Theoretically by accident rather than design cricket’s minor counties tend to be on the more rural side. In an almost aligning of the stars moment the more populous counties gravitated toward the first-class structure and those left ended up in something of a siding. Of those in the latter camp, Devon tops the list with almost 1.2 million inhabitants whilst Hertfordshire, Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Cheshire all pass the seven figure mark. Almost inevitably, a large proportion of the minor counties reside in the bottom half of the population table. None challenge the heavyweights at the summit of the standings. By dint, minor counties cricket is often a more bucolic affair or, at the very most, a sort of market town equivalent. Matches are often played in countryside climes with charming countryside names. Amongst those on the current summer’s list are Bashley, Henley-on-Thames, Grampound Road, Great and Little Tew, Saffron Walden, Knypersley, Alderley Edge and Brockhampton.
Also listed amongst the designated home venues for the 2017 summer is the curious Challow Childrey Cricket Club. Tucked away in the south-western corner of Oxfordshire just beyond Wantage, the venue once hosted a Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy contest between Oxfordshire and Huntingdonshire during the 2001 summer but has been limited to minor counties and Unicorns visits since. Parent county Oxfordshire are the latest visitors, playing host to reigning champions, and southern neighbours, Berkshire under whom the villages of East Childrey, West Childrey and Challow were previously administered prior to the 1972 local government act shoving them across the border.
Whatever the geographical minutiae, Challow Childrey Cricket Club enjoys a wonderful countryside location. Indeed, travelling to the venue highlights the beautiful ambience of many a minor counties locale. Much of the route from the south coast is via the A34 dual carriageway but once one leaves the thoroughfare at East Ilsley one is presented with a glorious, sinuous drive along the B4494, a road largely free of traffic and interruptions. It is the sort of countryside route that one imagines a moustachioed gent bombing along during the 1960’s at the wheel of an E-Type Jag. As one begins the descent of Chain Hill toward Wantage one is presented with a sumptuous panorama of the sweeping undulations that pockmark the town’s hinterlands, all part of the northern vestiges of the North Wessex Downs. Sweeping farmers’ fields full of crops mix in with hedgerows and what appears to be a horse training track; the snaking macadam route virtually the only un-organic item as far as the eye can see.
Today’s venue may prove charming and bucolic but the onfield contest soon focuses the mind. Hosts Oxfordshire and visitors Berkshire occupy two of the top three places in the Western Conference, the latter possessing a handsome 23 point lead that would all but provide the luxury of losing to their neighbours and still remain at the summit. Claim victory and the reigning champions would likely qualify for the championship final with a match to spare. Achieving the latter is distinctly possible; since completing victory over Wiltshire at Falkland four weeks previous Berkshire have progressed to the one-day final, courtesy of defending a seemingly modest total of 213 against Staffordshire, whilst Herefordshire had been comprehensively beaten by 10 wickets at Finchampstead. The unbeaten streaks had stretched to 17 in all competitions and the same number in the Minor Counties Championship.
Hosts Oxfordshire resume their first innings at 166-7 on the second morning after a rain affected first day and progress well before Euan Woods’ off-spin accounts for the final three wickets; home skipper Jonny Cater the last to fall for 59 as Oxfordshire are bowled all out for 207. Twenty-three points ahead of second placed Cheshire at the start of the fixture, maximum bowling points dictate that Berkshire will head into the final round of games at the summit of the Western Conference regardless of results at the conclusion of the matches in progress. The reigning champions begin their reply with quick run scoring after losing Andrew House in the first over but Waqas Hussain and Archie Carter fall in quick succession as the visitors reach lunch precariously placed at 67-3.
Berkshire lose the precocious Euan Woods soon after the resumption but skipper James Morris and Andy Rishton repair the damage with a fine patient partnership against accurate spin bowling from Ollie Clarke, Harvey Eltham and Delray Rawlins. Batting proves tricky though and there is a litany of ooos and aaahs along with a handful of vociferous appeals as the hosts sense a potential first innings lead. Morris is brilliantly trapped leg-before by Eltham for a well constructed innings of 34, curtailing the partnership at 76 runs, but Rishton reaches his half century soon after.
The effervescent Chris Peploe replaces his skipper and forms a similarly crucial partnership with Rishton although the erstwhile Middlesex spinner soon requires a runner after tweaking a muscle in his leg. The injury does not impair the veteran’s batting though as the visitors pass 200 and the hosts’ first innings total in quick succession. Indeed, Peploe plays in a more cavalier manner once hors de combat, striking a succession of boundaries as he reaches a half century; the visitors reaching tea at 240-5 with 21 overs of their first innings allocation remaining, Andy Rishton within 16 runs of a brilliant century.
Residing on the summit of a plateau, Challow Childrey offers spectacular views of the Oxfordshire countryside behind either straight boundary, the southern vista offering a more rolling topography than its northern equivalent, whilst a modest white picket fence around the circumference of the playing area suggests that the casual observer may progress no further; the two wooden benches near the pavilion the exception to the rule. Nevertheless, plenty of punters breach the wooden divider for a bimble slightly closer to the action without any rebuke from officialdom.
In truth, there is a vulnerability to the beautiful Challow Childrey ground. The road to Wantage travels behind the southern end and, under normal cricket ground circumstances, a considerable fence, wall or natural border would maintain the ground’s integrity. At Challow Childrey the road and the outside world are divided from the field of play itself by nothing more than a slight ridge that would require only a couple of steps to traverse. Fencing, of a slightly higher nature than the picket equivalent surrounding the boundary, flanks the western perimeter whilst wheat fields border the northern and eastern equivalents. Maybe the vulnerability is part of the charm and beauty of the venue.
The beautiful vistas prove somewhat distracting as one wanders around the circumference of the playing surface; the sweeping hills of the North Wessex Downs in one direction and a dramatic drop into the Thames Valley in the other particularly beguiling. The northern and eastern sides of the ground are flanked by the aforementioned yawning wheat field, the crops golden yellow as they reach the final stage of ripening before harvest. Shallow netting provides some protection along the eastern boundary but one would not be surprised if a ball or two has been lost in amongst the produce over the years, particularly during the lusher, fecund stage of the season. Cricket rarely gets any more bucolic or any more beautiful.
Runs flow rapidly after tea as Peploe opens his arms and attacks with Berkshire meandering through the final 20 overs of their allocation. Indeed, the tall spinner begins to catch up with Andy Rishton when the Loughborough student is yorked by Leo Bethell for 89, a second brilliant innings of the season not rewarded with a century post an innings of 93 against Wiltshire at Falkland nearly a month previous. Peploe continues in attacking fashion though, collecting 11 off one over as he approaches a dashing century. He is almost run out after his runner, skipper Morris, and Stuart Davison attempt a very tight run but a most perfect cover drive completes a brilliant performance. The century itself proves something of a distraction as Berkshire continue to score quickly, increasing their lead courtesy of a cameo from wicket-keeper Stuart Davison. Maximum batting points are soon achieved courtesy of Joe Thomas’ late order boundaries as the reigning champions bat without fear, three consecutive 6’s, the last of which clears the pavilion, further highlighting how the Home County’s batting line-up stretches down to the last man. Thomas reaches a half-century from just 18 deliveries amid some late innings carnage as Berkshire finish on 391-9 from their overs, 151 runs coming from the 21 overs post the tea interval.
The brilliant batting performance leaves Berkshire 10 wickets from qualifying for the championship final with a game to spare as second placed Cheshire have only collected one batting point against Wiltshire. Strike bowler Tom Nugent forces an early breakthrough but there is resistance from Tom Condon and Sussex all-rounder Delray Rawlings. The off-spin of Euan Woods proves crucial again though as the England Under-19 player tempts Rawlings into attack; pace bowler Tom Nugent taking an excellent catch as the hosts reache the close at 55-2, still 129 runs in arrears. The following morning proves more productive for the visitors as early runs are checked by Chris Peploe collecting his first wicket of the innings. Rain intervenes but the interruption has little effect on the Berkshire pursuit of victory as another county are befuddled by the tall left-arm spinner; Peploe collecting four quick wickets and another five-fer as the hosts capitulate to 112-7 with almost an hour remaining in the morning’s session. Oxfordshire’s lower order offers little resistance as Peploe produces a stunning spell, dismissing the tail in a mesmerising performance that witnesses him finish with 8-15 and ten wickets in the match alongside his inaugural century for Berkshire. The reigning champions claim victory by an innings and fifty-three runs and confirm their place in the Minor Counties Championship final with a match to spare. The location of Challow Childrey Cricket Club may be beautiful but the cricket on show is remorseless.