single off the final ball of the penultimate over to give him the strike and six balls to reach his landmark. Tension was high on the sidelines as all his Phoenix team mates, and supporters, were willing him on. The first ball was a dot and was then followed by a wide. Two more dots followed and the tension grew but with the fourth ball of the over Gibson-McKenna slapped a wide one into the cover region and ran two to reach fifty. He was met with a great reception from team mates and opposition alike. It was a selfless knock that reaped a worth reward at the end as he helped keep his team afloat when it would have been easy to cave in.
In the final summary it will show Phoenix 5th XI came up well short and that is true. However a stiffer test to start the season would have been hard to come by. A new look team with five debutants travelling to face the favourites for the division title on their home ground is about as difficult a task as they could have been set. They met the challenge head on, though, and come September, when the two sides meet again, there is unlikely to be such a disparity in scoreline.