Having pulled off mission impossible last year to retain their County Premiership status, Warwickshire’s senior first team went into the new season knowing that Premiership survival would once again be priority as the top Counties in the country gathered at Cippenham Table Tennis Club in Slough, London.
However, the renewed sense of hope that was gained from their miraculous great escape in the 2015/16 season, was to be a factor throughout the weekend, leaving Warwickshire pondering on what could have been.
The squad that travelled together consisted of Kenny Lindsay, James Ward, Adrian Pilgrim, Ian Ferguson, Kate Hughes and Neetha Ramesh. With both Loz Sweeney and Matt Outhwaite both taking a break from the sport, the County looked to veterans Pilgrim and Ferguson, to provide the necessary back up for the remainder of the squad, bringing with them invaluable experience and tactical knowledge.
First up for the Bears were a strong Derbyshire side, led by the talented Sam Perry, and backed up with David Arrowsmith and the gifted youngster Tim Denby. However, with only one female player present (Lauren Banks), Warwickshire were gifted a 2-0 lead even before play had commenced.
Warwickshire’s number one, Kenny Lindsay took to the table first and his powerful forehand, aided by his usual repertoire of clever angles and soft hands proved simply too strong for Arrowsmith, running out a 3-0 winner; 5, 6 and 10. Adrian Pilgrim was then called upon and despite taking a 2-1 lead, was unlucky to go down 11-7 in the decider to Denby. Neetha Ramesh making her first ever appearance for Warwickshire was up next and she could have been forgiven for letting her nerves get the better of her. However, in an excellent display of controlled Table Tennis, she ran out a comfortable winner; 6,3 & 5. Sam Perry then showed just why he is still one of the top players in the country as he narrowly beat James Ward in 4 tight sets, before Adrian Pilgrim was once again called upon to secure at the very least a point for the Bears. He duly obliged, with an excellent display of heavy spin from his trustworthy forehand that has become his trademark over so many years, confounding Arrowsmith to a second straight 3-0 defeat.
And so to the clash of the Number one men. Lindsay vs Perry, friends from their earlier days at Bristol Academy, but both determined to gain bragging rights and earn a valuable point for their respective County. Lindsay edged an incredibly tight first set 11-9, after Perry missed what can only be called a ‘sitter’ following an excellent serve that unusually Lindsay totally misread. Perry however didn’t let that affect him as he stormed to the second end 11-7, varying the pace of the game with guile and cunning, leaving Lindsay somewhat bemused. The third end then proved to be crucial and at 10-10, after some incredibly powerful shots from both players, Lindsay produced what was to be his main weapon over the weekend, a newly constructed reverse serve that produced the results intended and followed it up with a huge forehand winner. Perry himself was to follow up with yet again an incredible serve, only to find his consistency lacking at the crucial times of the match as like in the first end, he was to miss what by his standard was an easy forehand winner and gifting Lindsay the game 12-10. With the momentum now fully in Lindsay’s court; Perry could not keep up the intensity level and was disappointing in the 4th, losing 11-4. However, Perry showed that on his day he is still an incredibly gifted player that with a little more practice would still be a top 20 player in the country.
With the points now secure having a 6-2 lead, Warwickshire’s number one lady who has proven so pivotal in the County’s success in recent years then made her first appearance of the weekend and predictably ran out a comfortable 3-0 winner against young Lauren Banks, who to even have the courage to compete at this level should be commended for her performance. It was admirable considering the wealth of female talent that Derbyshire have and were unfortunately not able to call upon for whatever reason.
Ward too then got a win under his belt in the final game of the match, coming out a 3-1 winner against Denby, with his usual mix of consistency and ‘never say die’ attitude, retrieving ball after ball after ball, that Denby was unable to contend with.
And so it was at the end of the first days play that Warwickshire found themselves almost suffering with nose bleeds as they headed the Premiership table above Nottinghamshire on games difference, both having secured 8-2 victories in their opening matches.
Sunday morning and as if by fate it was to be the clash of the top two; Warwickshire Vs Nottinghamshire.
At 2-0 and 10-8, James Ward looked to be all set to give Warwickshire the lead over the venerable Mark Short, although ‘Shorty’ had other ideas. In an incredible turn around, Mark somehow managed to sneak the 3rd end 12-10 and then cruised the 4th and 5th ends 6 & 2, in an incredible show of tenacity and single mindedness. Adrian Pilgrim was then next to be on the wrong end of some persistent counter hitting as he lost comfortably 6, 5 & 7 to John Taylor. Kate Hughes was then unlucky to lose to Sarah Short 3-1, with all 4 games effectively going to deuce and Sarah deservedly having one of the best wins of her County career to date and leaving Hughes feeling both frustrated and perplexed.
Up step Warwickshire’s man of the moment; Kenny Lindsay. Having been the victim of the infamous Lee Neil 100mph attacking game in the first end, losing 11-4, it took Warwickshire’s Vice Captain Matt Outhwaite to calmly reassure Lindsay that he needed to keep his focus. That said, with Neil on the form he displayed in the first end, he too is still a match for most in the country. However, Lindsay persevered with his tactical game of slowing Neil down, keeping it as tight as possible and took the next three ends 6, 7 & 7, to put Warwickshire’s first point on the board. Neetha Ramesh then faced the daunting task of playing Evie Collier. Unfortunately, Evie proved too strong and cruised to a 3-0 win, 4, 3 & 3.
With Warwickshire now 4-1 down, it was up to Ward to start the catalyst for an unlikely comeback. Again ward found himself in a winning position, being 2-1 up in ends, before the luck that deserted him in his encounter with Mark Short, seemed to strike again as at 9-9 in the deciding end, John Taylor had the cruellest of nets, which in turn proved to be too much mentally for Ward as he painstakingly went down 12-10. Neetha Ramesh then fared better against Short than she did Collier, but was once again found wanting on some crucial points, losing 3-0 and condemning Warwickshire to their first defeat of the weekend as they trailed 6-1 as a result.
In an effort to gain some pride back, it was once again left to Lindsay to step up to the plate as he won an epic encounter with ‘Shorty’, 11-3 in the 5th, and in doing so keep up his 100% record thus far.
Kate Hughes, still reeling from her earlier shock defeat to Short, was never in contention against Collier, as she struggled not only with Colliers devilish serves, but mentally appeared fatigued, putting what appeared to be unnecessary pressure on herself and the outcome of the game. Kate lost 3-0, but showed signs in the 3rd, losing 14-12, that she had perhaps ‘turned a corner’ and would be ready to take on what Middlesex would have to offer in the afternoon.
Adrian Pilgrim rounded things up for Warwickshire, with a physically and psychologically demanding 11-9 victory in the 5th against fellow veteran Neil. It was a game that proved to be the deciding factor in his withdrawal from the final round of matches of the weekend against Middlesex, leaving him with an excellent 2/4 wins.
And so on to the final match;
Warwickshire vs Middlesex
With Pilgrim deciding to sit this one out, it was left to Warwickshire captain Ian Ferguson to step up and be counted and in doing so fulfil a lifelong TT ambition of playing Senior County Premier, to go with his previous Cadet and Junior Premier representation.
Middlesex had the excellent Gabriel Achampong at number one, with Lucas Papantonio and Cacherel Mercer in supporting roles. Talia Ben Reid and Mya Sultan completed the line up.
Who better than to get Warwickshire back on track than Lindsay; who in a tough 3 sets beat Papantonio 10, 9 & 7 to give the bears a 1-0 lead. Up stepped Ian Ferguson, who despite having not played all weekend and was refused a knock by the umpire present, was determined not to let the County he has served for approximately 30 years down. Having narrowly lost the first end 11-8, Ferguson then appeared to be cruising as he took the next two 6 & 6 and was alls set for his first win in the County Premiership. However, the youthful brashness of Mercer was to somewhat shock Ferguson as he upped his game to take it to a deciding set. The realisation that any win in this division is more than tough, hit Ferguson like a train as he somehow found himself 10-6 down in the deciding set and his dreams of a victory rapidly subsiding. However, experience counts for a lot as they say and Ferguson saved 4 match points to level at 10-10. Ferguson then blew 2 match points of his own, yet saved a further 4 match points against him, totalling 8, before taking his third match point, to gain an emotional 16-14 victory and put Warwickshire 2-0 up.
Neetha Ramesh then got back to winning ways with a 3-0 victory over a resilient Reid, before Gabriel Achampong got Middlesex on the board with a comfortable 3-0 win over a tired looking Ward.
Kate Hughes then put Warwickshire 4-1 up, having refocused and finding the self belief that all sportsmen and women so require, battling out a 3-1 victory over Sultan. Ian Ferguson was then called upon again, but sadly Papantonio’s speed allied with a drained Ferguson, proved pivotal as the youngster brushed him aside 8, 7 & 6, despite Ferguson being level at 6-6 in all three ends!
A point was then secured for Warwickshire as Neetha Ramesh from Colebridge Table Tennis Club, put in her finest display of the weekend, with an emphatic 3-0 win over the much higher ranked Sultan. Having found her rhythm and timing, Ramesh showed that she is more than a match for the top 60 women in the country and finished her debut weekend off with an impressive 4/6.
And so to Lindsay’s final game of the weekend, against arguable his toughest opposition to date. Lindsay has previously been guilty of taking his foot off the gas so to speak in final matches, but having made the 400mile journey from Edinburgh to represent his new beloved County, was determined to maintain his 100% record and be a role model for the youngsters in the region that look up to him so much.
In what can only be described as a game of power vs power, himself and Achampong put on a display worthy of the County Premiership, as the tie ebbed and flowed, Lindsay taking the first end 11-7, Achampong the next two 6 & 8, Lindsay the fourth 11-4. The fifth was as enthralling an encounter seen all weekend, with Lindsay maintaining a 1 or 2 point lead from the start. However, at 8-7, Lindsay then showed how tactical a game Table Tennis is, as he changed his game altogether. Instead of matching Achampong for power, Lindsay subtly took some pace off the ball and decided to completely slow the game down relying on far superior touch play. It worked, as he ran out an 11-8 winner and secured an incredible 6/6 playing at number 1 against some top class opposition.
Hughes and Ward then compounded Middlesex’ misery, with a victory each, leaving Kate with the same stats as Neetha, an impressive 4/6, despite her own personal sense of disappointment. Ward finished with figures of 2-6 and Ferguson 1-2.
Warwickshire were once again 8-2 winners, and at the end of the first weekend, found themselves with 4 points from a total of 6 and in third place overall. At the same time last year, having played the exact same County opposition, Warwickshire had lost all 3 and had 0 points. Whilst the job to survive in the division is far from complete, Warwickshire have certainly given themselves a massive boost and will be looking to improve on their final standing of 5th in 2015/16 as they head into the second weekend in January 2017.