Some when during the second half of the previous summer I reached a personal epiphany regarding cricket spectating: it’s not whom one is watching or the competition one is watching but, rather, where one is watching. The beauty and charm of a venue can often outweigh the status of the match or the two teams involved. An early season trip to the Ageas Bowl to watch Hampshire’s Second XI take on their Somerset counterparts in a couple of T20 matches proved a somewhat bland, mediocre experience in an empty shell of a concrete dominated stadium despite some interesting cricket and the presence of first-team players such as Tom Alsop, Johann Myburgh, Max Waller and Dominic Bess; the sporadic sound of the white ball crashing into row after row of empty plastic seats somewhat incongruous. Fast forward two and a bit months and the same Somerset team are participating in the competition’s finals day at the palatial, beautiful, bucolic surrounds of Arundel’s famous ground and the experience is so much more enjoyable, a pleasant sized crowd contributing a hubbub of an atmosphere to a much more intimate occasion.
Thus, a summer’s outing takes one to Falkland for a minor counties contest between Berkshire and neighbours Wiltshire. Falkland sounds a rather dramatic place to be hosting a cricket match but this particular venue is located in the southern hinterlands of Newbury barely a mile over the Berkshire border with Hampshire rather than in the south Atlantic just off the coast of Argentina. Indeed, Berkshire’s list of home venues for the current season arguably provides something of a metaphor for minor counties cricket itself. Due to its waif-like existence wedged in between Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire nowhere seems overly far from the county border. Nevertheless, the likes of Henley, Wargrave, Falkland and Finchampstead all reside cheek by jowl with the neighbouring county, perhaps an allegory for how the minor counties have been marginalised.
Nevertheless, Falkland Cricket Club’s existence in suburbia offers the venue a pleasing, peaceful ambience. Unless aware of its existence, or post spotting the wooden entrance sign, one could easily drive past the club without spotting its location. Turning off the approach road one is greeted by a small car park and a testing conundrum that is part and parcel of watching minor counties cricket: deciding where to park one’s car. It is very much a boon being able to eschew one’s vehicle so close to the boundary rope but such a luxury does possess a frisson of danger as one has to consider whether a potentially lusty blow from one of the more powerful batsmen might endanger the windscreen of said vehicle.
Residing just off a reasonably main road, the trees flanking the eastern edge of the property act as a decent sound barrier. Beyond the western equivalent are rolling folds in the landscape that spread across the southern vestiges of Berkshire and the northern stretches of Hampshire; only the A34 connecting the Midlands with the south coast interrupting the landscape. Just over the boundary, near the south-western corner of the playing surface, sit five majestic, soaring trees, swaying gently in any prevailing breeze whilst standing sentry over the outfield.
Host county Berkshire begin the contest on the cusp of a potentially record equalling season. Defending champions in the three day championship, the Home County reached the semi-finals of the Knock-Out Trophy a week prior to cinching a 200 run victory over the Wales Minor Counties to top the Western Conference table. Back to back championship titles along with a fifty over success remains a distinct possibility. Only two counties, Staffordshire and Devon, have managed to win both titles in the same season, the last occurrence being by the former at the conclusion of the 1994 summer.
Successes in both competitions are predicated on a couple of intriguing unbeaten runs. First is the fifteen match run in the Minor Counties Championship itself dating back to the final match of the 2014 season whilst five victories in the MCCA Trophy extended the county’s unbeaten run in all competitions to fourteen matches. Curiously, Devon were the last county to beat Berkshire prior to each unbeaten streak beginning.
Another factor that has likely been contributory to Berkshire’s success has been the advantage of selecting from a settled group of players. Minor counties cricket can oft be a transient business, with players moving onto pastures new, be it cricketing or non-cricketing. Nevertheless, performers such as Waqas Hussain, Ollie Wilkin, the Morris brothers, Andy Rishton, Stuart Davison, Chris Peploe and Tom Nugent have provided a backbone to which other young, up and coming players have been introduced, although skipper James Morris and opening batsman Waqas Hussain both miss the latest contest due to work commitments (Morris is a teacher) and marriage commitments. (Hussain) On the morning of the contest Richard Morris also pulls out due to a calf injury, foisting the captaincy onto wicket-keeper Stuart Davison. The return of Euan Woods, the star of Berkshire’s championship final victory the previous August, helps boost the ephemeral void left by the county’s skipper and his vice though.
Berkshire win the toss and elect to bat first on the opening day but soon subside to 157-6 despite a well measured innings of 82 from Euan Woods. Another feature of the Home County’s successes over the past couple of seasons has been the resilience in their batting order though with the likes of Chris Peploe, Stuart Davison, Matt Carter and Tom Nugent contributing valuable runs from lower down the order. Peploe joins forces with the returning Andy Rishton in a partnership of 104 as the reigning champions reach a respectable total of 311 all out, Rishton falling seven runs short of a fine century. Momentum firmly in their favour, Berkshire’s bowling attack reduces the visitors to 69-5 in a dramatic final third of the day’s play. Wiltshire’s lower order similarly offers resistance but two late wickets from Ali Raja leave Berkshire’s western neighbours perilously positioned at 120-7.
The second morning provides little respite for Wiltshire as Ollie Wilkin takes a brace of early wickets en route to the visitors posting a first innings total of 171 all out. Almost inevitably, proceedings change little for Wiltshire during Berkshire’s second innings as the hosts, in possession of a healthy lead, attack with gusto. Despite the fall of two early wickets opener Ollie Wilkin plays with bravado in compiling a rapid half-century as the hosts reach 111-2 at lunch.
The interval provides an opportunity for a mooch and an appreciation of Falkland’s aesthetic beauty as well as the charming minor counties experience. Somewhat amusingly, near the bright green Berkshire Cricket gazebo is an advertising hoarding for Falkland Islands Holidays, a cute link with the eponymous cricket club. Falkland’s only deficiency is its lack of a pavilion that is in keeping with the setting. Rather, the ground is served by a pub. Aptly named the Bowler’s Arms, the single storey, likely sixties or seventies build proves functional as both a hostelry and changing rooms. Parasols and a terrace add a modicum of colour but the scene certainly is one from the past. Nevertheless, that is part of the minor counties charm and watching some of the highlights of the previous day’s women’s World Cup match between England and Sri Lanka during some of the lunch interval certainly helps pass the time. Plans for a new two storey pavilion are afoot though, a little further round the boundary from the current incarnation. Construction is set to begin after the close of the 2017 season. Somewhat pleasingly, the Bowler’s Arms is to be incorporated into the structure.
The day itself is a glorious vignette of English cricket. On a table inside the Bowlers Arms are a collection of scorecards and a donation tin. Inside said scorecards are hand written amendments to the competing teams; some zealous volunteer has painstakingly adjusted each and every offering in a thankless, philanthropic labour of love. The blazers of both counties amble around the boundary edge, proud as punch, engaging in brief conversations with those they know whilst glad-handing others. One member of the crowd chats away and then sets off on his third lap. It is a very English cricket scene. One wonders whether such a scenario would be replicated in chilled out Barbados, hyper zealous Mumbai or brusque, brash Australia.
On the field there are subtle differences between the minor counties and their first class equivalents. Minor counties cricket enjoys a better balance between bat and ball. Pitches are not rolled to within an inch of dying, thus offering bowlers greater assistance. Similarly, batsmen familiar with the requirements of limited overs contests or timed equivalents in league cricket are perhaps not as accustomed to building in an innings in a multi-day contest, thus possibly playing in a more cavalier fashion, affording bowlers a greater chance of taking wickets. Thus, recording a century perhaps provokes greater joy and gravitas due to the scarcity of the achievement at this level.
Post the resumption in play, Ollie Wilkin feathers the first delivery from spinner Ed Young through to wicket-keeper Billy Cookson and is soon followed by Andy Rishton as three quick wickets fall and Wiltshire sense the slightest chink in the armour. Berkshire’s middle and lower order again comes to the fore though as Dan Lincoln attacks with gusto, three sixes and a clutch of boundaries that edges the hosts’ lead past 300. The Finchampstead batsman tamely chips to mid-wicket soon after, three short of a half century, but his 47 ball innings has turned the game back in favour of the Stags. The lower order shepherds the hosts to a near impregnable lead approaching 400 as all chip in with useful runs, Chris Peploe memorably dispatching one delivery onto the roof of the Bowler’s Arms, albeit after the ball caroms off of the boundary rope and leaps onto the summit of the single storey structure. The moment provokes plenty of badinage and banter as Neil Clark shimmies onto the roof to collect the errant ball. With just one wicket remaining Peploe clouts a handful of boundaries to complete a second half century in the match, from just 36 balls, eventually holing out to the mid-wicket boundary for 66 as Wiltshire are given four sessions to chase 429 for victory. The early morning cloud and occasional drizzle clears during the latter part of the Berkshire innings to produce the most glorious late afternoon in the south Newbury hinterlands. The five sentry trees on the far side of the ground are dappled in sunlight as their shadows creep across the outfield. Young children arrive sporadically and venture over to the nets to practice being Joe Root or Jimmy Anderson whilst a gaggle of builders arrive after work for a few overs, a couple of pints and copious amounts of joshing. An impressive sized crowd watches with keen interest as the hosts aim for another victory. The scene may be a marvellous snapshot of an English summer but it is of little consolation for the visitors. Wiltshire begin slowly but without any alarms until Tom Nugent produces a stunning over to dismiss three of the Wiltshire batsmen. Peploe chips in with a brace and there is a very real chance that the match will end after just two days. Despite their perilous position Wiltshire’s middle order bat positively, punishing bad deliveries with boundaries as they reach three figures at not far off five runs per over. Berkshire’s players sense a wicket though and their vocal encouragement increases an iota. Euan Woods rewards the persistence of his team-mates by completing a sharp caught and bowled chance and Berkshire are very much in the ascendancy. They cannot claim any further scalps though as Wiltshire limp to the close six wickets down, taking the match into a third day.
Falkland is bathed in early evening sunlight as play finishes just after seven o’clock in the evening, glowing in the colours of mid-summer as the sun begins its descent behind the ground’s five arboreal guards. Most cricket grounds will appear more charming and aesthetically pleasing when the sun is shining and there is still a warmth to the ether. Few will enjoy the majestic scene that accompanies the end of play and the players’ final wander back to the pavilion though. It is not churlish to conclude that the scene would not quite be so magnificent amongst the concrete stands and empty seats of a larger construction.
Footnote: Berkshire polished off the final four Wiltshire wickets in little more than an hour the following morning to complete victory and extend their unbeaten runs further. Tom Nugent finished with five wickets, Chris Peploe another four.