Unlike its first class equivalent there is an arbitrary, random nature to the minor counties season. The twenty counties that comprise the structure are divided into two conferences of ten counties but each will only play six of their nine opponents during the summer, three matches at home, three away. Thus, the champion of each conference, in both instances, will not have played all of the other nine teams. Indeed, it is not inconceivable for a county to avoid playing the three strongest counties in their division. Reality dictates that those in charge of fixtures at the Minor Counties Cricket Association likely do their best to avoid such instances but anomalies still arise. For instance, during the 2017 campaign Northumberland play neither of the bottom two counties, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, from the previous campaign whilst they are tasked with hosting conference champions Lincolnshire. A similar proposition faces Hertfordshire, albeit with a trip to the division’s top team.
Geography also yields an arbitrary influence upon the fabric of a season. The Championship is divided into two conferences, eastern and western; the line of division running at a diagonal down the length of the country. Such a division creates the odd anomaly. For instance, Home County favourites Berkshire and Buckinghamshire will never meet (aside from both qualifying for the final) despite being divided by just the Thames whilst Cumberland are required to travel as far south as Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire but not afforded the relative luxury of a much shorter journey to Cheshire or Shropshire. Fortunately, the MCCA Trophy is a little more sympathetic to the players, the majority of whom are amateurs with secular careers to juggle outside of their cricketing equivalents. Indeed, the realities of minor counties cricket could arguably be no better summed up than a scenario a couple of weeks previous when Berkshire’s regular skipper James Morris had to surrender the captaincy for a contest against Wiltshire due to the missing the contest because of work commitments.
Such influences dictate some rather pleasing differences though. Minor counties contests are shoehorned into three days, each lasting a minimum of 110 overs. Players are thus less inclined to dawdle excessively over field placings and changes of bowling when the allocated finishing time is already listed as seven o’clock in the evening. Similarly, a handful of intriguing nuances exist which arguably enhance a day’s viewing. For instance, the first innings of each team concludes after 90 overs, thus dictating that the batting side will either score at a reasonable pace or, provided they have a solid foundation, indulge in some cavalier tactics late in their allocation. Teams are also required to possess an average age of 26 or under for their nine youngest performers whilst each county is only permitted to field one player who has forty or more first-class appearances under their belt. Both requirements need to be met for a county to receive its full allocation of funding from the ECB.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of minor counties cricket is the prevalence and importance of spin. Played on pitches a little more helpful to the bowlers, teams often pick two or more spinners who will bowl the lion’s share of the overs due to seamers understandably not wishing to pound in for twenty plus overs each afternoon. Thus, the match moves along at a decent pace whilst the fine art of spin bowling remains influential and on show. One could argue that minor counties cricket has benefited from the marginalisation of spin bowlers in first class cricket; the scarce usage of such practitioners likely pushing bowlers that would have thrived in generations of yore down into second XI’s with a likely knock on effect to the minor counties.
Today’s twirlers on offer are those playing for hosts Wiltshire and their west-country opponents from Devon. Wiltshire’s starting eleven includes Ed Young, Jake Lintott and Joe King whilst Devon name Matthew Golding and Toby Codd in their team. The latter county have previously included Dom Bess who has gone on to play for Somerset. The Bess family are something of an institution in the Devon ranks. Dom may have moved on to first-class cricket but his three cousins (brothers Josh, Luke and Zach) all played in the last three day contest against Cheshire. Luke Bess has not been included in the squad for the trip to Salisbury but the almost dynastic nature of the family’s involvement remains impressive and noteworthy.
Hosts Wiltshire bat first after winning the toss but are soon struggling at 76-4 as Devon’s bowlers make early inroads. South Wilts batsman Will Wade, playing on his home pitch, offers stout resistance but regular wickets fall at the other end as Wiltshire are bowled out for 208, Wade the penultimate wicket for 69, spinner Toby Codd taking 4 wickets. Devon struggle in reply though, limping to the close at 84-5, pace bowler Tahir Afridi claiming three wickets. Afridi claims another the following morning as Wiltshire clean up the visiting lower order to claim a precious 81 run first innings lead. Wiltshire lose a couple of early wickets at the beginning of their second innings but skipper Ed Young and home favourite Will Wade battle well as the hosts reach 47-2 at lunch.
Young feathers a delivery from Zak Bess through to wicket-keeper Michael Thompson soon after the resumption but Will Wade appears comfortable courtesy of a succession of leg-side glances that scoot across the fast outfield for boundaries. Skipper Josh Bess notes the development and stations Joe King at leg gully. Somewhat surprisingly, Wade turns a delivery from Zak Bess straight into King’s and the visitors sense a potential comeback.
Wiltshire counter attack with some attacking bravado from Jake Lintott and Neil Clark but Bess turns to the spin of Jamie Stephens and the bowler induces an inside edge onto the stumps from Clark; Lintott following soon after as the lead creeps past 200. One wizened Devon spectator predicts that 250 would be more than enough. Tahir Afridi and James Arney repair the damage a little with an enterprising partnership that edges the hosts past the predicted total. Indeed, the pair frustrate the flotilla of Devon bowlers, 7 are used in total, as their partnership reaches 39 when the tea interval intervenes, edging the lead toward 300.
Today’s venue, South Wilts Cricket Club in the north-western Salisbury hinterlands, is a somewhat schizophrenic locale. Peruse to the north and one is afforded a view of the rushing traffic down the A36 artery and the rail line heading toward Bristol. Turn one hundred and eighty degrees and the vista is one that could be straight out of Midsomer Murders featuring antiquated houses and a rural vista. Unsurprisingly, viewing in the latter direction proves a comfortable winner.
Meanwhile, one side of the ground features a short boundary flanked by netting reaching a couple of stories into the ether. The reason for said netting is immediately obvious: a handful of dwellings residing no more than thirty yards from the boundary’s edge that were constructed, according to the front of one house, five years previous. They would be a cricket fan’s dream abode but all five dwellings are very much closed, the owners likely working to pay off the mortgage. Despite the protective netting the houses remain sitting ducks though as a lofted pull or hook could easily traverse the protection.
The quirks aren’t confined to the club’s neighbours though as the playing area features a pronounced slope akin to a golf green almost midway between the wicket and the boundary. Said slope doesn’t appear to affect most bowlers’ run-ups with the exception of Josh Bess and Matt Golding, although the change in elevation similarly appears not to impinge on their approaches to the crease. One does watch with a little more focus for a few deliveries after a run-up is initially marked out to begin on the top tier.
Once beyond the boundary the ground returns to the modern courtesy of an impressive new pavilion-cum-clubhouse that resides in the north-western corner of the ground. The structure is not a pavilion in the truest sense of the word but it does provide excellent facilities for the sports club as a whole; one gentleman wandering around a lap of the pitch highlights that the resident Hockey club features some fourteen teams, hence the large premises. The building does feature a pleasant semi-circular terrace under tarpaulin covers on the first floor, a perfect spot from which to enjoy an elevated view of the play. It is also an ideal location from which to eavesdrop on a few opinions and glean some tidbits of information about the Minor Counties scene.
Those in the alfresco seats soon witness an end to the frivolous antics of Wiltshire’s lower order as Tahir Afridi is yorked fifteen minutes after the resumption for an entertaining innings of 32 whilst the final pair contribute another five runs before the innings concludes one run short of 200. The total appears meagre but Wiltshire’s players remain buoyant on the steps leading down to the boundary’s edge as the lead has been stretched to almost 300.
Few expect Devon to chase their target and there is the odd thought about the game failing to make it into the third day. The county’s openers apply themselves well though and, save for a tight leg-before wicket decision going the way of the loose limbed Tahir Afridi, Devon’s batsmen survive the passage of probing swing bowling, passing 50 for the loss of just one wicket in the 18th over.
Ed Young turns to his spin bowlers four overs later in the form of Joe King but it is the introduction of Jake Lintott that proves crucial as the Clevedon club man traps Michael Thompson leg-before wicket for a patient 19 runs. Devon survive to the close without further losses but it could be a crucial day for Wiltshire’s spin bowlers the following morning.
For all cricket’s developments on and off the pitch the art of spin bowling still provides great intrigue and fascination to the lay supporter. The term ‘mystery spinner’ is something of a cliché in the modern game but there is a mysterious nature to the skill so that it is afforded the description of being an art form. The first class county game has, to some extent, marginalised the spin bowler at large but the minor counties level seems to actively welcome the twirlers with open arms. It is one of the pleasures of minor counties cricket to witness teams with two or more practitioners proving so influential. Long may the trend continue.
Footnote: Wiltshire’s spinners make their presence felt the following morning as Joe King removes Tom Ansell and Matthew Golding to leave the visitors four wickets down requiring another 168 runs for victory. The stage is set for a match defining performance and brothers Josh and Zak Bess come to their county’s aid, producing a stunning unbeaten partnership. Home skipper Ed Young rotates his spin bowlers, including himself, but to no avail as the Bess family writes another piece of Devon cricket history, leading the county to a six wicket success.