An Elegy for the Season Part One: The Watchers

Can it really be six months since that fresh, blossom filled, spring morning strolling through the famous Oxford streets en route to the Parks for a first season’s outing during the final days of March? The season and the summer seemed to yawn into the distance; plans, matches and locations shoehorned into the calendar as one attempts to balance married life with the joys of watching a sport that, if done to excess, can erode marital harmony. Surrey cruised through the opening day of their contest with a century from Dominic Sibley underpinning their progress; who knew that the paths of player and club would diverge so dramatically before summer’s end. Certain landscapes rapidly appeared a little more conclusive though; a chat with Stewart Davison, Oxford MCCU staff and Berkshire wicket-keeper, highlighted that all was well with the reigning Minor Counties champions and little had changed from the previous campaign, although one couldn’t quite imagine the astonishing season that would be enjoyed by the Home County.

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March’s promise turned into a nondescript April but a first trip to Arundel loomed on the horizon as the early May Bank Holiday prompted a journey to the famed venue. The Castle Ground was in for something of a shock though as over a thousand spectators arrived for a contest involving the Duke of Norfolk’s XI and Bangladesh; the latter enjoying vociferous support from their following as the warm-up for the Champions Trophy began. Rain curtailed an actual result but the Tigers’ fans had certainly made their presence felt. Onward to south Berkshire and northern Hampshire where one was afforded the opportunity to watch Suzie Bates play a masterful innings during a memorable first day of enjoying women’s cricket.

Early season rain soon turned to blistering mid-June heat and an engaging trip to the Cradle of Cricket at Hambledon, albeit enjoyed from the shade of the surrounding trees. Even at this juncture one’s spectating season still felt as if it had barely begun and there would be many more afternoons of a similar nature. Even the disagreeable Ageas Bowl provided a small amount of charm during the inaugural round of day-night Championship games; a curiosity that hopefully will remain in the calendar despite the members voting with their feet at the first interval. Plenty remained though as afternoon morphed into evening although the pink ball asked more questions of the spectators than those tasked with batting. Significantly more people would attend the opening T20 Blast fixture of the summer nearly three weeks later but one questions whether any more were actually watching the play than at that first evening under lights.

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There are no such issues in the minor counties game. People arrive to watch a very good standard of cricket and most in attendance at Falkland approved of Berkshire’s convincing victory over Wiltshire on the first Monday in July. The weather remained balmy, the sun almost an ever present and the Stags remorselessly dismissed their neighbours. Few would escape a pasting from the county during a summer of brilliance. Wiltshire returned home to the charms of the Salisbury hinterlands but succumbed to a magnificent tour de force from Devon cricket’s first family. The sun was still shining, outfields were beginning to turn from verdant green to a parched, straw coloured equivalent and batsmen licked their lips at six weeks of roads and runs.

Cricket in England is rarely so simple. Late July and early August witnessed rain on a winter’s scale as the colours regressed back to where they had been in late April and early May. Shaun Udal’s annual jamboree just about took place in the achingly beautiful, yet wonderfully intimate, surrounds of Hartley Wintney whilst Berkshire laughed at the lost time and defeated hosts Oxfordshire by an innings at charming Challow Childrey; Chris Peploe doing a Roger (Federer) with a century and a 10 wicket haul in once again defying the march of time.

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The rain abated for the cricket connoisseurs’ T20 Finals Day at Arundel, affording a Sussex victory on home soil amid the shadows of a glorious summer’s evening but the cool elements soon returned, albeit forced to take second billing to the beautiful surrounds of the Meon Valley and an encounter with wandering cricket, a facet of the game where once can enjoy the subtleties of declaration cricket and the value of building an innings. Not a six was witnessed but such a fact certainly did not detract from the spectacle.

One’s journeys back from the cricket were now tinged with a sense of melancholy and sadness though. Competitions were reaching their denouements and climaxes but such occurrences can only signify one truth: time was running out on the summer and the season. That afternoon at Broadhalfpenny Down on the most glorious of afternoons may only reside six weeks or so in the past but, at the time, it felt as if the summer, and the season, could go on forever.

Denouements and climaxes were very much the order of the day in and around the season’s final bank holiday the business of collecting cups and titles became a familiar affair as Berkshire returned from Wormsley and Banbury with a rare double, both finals highlighting the understated and underrated nature of the full minor counties experience. Post five months of striving and sacrifice the minor counties season comes to a conclusion succinctly and abruptly. Seven o’clock finishes beyond the end of August really is pushing the capricious limits of the English summer.

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Indeed, cricket in the ninth month of the year possesses a unique feeling to the other months that constitute the season. Spectating in September almost feels, to coin Rugby parlance, akin to one against the head. Options are not forthcoming though. One tries to steal the odd afternoon or two during September but the opportunity for a decent spell of spectating is severely compromised by the conclusion of many a competition before the end of August. The County Championship ploughs on in earnest but the windy confines of the Ageas Bowl are difficult enough to bear in the height of summer, let alone the breezy beginnings of autumn. The beauty of the Chalke Valley provides a much more palatable alternative at the beginning of the month but it emerges as the final afternoon of spectating once the Southern Premier League’s T20 Finals Day succumbs to the threat of poor weather and the gloom of winter looms on the horizon. Roll on publication of the fixture list.

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