English cricket loves an anomaly. From the MCC itself and its influence in the domestic game to the first-class status proffered upon a selection of matches involving University teams to the presence of the Irish, Scottish and Dutch national teams in the Natwest Trophy at various junctures to the Unicorns representative team similarly entered into a later version of the limited overs competition, the English game has proved very accommodating to teams and players outside of the expected norm.
Such largesse also likely features in the amateur game in various guises around the country. One such anomalous adjunct nestled in the amateur game in southern Hampshire is the Border League. Formed in 1970 and played on midweek evenings, the Border League is a structure involving clubs that reside within a ten mile radius of the market town of Romsey, located half a dozen miles or so to the north-west of Southampton. Most of the participants are village based clubs such as Ampfield and North Baddersley, East Tytherley, Mottisfont and Whiteparish. Quite how or why such a league was created is not immediately obvious from the league website but one ponders whether such an anomalous competition would be created in the modern cricketing climate where matters seem a little more streamlined and clinical.
Indeed, one would imagine that such a league would likely drift away into the ether, patronisingly viewed as a quaint example of a time since past and lost in the ever more regimented cricket structure of English cricket. Reality dictates a very different picture with this particular anomaly though. The current season includes three divisions of six teams and two knock-out competitions, the league itself just two summers away from its fiftieth season.
The latest edition began on the first day in May (albeit with all the fixtures victims of wet weather) whilst this evening’s contest witnesses Calmore Sports undertake a short journey along the M27 motorway to the village of Bramshaw. Located in the New Forest, the hosts’ first team (Bramshaw field two teams in the Border League) play in a particularly beautiful spot of the national park, residing cheek by jowl with the eponymous golf club. Both entities keep themselves to themselves apart from one brief moment when the resident golfers reach the third tee. (previously the eighteenth) From said tee the cricket pitch is clearly visible out of the corner of one’s eye. Anyone that has played golf is well aware of how such a distraction can play merry havoc with one’s mental recesses.
Curiously, only a modest fence marks the perimeter of the cricket pitch. It is purely for administrative purposes though as it is unlikely to prevent a lusty strike for six or an errant, hooked tee shot from entering the other’s domain. Such violations bring differing results. For the cricketer it is six runs and cheers from the boundary. For the golfer it is out of bounds and three off of the tee as punishment. Two close neighbours but two very different codes. In contrast, for the batsman the lure of clearing the fence is a tempting dalliance with danger; the rewards are great but the risk is pronounced. For the golfer the task is simple: avoid that small stretch of fence but, as any player will confirm, once the possibility enters one’s mind it is frustratingly difficult to avoid dragging one’s shot into the hazard that one is trying so hard to evade. Particularly as the last vestiges of the cricket pitch just peak into one’s field of vision from behind the trees that flank the left hand side of the third tee.
In truth, is there a more pertinent example of two sports residing side by side where the risk of one influencing the other is almost inevitable? Particularly two sports which feature hard balls that could hurt oblivious players on the other side of the fence. Errant tee shots from golfers can be accompanied with an appropriate shout of ‘Fore!’ but what if a cricket ball is heading towards those in the fairway? Fortunately the old adage of ‘play the ball where it lies’ is dispensed with in order to save an embarrassed golfer gouging a divot from off a good length on the wicket as he / she attempts to locate the plateaued final green. Maybe Wisden would be interested in the possibility of a ‘golf ball stopped play’ entry.
Such issues are very much paramount on this particular evening as the Border League contest is accompanied by a smattering of twilight golfers enjoying the warm, sunny weather. Border League matches are generally played on a Tuesday evening with a 6.15pm start. Each contest is designated as 18 overs per side apart from fixtures played during the first two weeks in May which are played over just 15 overs, a veritable short sprint. This evening’s contest is an eighteen over affair, an arrangement arrived upon by the restrictive parameters of fading light and a suitable start time to enable players to reach the ground after finishing work. Said format had existed for many a year long before it was re-invented for the mass audience market, its existence based upon logistics rather than commerce or pandering to ever shortening attention spans.
The hosts bat first and begin in spectacular fashion with Brendan Streather to the fore. The opener sets the tone off of the first delivery of the innings, lofting a length delivery from Paul Proudley over long-off for a one bounce boundary. Streather continues in a similar vein, striking a flurry of boundaries and lofted sixes over the short perimeter fencing of the picturesque ground. Club stalwart Andy Hart joins Streather at the fall of the first wicket as Bramshaw flay 58 from the opening five overs but a flurry of wickets restricts Bramshaw to 74-4 at the midpoint of their allocation. Indeed, Calmore’s change bowlers exert a modicum of control on the Bramshaw middle to lower order. Aside from the occasional bludgeoned boundary the home batsmen are restricted to singles and the odd scampered two. The final two overs witness another succession of flayed boundaries though as 35 valuable runs are purloined, Bramshaw setting a formidable target of 152 for their opponents from just across the other side of the A31 to chase.
Akin to watching a game at Portchester Castle, one is instantly hoping for a cricket ball to go soaring toward the eighteenth fairway or a golf ball to arc toward the wicket. One very much hopes that there are no injuries to players on either side of the divide but the advent of an anomalous and intriguing crossing of paths is too much to miss upon one’s visit. The fairways of Bramshaw’s Forest course are quiet on this particular evening though, each six over the far boundary struck when the smattering of golfers are on other sections of the course.
Bramshaw’s late flurry of runs has invoked that oft influential, but always intangible sporting force: momentum. Calmore are unable to score in quite the same fashion as their hosts, stumbling to 57-5 after nine overs. The scoreboard mysteriously proclaims that Calmore have reached 97-5 from nine overs but the Bramshaw fielders are unperturbed and a reboot soon takes effect. Brendan Streather’s stumping of James Rose off of Bailey Loveless’ left arm spin is arguably the coup de grace; four late wickets from Andy Hart completing a comprehensive victory.
As participation numbers continue to tumble the present climate is a challenging one for club cricket. In the midst of such issues one ponders how a competition such as the Border League continues unabated. With its largely rural catchment area one would not be surprised to read that the number of clubs entering the competition was minimal. And yet, on this particular midweek evening nine separate fixtures are scheduled in that, relatively, small ten mile radius of the town of Romsey. Some clubs even field two teams. In an age when the desire for pathways, structures and relevance seem to be all encompassing it is refreshing to discover that anomalous competitions such as the Border League remain part of the summer. The general lack of time is regularly quoted as a reason why people give up playing cricket. Perhaps other issues are behind such decisions though. This evening’s match was played in a genial spirit with overs bowled at a decent rate; the contest taking barely two hours. Perhaps the former is part of the competition’s charm. Whatever the reality, the presence of the Border League, residing in its own niche amongst Hampshire’s regional structure, highlights a great facet of the English game at large.