The Forgotten Counties: Cricket by the Sea

The smell of a cricket match: the fresh air of late spring or the sultry air of a hot summer’s day, fresh cut grass, a whiff of the countryside if one is in rural climes, the pleasant scent of trees and surrounding flora. Could the nasal and ocular experience be improved? How about the aroma of the beach and the sea? Cricket doesn’t quite possess the symbiotic relationship with the coast as golf does with its famed links courses but on occasion the sport undertakes a sojourn down to the very edges of the landscape.

Few locales manage to exist closer to the sea than the intriguingly named Fortfield ground in the Devon town of Sidmouth. From the moment one ventures along Fortfield Terrace and catches a first glimpse of the English Channel one is fully cognisant of the beautiful spot that the ground enjoys. Standing sentry on the western side of the ground is the cream facade of the neighbouring Belmont Hotel whilst a bright, white terrace of Victorian houses along the aforementioned Fortfield Terrace provides an ambience akin to Brighton. Enjoying a day’s play in such climes, with the sun poking its head through the clouds to energise the scene would undoubtedly prove a most engaging experience.

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Unsurprisingly, host county Devon are regular visitors to this section of the Jurassic Coast, the Western Division Championship fixture against neighbours Dorset the fifth time during the current season that the Fortfield has hosted a Minor Counties contest, including all the matches in Devon’s Unicorns Trophy campaign that will see them take on Cheshire in the tournament final nine days hence.

The western county have also reached Finals Day in the new T20 competition but the multi-day equivalent has proved a trying campaign for both counties. Separated by a dozen points, Devon reside in ninth place in the ten team table, Dorset one place higher. On the opening day of play Devon skipper Josh Bess wins the toss and elects to bat first. The hosts enjoy a bounteous opening day as they chalk up in excess of 400 from their allotted 90 overs, Bess recording a brilliant double hundred at approaching a run a ball on his home pitch. In reply Dorset begin confidently but lose Ben Wells, reaching 52-1 by the close of play.

The visitors resume under brightening skies the following morning but their batting woes continue to blight their progress. Five wickets fall in the first hour of play as probing bowling from the hosts induce a selection of edges into the slip cordon. Resistance is offered during the second hour by Jigar Naik in combination with Josh McCoy and Chris Park but Devon’s bowlers continue to induce various ooohs and aaahs from their team-mates courtesy of beating the bat and collecting the occasional edge that doesn’t quite go to hand. The pressure pays dividends though as Naik is bowled attempting to hoik off-spinner Jake Stephens over mid-wicket as the visitors limp to the lunch interval on 170-8.

 

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Lunch predictably provides an ideal opportunity to explore this littoral locale with a wander around the ground in the general direction of the sea shore. Fifty metres or so from the limits of the tidal reach is arguably the Fortfield’s piece de resistance; a glorious, two storey thatched pavilion replete with bijoux balcony and neighbouring stripy deckchairs. Bowling greens and tennis courts reside cheek by jowl with their cricketing equivalent.

The ground’s intriguing name proves something of a mystery until one notices a small row of crenellations running along the sea boundary of the ground. The natural slope of the playing surface toward the sea dictates that the fort aspect of the ground almost blends into the horizon. Stroll along Peak Hill Road, that which runs parallel to the beach, and the crenellations stand almost twice the height of the average promenade stroller though.

Residing leisurely in one of the club’s stripy deckchairs during the morning’s session it’s understandable why Devon return to this seaside bolthole on a regular basis. The ground itself is bordered by glorious, grand hotels at which holidaymakers sip coffee and read the newspapers whilst seagulls fly overhead chirping mellifluously. One can’t quite hear the waves breaking over the shore but the sea is very much in view. Games of Croquet are keenly contested on the neighbouring lawns whilst the achingly beautiful thatched pavilion perpetually draws the eye.

The only disadvantage of Sidmouth’s beautiful location is that one cannot simply drive one’s vehicle to the venue and park within good viewing distance of the square itself, as is the case with many a Minor Counties venue. Rather, the semi-urban location of the Fortfield dictates that one has to find a handy local car park , or an off-street equivalent, and eschew one’s vehicle.

Nevertheless, the ground’s location in the heart of the town provides an opportunity to actually see the town. With half an hour or so to spare prior to the start of the day’s play earlier in the morning one undertook a brief wander into Sidmouth itself, a decision that reaped benefits as the pedestrianised High Street is most charming with its meandering nature, fine selection of independent shops (one book shop proffered the most fabulous bookish aroma as one wandered past) and pleasant, porticoed market building. One is not often afforded the opportunity to explore the location that one has visited to watch Cricket so Sidmouth’s close proximity to the town centre proves most beneficial.

 

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Dorset’s tail lasts less than four overs after the resumption in play as the hosts claim a commanding 240 run lead. Murmurs abound amongst the Sidmouth cognoscenti as to whether Josh Bess will invite the visitors to follow-on but the appearance of two Devon players heading toward the nets with bats in hand indicates that Bess has declined to use the opportunity.

The decision soon comes under further scrutiny as a bank of slate grey cloud drifts over the hills bordering the ground and begins to empty its contents, forcing a cessation in play after just five overs of the innings. Almost 55 minutes are lost to the inclement weather, with an extra half an hour tacked onto the final session, but batting remains difficult amid the muggy, overcast conditions as further grey clouds ominously drift over the hills. Dorset’s opening bowlers claim a wicket apiece during a testing period for the Devon batsmen but the hosts reach tea without further loss and a lead approaching 300 runs.

After a day of struggle, the final session very much belongs to the batsmen. Devon move through the gears in pursuit of a near unassailable lead; half centuries from Alex Barrow and Josh Bess, the latter at better than a run a ball, pushing the hosts’ total beyond 200 and their lead toward 500. Three wickets from Jigar Naik are of small consolation for Dorset as they face a difficult final day.

 

Driving back to southern Hampshire from the Devon coast proves a trying affair. Traffic grinds to a crawl at Chideock, Bridport and Dorchester as Dorset’s road network struggles to cope with the number of vehicles heading along the macadam. The delays provide opportunities to reflect on the beautiful day that had been experienced at Sidmouth though. The Fortfield’s town centre location provides a different Minor Counties experience to the usually rural, bucolic equivalent. Its position provided a most enjoyable experience though, from the views of the English Channel to the opportunity for a bimble around Sidmouth itself to the games of Croquet and Tennis taking place on the courts and pitches surrounding the ground to the charming, oldy-worldy surrounds of the regal appearing hotels and the Victorian dwellings. Undoubtedly the ground’s position by the sea has a different effect on one’s experience and general well being. It is not hard to see why Devon return regularly to their Sidmouth outpost.

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