In many respects cricket is a game full of niches. There is the organised structure of international, domestic first class and amateur leagues but various other nooks exist where the sport comfortably bumbles along almost in glorious isolation from the mainstream hierarchy. One such niche is that of wandering cricket, an itinerant genre of the sport that features various teams playing one off friendly matches in glorious surroundings under the auspices of simply enjoying playing the game and the associated socialising that is a bi-product of said genre. The concept became popular in the 19th century as gentlemen’s amateur clubs became popular along with country house cricket. Almost two centuries later the concept continues to thrive. It’s advent in the twenty first century is one of those glorious anachronisms that shouldn’t survive in the modern game but, paradoxically, defies all logic by firmly remaining part of the varied tapestry that is cricket in England. Amateur touring clubs of course exist in other sports but not in the same context as cricket. In what other sport can one head to a nondescript friendly contest and witness a former England captain playing for one of the teams? Cricket, in particular the wandering genre, remains a sport where the very amateur can still rub shoulders with erstwhile internationals. Similarly, what other sport could provoke a book to be produced on the subject of wandering cricket? Indeed, some of the teams possess a relative amount of fame. Noted author JM Barrie formed the Allahakbarries in the latter years of the 19th century and included luminaries such as Conan Doyle, Jerome K Jerome, AA Milne and PG Wodehouse. Barrie himself was hopeless at the sport but did not let his lack of ability stop him becoming a patron. Other famous teams include the intriguingly named I Zingari, the similarly exotic Incogniti and more traditional sounding Free Foresters, Butterflies and Casuals. Modern day equivalents remain as eclectic including Hampshire Hogs, Tim Rice’s Heartaches, the Authors and Stoics.
As the highest levels of the game threaten to implode amid a seemingly insatiable lust for cash and a T20 Band Aid fix for the game’s problems there is something refreshingly simple and straightforward about the itinerant form of the sport. Wandering cricket is effortlessly simple, without an agenda, free of the constraints of points, divisions, tables and the general issues that are part and parcel of league cricket. It is two teams just playing for the fun of it and enjoying the occasion. Thus begins a succession of forays into the world of wandering cricket, beginning with a club close to home.
When is a wandering team not always a wandering team? When it possesses its own home ground. Such an occurrence may seem something of a paradox when one takes the term ‘wandering’ in its most literal sense but said paradox is certainly the case for the Hampshire Hogs club. Formed in 1887 as the Northlands Rovers CC, the club was synonymously linked with the Hampshire first-class county club for many a decade, providing a team for the amateur cricketer at a time when playing the sport professionally was viewed with a little contempt by the middle and upper classes. For almost a century the club played mainly at St Cross’ Royal Greenjackets ground or Winchester College but difficulty in using the former ground led to the Hogs eventually settling in the village of Warnford on the River Meon in the east of the county. Links to the Hampshire first class team have been maintained through the years as names such as Barry Reed, Mark Nicholas, Will Kendall, Jimmy Adams and Paul Terry have been, or remain, members of the club.
Possessing a home ground does prove rather useful for the contests when the Hogs face another wandering team, thus avoiding a potential cricketing black hole that could be created when the fixture lists of two wandering teams cross paths. Today’s visitors are another of wandering cricket’s more established teams in the form of the Cryptics, a club formed in 1910 in Oxford that plays matches in a number of counties across southern England as well as indulging in the odd overseas tour. The fixture at Warnford is part of the club’s southern tour that also includes matches against the likes of the Sussex Martlets and the Free Foresters whilst the contest is the second in a week-long festival for the Hogs themselves.
The Cryptics’ trip to Warnford is somewhat different to others on their tour in that it is a two day match but the chances of the contest going to the distance appear very much in doubt as the hosts lose five wickets in the morning session, recording 97 runs in the process. Lunch is taken in time honoured test match fashion at one o’clock and the sense of order continues at the beginning of the afternoon session as the two umpires emerge post ringing the bell inside the pavilion. This may be wandering cricket but the traditions of English cricket are most definitely upheld.
The Hogs may have lost half of their wickets in the morning session but Jimmy Shaw remains at the crease and reaches his half century thirty odd minutes after the resumption. The visitors claim a couple of wickets but the hosts edge toward a respectable total as Shaw and Jonathan Grant form a very useful eighth wicket partnership against the Cryptics’ youthful bowling, rotating the strike and collecting the odd boundary to great effect. Of particular amusement is the constant tinkering of the field by the Cryptics skipper, encouraging all to save the single when Grant is on strike only to witness the wizened lower order batsman clout a glorious drive through extra cover and hoik a pull shot through mid-wicket.
Grant’s presence at the wicket demonstrates another of wandering cricket’s endearing qualities: the broad spectrum of players involved on both sides, from the up and coming youngsters playing plenty of matches in the school holidays to the more senior gentlemen who have likely enjoyed many a summer playing in such beautiful places.
And Warnford likely ranks amongst the best of those beautiful places. Upon entering the premises one notices how the ground itself undulates in line with the local topography whilst featuring a slight bias toward the pavilion and away from the entrance down toward the adjacent property. Nestled in one of the folds that form the western vestiges of the South Downs, the ground is surrounded by fields and the walled border of the neighbouring farm whilst there are sporadic trees to break up one’s slow journey around the boundary. Traffic on the nearby A32 road creates sporadic noise but largely there is peace and one can enjoy the distant shrieks of the Kestrels soaring overhead along with the honk of swans or geese and the mellifluous moo of cows from the fields of the nearby farm. Strolling toward the eastern end of the ground, one cannot help but indulge in a quick peak over the stone wall, visually putting into context the opaque roof of the greenhouse-cum-orangery and discovering that the bizarre looking conical shaped thatched roof, that provides a distraction behind the bowlers arm when spectating from the pavilion end, is the roof to a rather grand seating area. Wind rustles keenly through the trees whilst there is gentle guffawing and badinage, including the umpires, when Jimmy Shaw completely miscues an attempted pull shot.
Said breeze becomes a little stiffer as tea approaches and one ponders whether the rain forecast for later in the day will intervene at some juncture. Conversely, batting appears a little easier as Shaw and Jonathan Grant collect runs with increasing regularity, a drilled four back past the bowler edging Shaw toward three figures. There are no concerns about the nervous nineties as another boundary and a deft deflection through the slips brings up what will likely be a cherished century. The landmark prompts the Hogs skipper to declare the innings closed at the end of the over on 247-7, Grant unbeaten on 37.
In response, the Cryptics begin their innings in a sprightly manner, initially scoring at five runs per over until the Hogs opening bowlers find their rhythm and ask probing questions of their young batting equivalents. Both survive the bowling and the almost metronomic ooos and aaaahs from the slip cordon to reach tea at 51 without loss.
As was the case for the Hogs’ last pair, batting becomes easier for the Cryptics openers post the resumption in play; Messrs Reid and Brankin-Frisby progressing comfortably against the Hogs bowling. They have battled through the session of ooos and aaaahs as the field quietens somewhat and are rewarded with half centuries apiece as the Cryptics comfortably reach three figures without loss. The latter falls amid the day’s final throes but the visitors reach the close in a commanding position and ready to whittle away at the hosts’ lead.
No two days at the cricket are the same. Granted, similarity is unlikely in a sport featuring three formats but even two days at the same contest would provide different experiences and outcomes. Some are likely to prove a little surprising. Hence, the advent of the Cyptics’ youthful openers forging a patient partnership proves rather unexpected. There is something intriguing and absorbing about a young batsman patiently compiling an innings. The influence and dominance of T20 cricket in the modern game could so easily convince any aspiring young batsman that every delivery needs to be launched into the next county and that one’s wicket is somewhat dispensable with a surfeit of cavalier team-mates waiting patiently lower down the order. Thus, witnessing a young batsman attempt to master cricket’s less glamorous arts of a rock solid defence, a confident leave and steady accumulation of runs with dabs, flicks and cuffs warms one’s cricketing cockles. Perhaps this is one of the more pleasant aspects of wandering cricket; the widespread usage of the declaration format allowing batsmen to spend time at the crease rather than being obliged to chase runs and attempt to flay every delivery to the boundary. In the modern cricket world where too much is dictated by television viewers and punters pounds the old school simplicity of one’s first wandering cricket experience proves rather refreshing.