English cricket had endured a trying winter. Post another Ashes humiliation the blame game began with most fingers pointing at the county game. Less than two months after the fifth test had concluded Adil Rashid and Alex Hales were announcing that they would only be playing white-ball cricket. Barely two days before the start of the County Championship season Yorkshire’s bowling attack was remorselessly denuded of two practitioners by the insatiable lure and demands of the Indian Premier League. And then there was THAT announcement regarding a new format. Sage opinions highlighted that with such short careers their decisions made financial sense. Those aforementioned sage opinions further highlight that it’s a short career and players need to capitalise, particularly with the Damocletian sword of long-term injury forever hanging over their heads. Play less and get paid more, why wouldn’t they? So goes the line of thinking. If careers are so short though surely there is an element of playing as much as one can in such a small window of opportunity. One is a long time retired from the game after all. From a fiscal point of view one could not disagree but when did the general idea of playing and the love of the game become so de trop? Surely sport is more than just a job? Or have the levels of cynicism and the influence of commerce become so all encompassing?
Whatever the answers, one concluded that a few moments away from the moneyed pole of the sport would perhaps disperse all the doom and gloom that had built up during the cold, dark winter recesses. Time to spend a few moments enjoying a match where the fabric of the contest is not laced with a fiduciary undercurrent but where the dramatis personae are playing because of their love of the game and their belonging to their club.
Approximately ten miles to the west of Southampton is the village of Lyndhurst, located in the New Forest National Park. Its position on the A35 road that runs from the aforementioned city to Christchurch in neighbouring Dorset dictates that Lyndhurst is a busy place but the general hubbub of passing traffic does not diminish the glorious surroundings. Take a turn away from the main road and one is soon immersed in the far-ranging beauty of the New Forest.
Little more than one hundred yards along one such turning and one stumbles upon a New Forest scene that could be described with any number of clichés; quintessentially English and chocolate box to the fore. Nestled in between mature trees is a gorgeous thatched roof pavilion adjacent to a most pleasant cricket ground with square robustly cordoned off to avoid damage from the resident ponies. Standing sentry over the ground is the charmingly named Bolton’s Bench, a natural knoll topped by yew trees that is one of the village’s best known landmarks. Named after the 18th century Duke of Bolton, Lord Warden of the New Forest, whose family were Master Keepers of Burley Bailiwick, cricket has been played in the lee of the famed hill since the formative years of the 19th century; those involved with matches have to deal with any passing ponies and cattle that look on insouciantly.
Chief denizens of the beautiful ground are the cricketers of Lyndhurst itself and those of the neighbouring village of Ashurst, a neat amalgam of the two in both name and catchment creating a club that plays in the Hampshire Cricket League, the Southampton Evening League and a host of Sunday friendly matches. Today the club are merely the hosts for the Border League Finals Day, a spill over from the previous summer’s rain affected competition. Near neighbours Calmore Sports and Cadnam, separated by less than four miles of macadam, begin proceedings in the final of the Plate competition under glorious Bank Holiday weather.
Calmore Sports bat first but are soon under pressure in an eventful first over that lasts nine deliveries. Cadnam’s opening bowler Ryan Murray oversteps with his first and third deliveries and also bowls a leg side wide in conceding seven runs. His second and third legal deliveries prove perfectly accurate though, both clattering into the bright orange stumps to set up a potential hat-trick. Calmore’s James Rose survives the next ball and, in combination with Mark Lavelle, Calmore settle and accumulate, reaching fifty without further loss after six overs. Their cause is aided by a litany of extras as Cadnam’s bowlers struggle to find their lines under the heat of the near midday sun. Indeed, bowling appears difficult as Calmore reach 78-2 at the midpoint of their allocation. Ryan Murray returns in the 13th over but Lavelle and Rose attempt to increase the tempo with more aggressive shots. The tactic partly reaps dividends as Calmore move onto 124-2 with three overs remaining, eventually finishing on 145-2, both Lavelle and Rose recording half centuries in the closing overs.
Theory dictates that chasing such a total should very much be a possibility but reality dictates that Calmore’s bowlers offer very little during the opening overs of the Cadnam innings, restricting the latter to just 27 runs in the first six overs. Opening batsman Shoaib Ali begins to open his shoulders soon after though, collecting three consecutive boundaries in the seventh over, the third a six over mid-wicket that clatters into the thatched roof of the pavilion, as Cadnam reach the midpoint of their overs well placed at 64-1.
With the game potentially in the balance Ali is castled and the growing momentum begins to evaporate. Calmore’s bowlers turn the screw, restricting the batsmen to singles and the odd scampered two as the asking rate passes into double figures. Luke Evans briefly rekindles some hope with two leg side sixes but perishes attempting a third. Nevertheless, Ryan Murray launches another maximum onto the pavilion roof and the requirement is reduced to 20 from the final dozen deliveries. Just four runs are scored from the penultimate over and Mark Lavelle delivers three dot balls and a wicket in the last as Calmore win an intriguing contest by 11 runs.
The afternoon has provided a refreshing hiatus, a few hours of peace and a chance to take in the fresh air, both literal and figurative. The setting and standard of play are a long way from some of the equivalents that will be experienced during the next four or five months. Maybe that is the point though. As cricket’s existential crisis deepens and English cricket’s civil war threatens to create a Roundheads and Cavaliers scenario, the players at amateur levels will carry on regardless. The rumblings at the summit of the domestic game will continue but so will teams and players simply playing the game for the love of it, squeezing as many matches in during the short season before the shortening days of autumn arrive. There is an uncluttered, simplicity about the contest. One doesn’t know the players but such ignorance matters not one jot. The experience has proved enjoyable, the contest intriguing. Cricket can have that effect, whatever the level. Sometimes one needs to take time out from the concerns and disputes of the professional game to simply remind oneself what the game is all about.