Ah, Arundel. A venue that could conjure any number of clichés and maxims. One wishes to avoid such platitudes but there is good reason why this ground tucked away on the outskirts of a pretty Sussex town provokes such gushing words. Today represents a fifth personal visit to the venue and the journey along the A27 remains exciting and invigorating as it did on the inaugural occasion four years previous. Reality dictates that some grounds are just simply ideal for spectating. It is that tucked away, almost hidden quality that perhaps provides the Castle Ground with its most endearing qualities. One could almost describe it as other worldly. Despite possessing a large playing area and capacious surrounds there is a sense of intimacy and calm. The world rushes by on its chaotic journey to nowhere but Arundel remains Arundel. It is timeless; homely. Everything is in the right place and in keeping with the surrounds, there is nothing gaudy or ostentatious. Entrance comes via a couple of gaps in the trees but these are bijoux and almost apologetic.
Unsurprisingly, the venue enjoys a full summer of fixtures, ranging from County Championship and T20 Blast games involving host county Sussex to wandering equivalents hosted by the Sussex Martlets. Renowned cricket enthusiast Tim Rice hosts a fixture, under the auspices of his Heartaches team, at the ground whilst the Under 17 County Championship Final, the County Championship Disability Final and the Cricketer Cup Final also take place on the Duke of Norfolk’s home turf.
Today’s cricket is a similar denouement to an ECB competition: the Second XI T20 Finals Day. An abridged version of the T20 Blast, with a slightly different format, the Second XI version of Finals day has been held at the beautiful Castle Ground for the last five seasons and one would be hard pressed to find a more glorious venue. The ground’s location, some five miles from the English Channel, dictate that, logistically, it is not ideal though. Indeed, the very southern location of Arundel Castle and its distinct advantage to the Home Counties can be no better illustrated than through the unfortunate second XI of Durham, who have undertaken the near 350 mile journey for each of the two previous summers only to be dumped out of Finals Day at the conclusion of the first match (approximately 1.15pm) on both occasions. Arundel and its charming surrounds aren’t quite so endearing in such circumstances. The 2017 qualifiers from the Northern section, Yorkshire and Lancashire, may not have to travel quite as far as Durham but the sentiment remains the same. In contrast, Sussex, on home soil, and neighbours Hampshire are afforded a most comfortable, and short, journey.
The latter south coast county begin proceedings against Yorkshire at the sprightly hour of half past ten in the morning. Similar to Darts and Snooker, T20 cricket is arguably a late afternoon / evening pastime so beginning at such an early hour does seem rather alien. Such a sensation is further heightened as one decants from the car and experiences a breezy freshness to the morning whilst the smell of the previous day’s precipitation lingers in the air. In truth, the elements are more akin to early May rather than mid August.
Yorkshire bat first in the contest but struggle in the bowler friendly conditions, their plight aptly demonstrated by skipper Will Rhodes’ dismissal, strangled down the leg side, as the Tykes reach the halfway point of their allocation at a modest 50-4. Jordan Thompson repairs the damage with a couple of lusty blows, one of which clatters around the branches of the ground’s beautiful oak tree, but chips a simple catch to Jimmy Adams at cover soon after. Middle order batsman Matt Waite anchors the innings as wickets fall, threatening to launch a late charge, but he skies a delivery from Brad Wheal to mid-off and the innings subsides amid a slew of calamitous dismissals as Yorkshire stumble to 100 all out.
In contrast, Hampshire openers Jimmy Adams and Fraser Hay reach the halfway point of their target in just 25 deliveries amid a succession of well struck boundaries. Hay falls to a catch in the deep soon after but Adams cruises to a half century and the southern county canter to a nine wicket victory with nearly fifty deliveries to spare. All of which prompts much conjecture amid those sat outside the club office at the conclusion of the match. One punter highlights that Yorkshire have fielded a virtual 3rd XI for the match as priority for the seconds was apparently given to another contest against Lancashire the following day whilst another spectator ponders the fairness of Jimmy Adams playing in such a contest, mistakenly believing that the erstwhile Hampshire captain had previously represented England.
Both individuals are indulging in one of the more intriguing pastimes of the day: scorecard twitching. Scorecards are available for all three matches at various junctures of the day but one has to be quick as they are soon snapped up outside the ground’s bijoux office by eager collectors; pound coins and other loose change dropped enthusiastically into the small circular tin placed on an equally small table. Upon the completion of the first semi-final a gaggle of spectators begins to gather outside of the office in readiness for the production of the second semi-final’s collector’s item. All have to wait for a small pile to make their way from the office printer in a scene that is uniquely cricket.
Stride a few steps beyond the club office and one stumbles upon a quaint in appearance kiosk selling hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, cake and all variety of snacks. Tea is served from something approaching an urn and the cake is most certainly home made. There is a sense of a village fete to the scene and the day’s only food outlet is a pleasant contrast to the weak alcohol and smelly burgers proffered at the first XI equivalents. Players still dressed in their kit or off field equivalents mingle with spectators in a classic outground atmosphere.
Proceedings in the second semi-final prove a little more even than the first as Lancashire reach 45-1 at the end of the powerplay after being invited to bat by host county Sussex. Erstwhile England opener Haseeb Hameed walks out to bat at the fall of the second wicket to provide a treat for those in attendance; a couple of beautifully deft shots edging the red rose county to 74-2 at the midpoint of their allocation. Nevertheless, Baby Boycs and Luke Procter proceed in a rather ponderous manner as Sussex skipper Harry Finch rotates his bowlers well, restricting Lancashire to just 108 with 5 overs remaining. Hameed strikes a beautiful straight 6 in the following over but also perishes in pursuit of runs; Lancashire’s innings stuttering and spluttering to 149-5 from their 20 overs.
Hameed’s presence in the Lancashire squad highlights another of the day’s subtle nuances. Second XI T20 Finals Day may well be more of a day out than the T20 Blast equivalent but a trophy is a trophy and one of the more interesting aspects of the day is to peruse the four squads to spot any first-team regulars dropped down a level for the occasion. Not quite a case of selecting the odd ringer or two as per the village / recreational side of the sport but certainly an area open to parachuting in a player or two into the team, a situation likely to be familiar with club cricketers. Not quite on a par with the 2010 T20 Finals Day when Essex, to much chagrin from some quarters, signed West Indian star Dwayne Bravo purely for Finals Day, but one could certainly ponder whether dropping first team players into the squad for the day is pushing the boundaries somewhat. Thus, the presence of Jimmy Adams, Will Smith and Brad Wheal in the Hampshire squad, Haseeb Hameed in Lancashire colours and Luke Wells in Sussex equivalents could raise a few eyebrows although only Wheal is likely to feature in the various counties’ T20 Blast campaigns. Indeed, the advent of Hampshire and Sussex playing Blast fixtures later on in the day and a Roses derby the following evening has arguably limited the number of players dropped down to the seconds for the occasion.
Sussex begin their reply with a little more fluency than their opponents, reaching 50 without loss by the end of the powerplay. Opener Angus Robson leads the charge post the relaxing of the fielding restrictions and completes an attacking half century off of 30 deliveries but Lancashire chip away at the Sussex top order and the contest is evenly poised at 81-3 at the midpoint of the southern county’s chase. The home county, in both senses of the term, comfortably keep apace with the run rate but the fall of two further wickets leave them requiring 41 runs from the final 5 overs. Angus Robson remains at the crease though whilst a miss-fielded four and a lofted six over long-off by Nick Oxley all but clinches victory for Sussex. Lancashire skipper Luke Procter removes Oxley’s off stump from the next delivery though and the requirement is 15 runs from the final half a dozen deliveries with 4 wickets in hand. Thirteen runs are bludgeoned off of the penultimate over and a pair of singles from the opening two balls of the next edge Sussex home with four deliveries to spare, Angus Robson finishing unbeaten on 90.
Robson is soon at the crease again as Sussex win the toss and bat first in the final but he lasts just three overs of the decider before being castled by Brad Wheal. Robson’s fellow opener Chris Wells and skipper Harry Finch respond well though with a flurry of boundaries as Sussex reach 53-2 by the conclusion of the powerplay, 86-2 at the midpoint of their allocation. The host county move through the gears during the third quarter of their overs, Delray Rawlins to the fore with a massive six over the sightscreen atop the hill at the park end of the ground. Somewhat disappointingly Rawlins gives his wicket away, feathering an attempted reverse sweep to wicket-keeper Fraser Hay, and the innings slows a little, reaching 131-3 with 5 overs remaining. Sussex can only deal in singles and appear to lose Finch just shy of a half century but he is reprieved after being bowled off a no-ball. He completes the personal milestone two deliveries later but is soon dismissed as the hosts still manage to record a challenging total of 171-6.
Hampshire begin their chase in cavalier fashion but two wickets in consecutive deliveries (including skipper Jimmy Adams) for Abi Sakande stymie their pursuit. Crucially, the bright afternoon sunshine had disappeared behind a thick blanket of cloud during the break between innings, presenting a gloomy outlook for the early evening play. Sakande claims a third wicket in his final over as Hampshire limp to 80-5 at the halfway point of their innings. The experienced Will Smith and the youthful Chris Sole repair some of the damage but the latter’s dismissal in the 12th over effectively curtails any latent hopes. Smith’s dismissal three overs later for 31 all but confirms Sussex’s triumph as Hampshire reach the 15 over mark still requiring 66 for victory. Aside from Jake Lintott the lower order offers little resistance and Hampshire are dismissed for 147 in the final over as the host county claim victory on home turf.
It’s just a quick shimmy out of the Castle grounds and around the outskirts of Arundel itself before one is on the fast route back west but there is time to ponder what is arguably one of the most enjoyable days in the cricket calendar. Arguably one of the more pleasing aspects of the day is the balance between spectator and the actual play. The Second XI Finals Day possesses more of an old school atmosphere where those in attendance have arrived to watch the play; they are present to spectate, not expecting to be entertained akin to an inebriated Roman Emperor. Thus, the crowd are not baying for six after six after six but simply watching what happens as the day unfolds. Listening to snippets of conversation as one undertakes a number of bimbles around the boundary many in attendance possess a knowledge of the teams involved and the players taking part. Hence, the wicket has likely been prepared for rapid run scoring but not to the point where the bowlers are obsolete whilst the boundaries remain at a respectful distance from the stumps. Somewhat pertinently, Spider Man, the Pope and Fred Flintstone are not conspicuous by their absence. The day is about T20 cricket but also about cricket matches that are 40 overs in length and the nuances that go hand in glove with such a format rather than T20 matches designed to placate the ephemeral, capricious whims of sections of the audience not really interested in what is happening on the pitch.