(Apologies regarding a couple of the players’ names in this article. I had to guess and / or interpret the scorecard!)
Fifteen years ago there was almost no comparison between the distant villages of Boscastle in north Cornwall and Hambledon in east Hampshire. Little more than quaint locales, the only genuine link was their bijoux size. One and a half decades on and the two villages are now famous for the havoc wreaked upon them by Britain’s capricious weather. Boscastle suffered the astonishing flooding of its narrow valley harbour in 2004 whilst Hambledon suffered a similar fate, albeit inland, after the storms that dominated the 2013/14 winter.
Venture down to the former and the denizens of the beautiful village are trying their hardest to move on from the freak natural disaster that made their village famous across the country. Upon a brief mention of the f-word our bed and breakfast host from five summers previous raised his eyebrows in mock disgust. It was not difficult to grasp his point. The villagers of Hambledon would likely wish for a similar policy of attempting to move on from the distressing effects of a ferocious past.
Fortunately for the latter village, Hambledon possesses a claim to fame which should trump the infamy afforded by the weather. Even before the battering from the storms, the village was known as being the Cradle of Cricket. Such a moniker has been bestowed upon the village due to the important role that Hambledon played in the history of the sport in England. Cricketing myth and apocrypha dictate that cricket began at Hambledon but such a claim is not true. The sport had been played recreationally on the South Downs for over two hundred years before the Hampshire village came to prominence. Rather, Hambledon was the location for the sport’s first headquarters, the Lord’s of its day, the conduit from which the game moved into existing as the national summer sport. The Hambledon team, captained by Richard Nyren, who was the landlord of the Bat and Ball pub across the road from the ground, regularly played opponents representing the remainder of the country and regularly claimed victory. Thus, Hambledon’s small, tranquil ground has become affectionately known as the spiritual home of cricket.
Today the ground at Broadhalfpenny Down is the home venue for the eponymous Brigands team who play almost all of their summer fixtures at home. Visiting teams are likely queuing up to play at the original home of cricket after all. Somewhat ironically, today’s opponents, Droxford, have perhaps one of the shortest journeys to the historic ground of Broadhalfpenny’s many opponents, residing from the eponymous village half a dozen miles west of the venue. The club is not the average of its kind due to only playing Sunday friendly matches and mid-week twenty over equivalents as opposed to being part of the local Hampshire league. Nevertheless, it is a team that plays between 15 and 20 matches most summers, likely providing excellent team spirit and hard earned experience of the capricious Sunday afternoon time matches format.
Droxford bat first and, despite scoring quickly in the sunshine, lose two early wickets to the wily bowling of the hosts’ skipper Mike Wood. The visitors’ left-handed opener Nick Keitley flirts with being dismissed on a handful of occasions before finally succumbing as Droxford reach 20 overs at a precarious 68-5 despite conditions proving perfect for batting. Curiously, the original Hambledon ground (the eponymous club now play at Ridge Meadow approximately a mile away) is not particularly fielder friendly as the square sits at the summit of an upturned bowl, all sides of the wicket sloping toward the boundary flags to the point where the fielders on the opposite side of the ground to the pub ephemerally appear to be without calves. Amusingly, only the heads of a couple bimbling around the far boundary can be seen bobbing along the sward horizon until they circumnavigate past the long-off / on region. The natural topography does provide fabulous views of the east Hampshire hinterland though; sweeping, verdant fields and neat rows of lush, fecund trees forming a beautiful backdrop in addition to the slight summer zephyr and the glorious afternoon sunshine.
The beautiful setting provides little solace for the afternoon’s visiting team though. Droxford fare little better after their inauspicious start as Broadhalfpenny’s young bowlers Euan Whettingsteel and Leo Boscombe chip away at the lower order, a modest total appearing all but certain. Father and son combination Alan and Aaron Saunders offer a modicum of resistance for the penultimate wicket but Broadhalfpenny’s opening bowler Mike Wood returns to claim the final pair of wickets and Droxford are all out for 106 after just 33 overs in a timed contest.
Another boon for the lay visitor to Broadhalfpenny Down is that one can indulge in an afternoon’s spectating whilst in the company of one’s uninterested other half courtesy of a stroll round the undulating boundary, glorious settings for reading a book in the sunshine and the adjacent Bat and Ball pub from which one can purchase lashings of tea in proper white china or a couple of snifters possessing slightly greater potency. Even dining at the pub allows for uninterrupted viewing of the action (just) from the al fresco seating. Predictably there is a symbiotic relationship between hostelry and cricket hosts. Punters drift across from the pub with regularity, providing the fixture with a small following that would likely not normally be attracted by such a fixture at other venues. In turn, the pub receives plenty of trade once the match finishes and we later indulge in dinner and enjoy the museum-esque interior of the pub as the walls are adorned with all sorts of intriguing cricketana that perpetually draw one’s eye away from the succulent roast beef dinner that has arrived. Even the largely disinterested other half enjoys the lamp shade and lights made from disused cricket bats. Word flitters about amongst the waiters and waitresses that Gerry is coming in later. One assumes that the Gerry in question is Mr Northwood, opener and fixtures secretary for the hosts and a likely regular guest at the Bat and Ball.
Upon returning to chase down the modest total set by Droxford the hosts bat circumspectly for the first couple of overs but soon move the scoreboard along, reaching 32 without loss after 10 overs. The aforementioned fixtures Secretary, Gerry Northwood, is bowled soon after but fellow opener Graham Inglis and Northwood’s replacement James Matthews accelerate as the Brigands reach 69-2 after just 15 overs. The match is soon to be concluded and a final stroll around this gorgeous venue is required.Under the balcony of the achingly beautiful two storey wooden pavilion the home team chat amiably. Results and winning matches are undoubtedly important but at this social level of the sport simply playing is a joy in itself. Most seasons are likely to be interrupted by the occasional washout or a cancellation due to the opposition failing to raise a side after all. The sound of the scorer politely enquiring as to the new bowler’s surname provides another reminder of the nature of this most pastoral and bucolic of contests.
On the field, tittle changes as the hosts’ middle order cruise toward their target, dispatching the occasional loose delivery to the boundary with ease as the game heads toward an inevitable conclusion. Three figures are raised in the 22nd over without further losses, the final seven runs and victory achieved two overs later.
In terms of standard of play and status of contest, the friendly match between Broadhalfpenny and Droxford was a mere footnote in cricket’s grand scheme of things. But Broadhalfpenny’s existence and their contribution to the maintenance of Hambledon’s historic ground adds a sense of gravitas and importance to the afternoon. There is a sense of occasion and history at this quirky, yet humble, old venue. On a hot summer’s afternoon there really can be no better spot to enjoy an archetypal English contest. Attending a match at the spiritual home of cricket is surely a must for any itinerant cricket follower.