Prior to the great butchery and random carving of the system in the 1970’s England was divided into thirty-nine historical counties. Each adeptly represented the area and the people from an administrative point of view as well as social and cultural equivalents. From such a structure English cricket created its county championship. Convention dictates that all thirty-nine counties would be represented but reality dictates otherwise. Only eighteen of the thirty-nine counties are included in the first-class structure. Unless one is aware of the origins of the competition the counties included in the present structure appear random and without any rhyme or reason. It is a bizarre, anomalous set up.
What of the remaining twenty-one counties? Most are represented in the minor counties championship, a sort of cricketing siding not quite part of the sinuous playing structure that begins in club cricket and ends with the England national team. Unlike its first class brethren, minor counties cricket is largely amateur and, in some respects, largely forgotten. Competitions and results are seemingly ignored by most of the mainstream media whilst the counties themselves have almost no chance of progression beyond the present structure. Opportunities to play the first-class counties all but evaporated a few summers past whilst there is next to no chance of joining them in the professional structure. Despite featuring a number of erstwhile county championship professionals and a litany of future equivalents, the minor counties are very much given short shrift by English cricket at large.
All of which is something of a travesty. Standards are very high, there is the opportunity to see some of the aforementioned stars of the past and potential stars of the future whilst most counties do not charge spectators who wish to watch matches. Contests normally take place in achingly bucolic locations to boot. Somewhen during the autumn and winter of 2015 into 2016 those in charge of the Minor Counties Cricket Association elected to change the policy on how the final of their championship was hosted. Previously it had alternated between the champion county of the eastern conference and their equivalent in the west. However, the newly branded Unicorns Championship would reach its denouement for the 2016 summer at the stunningly beautiful Sir Paul Getty Ground in Wormsley for the first time.
There could be few better places in the country to host a championship contest. It is quintessentially English. Located in the lee of the Chiltern Hills, the Wormsley ground forms part of the eponymous estate that was owned by the late Sir Paul Getty after the American born philanthropist and businessman purchased the estate in 1986 from the Fane family. Getty originally was not interested in cricket but fell in love with the sport upon being introduced to its charms by Mick Jagger. His awareness roused, Getty commissioned a replica of the Oval to be built on the estate grounds, culminating in its opening during the summer of 1992. The Queen Mother and John Major, prime minister at the time, attended the inaugural match and the ground has staged a number of matches each summer since, including a handful of contests involving touring test teams.
The ground itself is set on a beautifully flat plateau amid the rolling hills of the Chilterns that form part of the Buckinghamshire estate, proffering a wonderfully rural, bucolic ambience as the backdrop features sheep grazing lazily in a nearby field and a fine array of trees and foliage acquiescing to the demands of the topography. The ‘ends’ of the ground, from which the bowlers begin each delivery, are evocatively named the ‘Deer Park End’ and the ‘Dibley End,’ the former providing ample explanation for its moniker, the latter alluding to a certain Dawn French based comedy series which was filmed in the nearby village of Turville, located approximately three miles south-east of the ground. Such subtle nuances help create a festival atmosphere at the venue; the abundance of itinerant chairs allied with the children’s playground behind the Dibley end adding a sense of joviality to on-field matters. Grass covered mounds have been created around the eastern perimeter of the ground, providing a slightly elevated position from which to view proceedings whilst enjoying a snack and a drink.
Play begins on this, the second day, with Lincolnshire resuming their first innings at eight without loss. The opening bowlers of their opponents, Berkshire, appear potent and threatening, particularly when bowling at Lewis Kimber but his partner Johnny Tattersall exudes serenity and composure at the crease. There is a hint of Mike Atherton about the youngster; his previous selection for the England Under-19 team is understandable. Kimber falls to the zippy pace of Waqas Hussain but Tattersall continues unabated with Kimber’s replacement Conrad Louth.
Berkshire skipper James Morris utilises and changes his bowling attack in search of further wickets but there is one glaring omission. Almost ninety minutes pass before the tall figure standing sentry at slip is employed for anything other than fielding duties. Standing just an inch off of six and a half feet, it is difficult to miss this individual, particularly as his booming voice occasionally resonates across the Wormsley sward. Standing at such a height and having reached the age of 35 four months previous, Berkshire’s slow left-arm bowler Chris Peploe is an interesting character. Modern day minor counties cricket is largely the domain of the young cricketer. Indeed, the average age of the two competing teams is just over 24. But for Peploe and Lincolnshire’s Dave Lucas, beyond a veteran at 38, the average would have been a whole year younger.
Peploe has become one of Berkshire’s most important cogs though. Fifty wickets in six matches the previous season proved a phenomenal return, including an afternoon at Dean Park in Bournemouth when the Dorset batting line-up appeared completely mesmerised by his performance from around the wicket. The current campaign had only yielded half the previous summer’s tally but the erstwhile Middlesex spinner had been denied almost two whole matches to weave his skills due to poor weather.
To the lay spectator Peploe appears more than just an ace wicket taker though. His ebullient personality shines through and appears to prove a great influence on the younger elements of the Berkshire team. Early in the first session the Hammersmith native’s distinctive voice is clearly audible to all in attendance: “Now we told you about that yesterday!” he cries, comically admonishing one of the Lincolnshire batsmen after the umpire has called one short. Earlier in the summer Peploe had proved equally as amusing during a contest against Cheshire after a mix-up between wicket-keeper David Hurst and Cheshire captain Lee Dixon almost resulted in a run out. “Now you must run the captain’s runs!” he authoritatively informed the gloveman. As the players left the field for lunch Peploe could be seen demonstratively joshing with Dixon. Judging a player’s influence from afar can be a difficult business but one gets the impression that Peploe is a genial character in the dressing room, perhaps something of an older brother figure to those at the polar end of their cricket careers.
Peploe’s introduction reaps immediate dividends; within four deliveries he has trapped Conrad Louth leg-before wicket whilst Dominic Brown is castled by Matt Carter five overs later but Tattersall remains entrenched at the crease, calmly accumulating runs and constructing an innings that keeps Lincolnshire marginally ahead of their home county opponents.
Indeed, Tattersall’s serene progress permits one to ponder the beautiful setting stretching out across the valley. Today’s crowd, a relative Bank Holiday bumper for the match, gently rings the almost perfect ellipse of the playing surface although there is still room for those that arrive late to set up camp for the afternoon. A gazebo or two appear on the side nearest the car park as patrons judge how much of a dalliance they wish to enjoy with the balmy sunshine.There is a smattering of green blazers and stripy ties featuring Imps and Stags as the mandarins from the two county boards literally and metaphorically enjoy their day in the sun. Said star warms this beautiful fold in the Chilterns; not quite an Indian Summer in its most literal sense, as August has provided more than one heatwave, but enough to make Wormsley a most glorious setting that likely formed in Sir Paul Getty’s dreams when he first pondered turning a section of his estate into a quintessentially English scene. The dulcet tones of the PA announcer resonate from the two giant speakers whenever James Morris elects upon a bowling change or the Lincolnshire batsmen pass a particular landmark. The timbre of the gentleman’s voice is soothing and becalming in line with the pervading atmosphere. On the far side of the ground Wormsley’s now permanent marquee is predictably a little empty in comparison to previous high profile matches that have been played at the venue. This is cricket for the connoisseur rather than for those who wish to be wined and dined whilst there is something taking place out there on the grass.
Proceedings on said sward amble onward with Lincolnshire quietly making their way toward Berkshire’s first innings total and Tattersall edging toward a century. Looking unflustered and unperturbed, the Harrogate native exudes a similar calm that was, and is, the hallmark of some of England’s most illustrious test openers. Youthful exuberance soon undermines the young opener’s progress though as he fails to connect with an extravagant, Pietersen-esque flamingo style shot to the leg-side, the ball clattering into his middle-stump. Bowler Matt Carter, likely surprised by the unexpected choice of shot, roars and charges off to the slip cordon, no doubt delighted at a pivotal breakthrough.
Berkshire turn the screw post Tattersall’s dismissal and chip away at the Lincolnshire lower order, Chris Peploe to the fore. As the players leave the field for the tea interval Berkshire appear set to claim a sizeable first innings lead but, akin to the Home County’s effort the previous day, the Lincolnshire tail wags as the final three partnerships add fifty-five valuable runs to reduce the deficit to just thirty-eight runs. Peploe proves his usual influential self though, bowling a third of the allotted ninety overs and claiming the final two wickets to complete another five-fer.
Momentum had shifted into the camp of the East Midlands county and, as the heat of the day begins to subside, their bowlers tear through the Berkshire top order, claiming four early wickets. Euan Woods, hero of the previous day with an unbeaten century, and Ollie Wilkin forge a crucial partnership to keep the Stags in the driving seat though as the Home County reach the close of play leading by 174 runs, a further two days play still in the offing.
Whatever the stage and state of the match, it has proved an intriguing, absorbing, fascinating day’s play; a superb advertisement for the humble, sidelined minor counties cricketers for whom this is the pinnacle of their respective counties’ existence. The respected journalist Scyld Berry once described such contests as ‘minor county miracles’ and one cannot disagree with the sentiment. Turn up at an attractive ground, decamp into a fold-out chair near the boundary rope, forage about in one’s de facto picnic and enjoy the excellent fare on offer, hopefully in pleasant sunshine. Marvellous.