When is a minor county not technically a minor county? When the county in question is actually a country minus a small section of its most southerly vestiges. Aside from nineteen English counties, the minor counties structure is comprised of a team that represents all the Welsh counties that are not deemed first-class. Depending on one’s point of view that can comprise the dozen remaining historic counties of Wales, the five remaining preserved counties of Wales created in the 1972 Local Government Act or the ten remaining principal areas of Wales that resulted from the mess created by the 1994 Local Government Wales Act. Whatever one’s personal preference, the Wales Minor Counties team essentially represents all areas of Wales aside from Glamorgan. (Or the 11 principal areas that now constitute the country)
Understandably, no other minor county covers such a vast area. Thus, and by extension, no minor county is able to draw its players from such a large constituency but such a perceived luxury does not necessarily translate into a definite advantage. Only once in the last half a dozen summers have the Wales Minor Counties finished in the top half of the western conference whilst just one championship victory in two seasons has contributed to the county (sic) finishing bottom of the division two years running.
The current campaign has witnessed an improvement, albeit only one of a marginal nature. Post exiting the limited overs Cup competition at the first hurdle the Welsh Minor Counties won 3 out of 8 T20 matches to finish second from bottom in their 5 county group whilst two drawn Championship matches, the first with just a single wicket to spare, the second with only two in hand, have consigned the county to ninth place in the ten team division.
The latest foray east of the Severn has required a trip through the Cotswolds to face mid-table Oxfordshire. The contest itself takes place at St Edward’s School in north Oxford, a rare trip to the famed city with those dreaming spires. Indeed, Oxfordshire themselves have hosted contests all across the county in previous summers, this current match their first inside the Oxford city limits since before the turn of the millennium.
Wales Minor Counties resume their first innings on the second day at 53-3 in response to the hosts’ impressive first innings of 377. The morning session follows those of the previous day as Oxfordshire claim a further five wickets for the concession of just 98 runs, spinner Ollie Clarke claiming four of the wickets. The left-arm spinner completes his five-fer in his third over after the resumption in proceedings courtesy of a juggling, throw the ball in the air to avoid conceding a six, land outside the rope and jump back inside to claim a catch effort from Richard Kaufman that is now almost obligatory in every T20 contest. The visitors’ final pair offer little resistance and Oxfordshire canter back to the pavilion almost 200 runs in the ascendancy.
Oxfordshire’s first trip inside the city ring road for over twenty years has provided a most suburban ambience to the contest. The ground at St Edward’s School is most pleasant in its location amongst the city’s northern hinterland, offering a parkland atmosphere as opposed to a bucolic equivalent which is oft the case for Minor Counties contests. General traffic hums away throughout the afternoon on the neighbouring road into the city centre whilst the occasional train makes its presence felt whilst venturing along the main line a hundred metres or so to the west. The busy nature of the main artery in and out of Oxford is no better illustrated than when a lustrous cry of “owzaaaaaaatttt!!!!!” emanates from a passing lorry during the afternoon session.
The ground itself is served by an ultra-modern single storey pavilion but one cannot help but wonder whether the pleasant, two storey, almost Art Deco equivalent hunkering in the trees at mid-wicket / cover once served in such a capacity. Somewhat disappointingly, one is not able to gain access and watch from the seats on the pleasant balcony.
As with watching cricket atThe Parks further in the town, there is a stream of students wandering past. Some gaze bewilderingly, most are disinterested, one snaps a couple of photos whilst a couple disrupt play as they wander in front of the sightscreen. The array of differing accents and languages highlights the reasons for most of the responses and reactions.
Understandably, given the heat, the hosts elect to bat again rather than inviting the Welsh Minor Counties to follow-on, batting in attacking fashion to reach 50 in just the ninth over. Indeed, runs flow quickly for the host county as they score at almost five runs per over for the first 25 overs, Ollie Clarke and Harry Smith both recording half centuries. The visitors chip away with the occasional wicket but a busy, attacking innings from Oxfordshire’s effervescent skipper Jonny Cater signals the overall intent. Cater records his own half century with a lap sweep over mid wicket for six and a drive through the covers for four as he and Smith move through the gears.
The hosts reach 200, and a lead of 400, in the 33rd over but continue to bat. One ponders whether both batsmen sense a second innings century is in the offing. Smith plays on for 74 but Cater carries on regardless until he is trapped leg before by opposing skipper Brad Wadlan a dozen runs shy of three figures. A declaration is not forthcoming though and the tempo decreases an iota or two as the new batsmen look to find their feet. In truth, the innings ventures into a cricketing twilight zone as all eyes are on Cater. The Oxfordshire skipper wanders to one end of the ground and holds a powwow with the home coaches as the hosts pass 250. Three overs later Gareth Andrew chips a catch to point and the inevitable decision arrives.
Tasked with scoring in excess of 450 to win the match, survival is surely the name of the game for the Welsh Minor Counties during the final hour of play on the second evening. Four overs into their vigil Gareth Andrew induces an edge from Umar Malik and the task increases in difficulty. Late in the piece Ollie Clarke tempts Brad Wadlan from his crease and Cater completes the stumping to leave the visitors behind the proverbial eight ball.
Little improves on the final day for the Welsh Minor Counties. Only Joe Voke offers any considerable resistance as Clarke claims another five scalps to complete an eleven wicket haul in the match as the hosts win by in excess of 200 runs. Captain Cater takes two catches and completes three stumpings in the innings to add to the four he pouched first time round for an impressive all-round performance.
Post a heavy defeat there is likely to be many a question regarding how the visitors could improve and how the squad can reverse their parlous situation. One theory ambles around one’s mental recesses. Covering such a wide geographical area may, theoretically, provide a larger catchment of players but one wonders whether the potentially scattered nature of the squad has an effect on familiarity within the squad with a knock-on effect on performance. Whilst it would be an ignorant generalisation to assume that all minor counties players are attached to clubs within the county they represent it is noticeable how many play in the local Premier Leagues in and around their county, an occurrence likely to provoke familiarity with their county team-mates courtesy of playing alongside each other or against each other on a regular basis. Unlike the first-class equivalent, Minor Counties cricket is such that a scattered squad of players across a vast area and various different leagues may not generate the same camaraderie as those from counties covering more compact areas due to the relatively small amount of matches played. Inevitably, talent and application would likely influence a contest to a greater extent but would such intangible forces make a difference to the overall outcome? The further one travels up the cricketing pyramid the more likely that small margins make a bigger difference. It is a theory potentially without a definitive answer though, arguably another factor unique to the Welsh Minor Counties and their niche within the overall structure.