The Forgotten Counties: Full Circle

And everything comes full circle. Twelve months previous the first ‘Forgotten Counties’ article witnessed its genesis amid the beautiful surroundings of the Wormsley estate as a Chris Peploe inspired Berkshire edged toward their fifth Minor Mounties championship title. Twelve months on and proceedings have understandably changed as the denouement to the Minor Counties championship has moved from achingly beautiful Wormsley to the more logistically central Banbury Cricket Club, residing a handful of miles to the south of the eponymous town. From a playing perspective it is a case of plus ca change, plus ca meme chose though: the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Reigning champions Berkshire cut a swathe through the Western Conference with regal dominance; claiming ninety-five out of ninety-six available points from four matches after rain effectively rendered the first round of fixtures irrelevant. Lincolnshire proved just as irresistible in the eastern equivalent. Thus, the return of both counties to the championship final twelve months after their contest at Wormsley, and just a handful of days after the same two counties contested the limited overs final, (won by Berkshire) represents something of an anomaly in the twenty-first century minor counties game. Both won their respective conferences with ease, Lincolnshire by 25 points, Berkshire by two points less.   

 

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   Such symmetry is largely uncommon in the minor counties game as, from many points of view, the format tends to be a transient, ephemeral experience. Unlike the first-class equivalents, the minor counties competitions do not tend to experience dynasties or periods of dominance. Not since Staffordshire and Devon shared eight minor counties championship titles between themselves at the beginning of the 1990’s has a minor county retained their title. Cheshire have won one title and shared two others since the turn of the millennium whilst Cumberland reached the final in 2000 as defending champions but nothing in recent minor counties times compares to the likes of Surrey, Sussex, Durham and Yorkshire who have all retained the County Championship title during the same period.

   Whatever the reasons for the disparity, the differences between the first-class and minor counties championships are subtle and varied. Keeping a squad together can prove a capricious business for the non-first class counties. Between one season and the next a player could earn a first-class county contract, return home from university, decide that the demands of minor counties cricket (league cricket on Saturday, three day game from Sunday to Tuesday half a dozen times a summer plus Saturday and Sunday games for at least four other weekends) are too much for family and work commitments or even move away because of work commitments. Most are not issues for the professional ranks.

   The minimalist nature of the minor counties championship also compromises the chance of a county retaining their title as there is little margin for error in the competition. With just six matches each summer losing an early contest all but ends a county’s chances of claiming top spot in the division and earning progress to the championship final. Indeed, only two counties have lost more than one contest in a six match season and still progressed beyond their conference since the turn of the millennium. Winning at least three matches is all but obligatory to challenge for regional and overall honours. 

   With every match so important certain aspects of the minor counties summer, such as which counties are played and which are missed during a season (see ‘The Forgotten Counties Part 4’) and the vicissitudes of the weather play a much more influential part than in the first-class equivalents. Indeed, Berkshire’s championship winning season of 2016 appeared to have been scuppered when their fixture against Cornwall petered out into a draw post two days of rain. At the completion of the first day Cornwall were 8/1 in their second innings after being skittled out for 92 in their first and then conceding 325 runs in just under 64 overs of their visitors’ first effort. Only the deduction of 24 points from conference leaders Shropshire for fielding an ineligible player maintained the Home County’s challenge.

   Twelve months on and the reigning champions required no such interventions en route to the championship final; their victory in the limited overs final four days prior to the three day denouement extending their overall unbeaten streak to twenty matches. By lunch on the opening day of the championship final the records appear set to continue as Berkshire reduce Lincolnshire to 99-5. Chris Peploe once again proves pivotal as the reigning champions reduce their opponents to 121-9 early in the afternoon session but the last pairing of Alex Willerton and Andy Carter add 62 vital runs to push their county up to 182 before Peploe completes another five wicket haul. 

   Post losing Ollie Wilkin to the second delivery of their innings, Berkshire make significant inroads into their opponents’ lead. Opener Jack Davies and promising left-hander Euan Woods forge a 77 run partnership before the former’s dismissal precedes a middle order collapse as the reigning champions stumble from 77-1 to 108-6. Woods remains at the crease though and forms a second crucial partnership, with wicket-keeper Stewart Davison, as Berkshire reach the close 8 runs shy of Lincolnshire’s first innings total. 

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   Woods had once again thwarted the Lincolnshire attack, reaching the close 19 runs short of a repeat century to that from the final twelve months previous. The overnight disruption to his innings arguably provides one of batting’s great challenges: starting again and rediscovering that niche that had been so grooved the previous afternoon in the aftermath of an extended break. Any doubts are soon dispelled though as Woods cuffs his first delivery of the day through extra cover for a boundary and is soon into his stride; Berkshire cruising past Lincolnshire’s first innings total with busy play and quick running between the wickets. Centuries in consecutive championship finals appears an inevitable outcome for the young Henley batsman but his innings is curtailed three runs short of the landmark as a result of a catch down the leg side by wicket-keeper Carl Wilson off of Andy Carter’s first delivery. Nevertheless, Woods’ performance has demonstrated his immense talent in a match where no other batsman had thus far reached a half century. In contrast, Carter proves particularly effective as he cleans up the Berkshire lower order post Woods’ dismissal, restricting the reigning champions to a slender 33 run lead as Stewart Davison is left stranded on 34 not out after a patient innings.
   Numerically, Berkshire’s lead appears slim but the combination of a green pitch and excellent bowling from Tom Nugent and Andy Rishton dictates that Lincolnshire require nearly 15 overs to edge back in front for the loss of Harry Warwick’s wicket. The introduction of the indefatigable Chris Peploe forces another breakthrough but Lincolnshire survive the remainder of the session without further loss, reaching lunch at 45-2. 

Twelve months on from hosting the final at Wormsley one doubts whether any venue could match the magnificence and beauty of the Buckinghamshire venue. Electing to move the final elsewhere thus potentially presented the Minor Counties Cricket Association with a problem but the decision to relocate to Banbury Cricket Club in north Oxfordshire has proved inspired and near perfect. Situated to the south of the town, the ground features a near billiard table flat playing area with beautiful surrounds and a sumptuous two storey pavilion. Naturally when one’s journeys take them to a new venue there is a modicum of scouting on google maps but the aerial view provided by the facility proves deceptive as one’s first moments at the ground highlight that it is much more majestic than first thought. Similar to Wormsley, Banbury is a fitting home for a championship final. Previous years had witnessed the tournament’s denouement hosted by the Eastern Conference champions and their Western Conference equivalents on alternate years but the decision to use a neutral venue arguably provides a sense of the match being a spectacle and of great significance. Such changes will hopefully increase the profile of minor counties cricket and highlight the excellent fare on show. Add into the mix the glorious Bank Holiday weather and the pleasant breeze that takes the edge off the heat and the MCCA could likely have not wished for a better outcome.

 

The influence of Chris Peploe increases further during the first hour after the lunch interval. Post a combative few moments from Conrad Louth, Peploe dismisses both Louth and Daniel Freeman; the latter to a stunning, leaping one handed catch from Ollie Wilkin at backward point. In combination with leg-spinner Ali Raja, bowling in a fashion not too dissimilar to South Africa’s Paul Adams, Berkshire strangle any scoring opportunities, the fielders seemingly creeping closer to the bat with each over as dot ball after dot ball passes. In response, Matt Lineker anchors the Lincolnshire innings, grinding out singles with endurance and patience. The left handed batsman reaches his half century and Lincolnshire three figures but the play becomes rather attritional as both counties seek the smallest of advantages. Berkshire skipper James Morris rotates his bowlers in search of a breakthrough but the Lincolnshire batsmen, no doubt aware of the vast amount of time left in the four day contest, bat on without any significant alarms, reaching tea at 137-4. 

 

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Proceedings appear unlikely to change in the final session until Peploe returns for a second spell and induces a leading edge from Adam Tillcock. The Datchet spinner removes Dominic Brown in the same manner a few overs later to reach the cusp of a second five wicket haul in the match but the success would be the last of the day for the reigning champions. In contrast, Matt Lineker bats with increasing assurance and calm, defending redoubtably whilst deftly locating gaps in the field with deflections, cuts and dabs that likely frustrate the bowlers and fielders. Many of his team-mates struggle to maintain a balance between defence and attack; the occasional play and miss providing a nugget of encouragement for the enduring bowlers but Lineker continues with his backs-to-the-wall tour de force, manoeuvring the ball with aplomb as Lincolnshire slowly extend their slender advantage. Skipper Carl Wilson provides an ideal foil for Matt Lineker in the final session of the day as the left-handed batsman records a brilliant, watchful century; an unbeaten 55 run partnership between the two providing the Eastern Conference champions with a 189 run lead heading into the third day.

 

Lineker and Wilson continue their vital partnership on the third morning, stretching their effort to almost three figures until Peploe dismisses both; Lineker for a brilliant innings of 148 compiled in almost six and a half hours of batsmanship. The Carter brothers and Alex Willerton add a further 42 runs for the final pair of wickets and the reigning champions are set an imposing target of 287 for victory. Their cause is not helped by the loss of Ollie Wilkin to the third ball of the innings, completing an unwanted pair for the Ealing opener, but Jack Davies forges on in combination with Euan Woods and Richard Morris. Bad light and rain curtail play midway through the afternoon though with Berkshire well placed at 120-3, a fourth and final day required to resolve the season’s denouement.  

 

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   Rain continues to influence proceedings on the final day though and delay’s play until 45 minutes after the schedule resumption post the luncheon interval. Berkshire are left with the task of scoring nearly 170 runs at almost four and a half runs per over and their pursuit is soon checked by the dismissal of skipper James Morris. Opener Jack Davies plays with attacking intent though and is ably assisted by Morris’ replacement Andy Rishton. Scoring at such a quick run rate theoretically brings in the chance of losing wickets but Lincolnshire’s bowlers are unable to force a breakthrough. Davies soon reaches a brilliant century whilst Rishton records a half equivalent. As the target approaches the latter launches three sixes, the final confirming victory, and the reigning champions cruise to their target in style with seven overs of play still remaining.

 

Once again Berkshire had demonstrated their strength in depth and a belligerent refusal to yield under pressure. Chasing a fourth innings target of nearly 300 runs would likely test many a team, even on a wicket that seemed to have flattened significantly from the first day when 16 wickets fell. In many respects, such a chase was particularly apt considering the record breaking feats that were achieved upon the total being reached.

   One couldn’t help reflect on the vanquished though. For both counties defeat was always likely to be particularly difficult. For Berkshire defeat would have signified the end of their three year unbeaten run in the Minor Counties Championship and the relinquishing of their Championship title. For Lincolnshire defeat dictated that they had played a thirteen match season, the longest possible in the Minor Counties calendar, and finished empty handed. Losing both finals would undoubtedly be hard to stomach for any county, losing both to the same county less than a week apart and just twelve months after losing the same competition to the same county surely adds an extra level or two to the disappointment.

   Lincolnshire had contributed to a magnificent showpiece ending to the Minor Counties season though. Such sentiments are likely to be of little consolation to the eastern county in the aftermath of defeat but the match had proved a stunning advert for the Minor Counties game. The season may have finished with a plus ca change, plus ca meme chose ambience but the journey had still proved thoroughly absorbing and ended at a most glorious venue.

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