Hitting the home ground, we limbered up for our first round match in the annual knock-out competition
By Katie Garner
Every year we welcome the approach of the Challenge Cup with a mixture of excited anticipation and dread – anticipation as it is something different to the league matches, its own little side tournament. Dread, because we usually get placed against a team that towers above us in the league, making the task of getting through to the next round suddenly seem ten times as big. Being on the League Committee meant that I actually got to help pick the draw for the fixtures this year, and unfortunately, I was even the one who selected Harold Hill as our opponents.
The Challenge Cup is an annual knock out tournament between the 11 clubs that currently play in the Barking, Havering and Dagenham League. Teams are selected at random to play against each other, with the overall winners going through to the next round, until one winning team remains. Each club submits a team of three women and three men, with all the players rotating. You get to play three games, so in my case, I had a ladies game with Jess and then Helen, concluding with a mixed with Stuart B. This squad remains the same for the duration of your stay in the competition. What further differentiates the Challenge Cup from the usual league match ups, is that there is a handicap system in place to attempt to create an even playing field, as often you end up playing teams from a wide range of divisions – which is also another benefit of the Challenge Cup. This year, we had a handicap of eight points, giving us a leading advantage against Harold Hill, who had no handicap points so started on nil point.
This year, for a change, our face off was actually on home turf at Royal Liberty, so even though Harold Hill were pushing for use of feather shuttles, as the home club, we had the pick – we opted for our comfortable yellow plastics. I feel this may have thrown them off guard slightly, but then we have exactly the same problem when we go to away games and have to adjust to the feathers. It helped even the playing field just that little bit more and it was an advantage I didn’t think fair to surrender to demands.
You’ll be pleased / relieved / shocked to hear that we actually won our round, with six wins to three. Here is the breakdown of the results:
- Jess and Katie: 21-17 / 15-21 / 21-18
- Helen and Mike F: 21-9 / 21-10
- Stuart B and Het: 21-11 / 16-21 / 19-21
- Katie and Helen: 21-14 / 21-11
- Jess and Het: 21-17 / 17-21 / 17-21
- Mike F and Stuart B: 21-16 / 17-21 / 21-13
- Jess and Helen: 14-21 / 21-10 / 21-11
- Katie and Stuart B: 17-21 / 21-7 / 21-13
- Mike F and Het: 21-16 / 20-21 / 20-21
I think the main thing that this demonstrates is that the handicap system does work pretty fairly. When we played our mixed matches against this team, we were getting close scores but they were clearly ahead, with a very different playing style to ours, that features a lot of back of court play and hard, fast shots. Giving us that extra eight to begin with, gave us the boost that we needed so that the games were more of a level. It enabled us to stop playing catch up so suddenly and determinedly, and allowed us to just play our games and tactics, which ultimately worked. Yes, the games had ups and downs, and I definitely hit my fair share of doozies, but we were normally able to stay that inch ahead, which is important.
Another thing that I think worked in our favour is because of the squad that we chose – we basically played our mixed team. With each player needing to play a mixed game, we arranged our team so that we could all play with our usual partners. Also, the fact that Jess and I play the ladies pairs together was also another advantage, as we had a bit more experience there too. Using people that play together regularly is always going to be a stronger strategy then just picking players at random.
On the whole, I don’t think we played any differently to when we played our mixed match against this incredibly high ranking and almost prestigious club. We used the same tactics, but I think we were just that bit more aware of how they played, which helped us to be on the look-out for the pitfalls we knew were on the way. In the mixed, I tried to adopt lots of net play and fast interceptions, to help set the shots up for Stuart as well as trying to stop Harold Hill completely overworking him. In the ladies, it was more varied. Jess and I use quite a bit of rotation in our play, both taking turns at the front and the back, so we did that, trying to maintain our strength at the net. When I played with Helen, we stuck to playing sides mainly, although again we rotated around to make the most of my short serve. As soon as our opponents went to front and back, we started to push the boundaries of the court, knowing that they weren’t as used to this formation as we were. Granted, we did fluff shots and I did get annoyed at myself, but having the handicap made things feel slightly easier for us, and I can’t imagine how daunting that must have seemed to Harold Hill. Even though we are by no means the most challenging club in the league, starting off on the back foot is never pleasant in any circumstance.
Of course we also had the help of the newly christened club mascot, Wychelm Winnie. Won using tickets from our bowling club social last Friday, Jess had brought the snuggly cuddly little fella court side to cheer us on, Stuart B even offering him a hearty good luck kiss! With Wychelm Winnie on the side lines, it really was a foregone conclusion!
The next round of matches are going to played on the week of 25th March, and we’ll be facing either Hunters or Emerson Eagles 2, depending on who wins their battle. We actually played Hunters last year, and the games were incredibly intense, very close and completely knackering. They went on to win last year, so they now have the extra burden of being the defending champions, although this may also provide them with the added momentum to spur them on. Emerson Eagles always produce a good side, no matter which numbered squad they are, and they shouldn’t be discounted at all. It should be interesting to see who comes through. Our next game will be an away one though, so it means a return to feathers, although we are adjusting rather nicely now. Let’s hope we can keep going!