Watching cricket in the countryside is more than simply watching a match. There is a therapeutic aspect to the experience that isn’t immediately obvious but pervades the whole day. Setting up a pew in either the warm sunshine or the shade of an overhanging tree, one is able to step off of the daily grind. The world comes to a halt. Not the actual world, but one’s personal world. Thoughts and pressures of the day (financial, familial, secular, emotional, physical) all ephemerally take a sabbatical as one can simply breath in fresh air, free of the invading noise and irritants of everyday life. Even on a chilly, cloudy day there is still an elemental freedom which renders the experience so refreshing, so uncluttered. Nothing really seems to matter, not even what is happening on the field of play.
This early in the season a countryside locale seems to resonate more. Driving along traffic-free roads, arriving at a bucolic destination and the first sights of a yawning expanse so verdant and lush from the effects of spring all help one’s heart to sing and provoke a small smile. Park one’s car near to the boundary, not too close to be in danger of the odd lusty shot for six, decant a fold-out chair, fall into said chair and just stop. During the moments prior to the start of play there is the near sound of silence (Enjoy the Silence as Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore once wrote) only perpetuated by the pre-match banter and the odd thwock of ball on bat from a few gentle throw-downs or thud of ball into the palm of glove as the wicket-keeper warms the mitts ready for the first delivery. The air is clear and fresh, possessing smells of the surrounding trees, fields and wildlife as opposed to odours of cheap fast food and watered down alcohol. Despite sitting down in a comfortable chair all afternoon one will return home still feeling tired courtesy of a long spell amid such refreshing, pollution free climes. The experience wouldn’t quite possess the same resonance at a cold, empty county ground where a handful of spectators appear lost amongst swathes of plastic seats. Such humble crowds are much more in keeping with the full minor counties experience.
Easter Monday’s destination du jour is one such rural location. Wedged in the hinterlands between High Wycombe and Oxford and a short drive from junction 6 of the M40, the village of Aston Rowant is an odd outpost for a county cricket match but its choice as a venue for the friendly, warm up contest between neighbours Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire represents one of the more appealing aspects of minor counties cricket. Unencumbered by the logistical issues that are an inherent part of the first-class game, the minor counties are able to host their matches at grounds possessing a more aesthetically appealing, countryside ambience. Matches tend to take place in market towns as opposed to cities, rural climes as opposed to urban centres.
Late Easter bank holidays understandably prompt a friendly fixture or two as the minor counties shake off the cobwebs prior to the end April start of the limited overs competition. Thus, aside from the contest about to unfold in the Oxfordshire countryside, 138 miles to the west Dorset will play Wiltshire at the similarly rural North Perrott Cricket Club. Astute geographers will note that such a venue is neither in Dorset nor Wiltshire but actually in neighbouring Somerset. Dorset’s use of such a venue is very much a recent development. For two decades the county played their home matches at the glorious Dean Park venue in the north Bournemouth hinterlands, a ground that manages to give the illusion of being located in a small village rather than a busy town. Problems arose when the Park School purchased the ground from the Cooper Dean Estates in 2014; the former electing to use the pavilion as a nursery, a decision that put an end to a century and a half of cricket on the site, including over 300 first-class matches involving Hampshire. Dorset now play matches in both Somerset and Hampshire as well as within the borders of their own county.
Such digressions aside, both counties on show at Aston Rowant likely require the confidence boost of a pre-season victory after disappointing campaigns the previous summer. Visitors Oxfordshire (the game is to be played in their county but technically hosted by Buckinghamshire) finished second from bottom in the Western Conference and bottom of their one-day trophy group whilst Buckinghamshire, in a nice moment of symmetry, finished bottom of the Eastern Conference and second from bottom in their trophy group.
Buckinghamshire bat first under leaden skies amid cool breezes and their early progress is circumspect; a succession of edges and false shots prompting ooos and aaahs from the Oxfordshire fielders. Runs flow from the edges though and the hosts pass fifty in the fourteenth over as Saif Zaib and AJ Woodland begin to bat with more assurance. With conditions improving and the batting pair attacking the first change bowlers both Zaib and Woodland quickly perish; the former castled by a turning delivery from off-spinner Harvey Eltham, the latter caught in the covers. Woodland hangs his head in disappointment at his demise, significant acreage either side of the fielder highlighting that a boundary could so easily have been the result had the shot been better placed.
The hosts pass three figures just prior to drinks but the intermission does not serve them well as the brisk innings of Shelvin Gumbs is curtailed by a straight delivery from Luke Ryan and a resultant stumping by wicket keeper Will Hawtin. The sun shines briefly and its appearance encourages a recovery from Buckinghamshire as Garry Park and skipper Michael Payne piece together a fifty partnership. The sun soon disappears and so does Park, top-edging an attempted leg side larrup neatly taken by keeper Hawtin.
Ten overs remain and the hosts are obliged to attack as the scoreboard reads 167-5. Oxfordshire appear set to chase a modest total but late innings cameos from Rob Pritchard (21 from 13 balls) and George Russell (31 from 23 balls including three mighty sixes over the short square leg boundary) alongside able support from skipper Payne (49 from 61 balls) push the hosts to within three runs of 250 from their fifty over allocation.
Nestled in the lee of one of the ridges that form the Chiltern hills, Aston Rowant is a pleasant spot to enjoy an afternoon. The weather may be chilly but the locale is sufficiently bucolic and peaceful. Occasional traffic on the B road behind one end disturbs the peace but it is not an inconvenience and competes with the herd of cows from a couple of fields across who moo zealously. Overhead a handful of Kestrels soar and glide, squawking cheerily if with a little menace. One side of the ground is flanked by a field full of verdant crops and the pleasant dwellings that form the edge of nearby Kingston Blount village whilst an arguably more attractive ground resides along another with a view of the aforementioned cows. This is minor counties cricket at its most ambient, most bucolic and most ethereal.
Post a doze and a warm up in one’s car during the break Oxfordshire begin their pursuit of victory. Their challenge is soon checked though as three wickets in the first nine overs highlight the bowling threat of Cameron Parsons and Garry Park, both hitting the stumps early in the piece. Captain Cater and Lloyd Sabin stem the flow of wickets but runs are at a premium as Buckinghamshire’s first change bowlers prove just as parsimonious as the openers as the hosts concede just 64 runs in the first twenty overs.
Nevertheless, Cater and Sabin build a useful platform as both pass fifty and their partnership reaches three figures. Cater departs to the returning Garry Park but, with half a dozen wickets remaining, a late charge is far from impossible. Michael Payne rotates his bowlers in search of a breakthrough, all to no avail. He has one more option available though. Eighteen year old Saif Zaib, accomplished run scorer in the hosts’ innings, is thrown the ball; a decision with match changing consequences. Amid a stunning exhibition of slow left-arm bowling Zaib dismisses the dangerous Sabin and rips through the Oxfordshire lower order, skittling three batsmen, trapping another leg-before and finding the edge of Leo Bethell’s bat. From a position of strength at 163-4 the visitors are bowled out for 191, Zaib snaring half a dozen wickets for just a dozen runs in a virtuoso performance. The High Wycombe native already has a marked history despite his young age; he became the youngest player to make his first-class debut for Northamptonshire at the age of fifteen during the 2013 summer. If Buckinghamshire can employ his talents across the summer it is unlikely they will be finishing bottom of any competition tables. Producing such an eyebrow raising performance may prompt selection for higher honours though. Such are the vicissitudes endured by the minor counties.