The Forgotten Counties: Six and Out?

Reality can be a cruel business. One can often drift along in a particular bubble, expecting everything to remain the same until the simple realities of life burst said bubble and highlight the brutal truth. As the latest Minor Counties season slowly unfolded across the summer months one was lulled into thinking how the structure as a whole was progressing nicely. The group stages of the new T20 competition had proved a success, the knock-out nature of the Trophy had provided a little more cut and thrust to that tournament whilst the six match Championship was enjoying the best of the summer weather during its early rounds with some exciting, nailbiting matches to boot. The aforementioned lulling had nudged one into a false sense of security though. The winds of change were beginning to blow and threatened to usher in a new era.

Post a resounding defeat to Lincolnshire in their second Championship match of the season, Cambridgeshire team manager Keith Coburn, in an interview with a local newspaper, highlighted the perils suffered by the Minor Counties regarding player availability and how this appears likely to affect the current six match Championship. Indeed, the Fen county had endured a particularly troublesome lead up to the game against their near neighbours, eventually fielding a patchwork team due to last minute selections. In his interview Coburn highlighted that the matches taking place prior to the end of the school and university academic years are blighted by the absence of players still attending such institutions whilst playing members ensconced in the working world are finding it more and more difficult to be granted the relevant time off by their employer every fortnight under the auspices of playing cricket for the county, particularly as each match dictates an absence of three working days. Coburn’s comments were concluded with the concerning statement that talks are taking place regarding reducing the Championship to just four matches, played in July and August, with a greater emphasis on white ball cricket played at weekends.

Upon reading such comments one’s heart momentarily sank. Lazy, mostly sunny, afternoons residing on the boundary of charming, oft country dominated venues watching the Minor Counties Championship season unfold are one of the great joys of the summer. Aside from the cricket itself they provide an opportunity to escape the rush of everyday life and just stop for a few hours. In essence, the Minor Counties experience largely provides a sort of therapeutic detox to the tomfoolery of everyday life. The chilling discovery that such opportunities could potentially reduce by a third did not sit well with this advocate of the Minor Counties game.

Such a decision, if taken, is understandable though. Coburn’s points regarding player availability demonstrate the capricious nature of Minor Counties Cricket and its largely amateur cast of characters. Cricket may be the number one priority for the professional at large in the first class game but once outside of that bubble the harsh realities of keeping a roof over one’s head and earning a living oft nudge any sporting aspirations off of the top spot. To criticise Minor Counties for wishing to revise the playing structure would be churlish and ignorant. There is no quick fix solution, just the harsh realities of life.

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Thus, one heads off to one’s final day of Minor Counties Championship spectating for the summer fully intending to cherish such an afternoon should they become a little less frequent almost twelve months down the line. The journey itself possesses a soupcon of extra excitement due to taking place at a new venue, an advent that always evokes a frisson of joy. Following a well driven route up the A34 toward the border between Hampshire and Berkshire, one is required to head away from the thoroughfare before it reaches the M4 motorway and instead venture along the A4, the original route from the capital to the west of England, across the North Wessex Downs toward the town of Marlborough and the Western Conference contest between hosts Wiltshire and neighbours Oxfordshire.

 

The visitors resume play on the second morning of the match at 96-3 after Wiltshire had been bowled out for 211 on the opening day. Any thoughts of a first innings lead are soon dismissed though as Tahir Afridi and Ryan Murray tear through the Oxfordshire middle and lower order. Seven wickets fall for just 33 runs as the hosts glean a more than useful 82 run lead, Afridi finishing with six wickets.

Wiltshire begin their second innings cautiously but skipper Ed Young and opener David Bromley begin to attack with purpose. Young, formerly with Gloucestershire, is instantly recognisable with his long, curly hair sprouting out from under his helmet. He plays with resolute defence and deft flicks and deflections to keep the score ticking along. Bromley is a little more attacking, unfurling lofted drives and reverse sweeps. Wiltshire’s lead soon passes 150 but Bromley’s audacious modus operandi leads to his downfall. Young falls soon after, both to slow left armer Oli Clarke.

Runs continue to flow for the hosts though as the momentum slowly shifts in their favour and the lead heads north of 200. Owen Alsop plays a useful cameo but the visiting spinners continue to chip away with the occasional wicket as Wiltshire reach tea at 147-5.

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Marlborough with the Wessex Downs as a backdrop

 

There’s plenty to like about Marlborough. Entrance to the ground is off the busy A4 road via a winding, meandering, tree-lined ribbon of macadam that takes one into the countryside. Once dispersed at the ground the peace is all pervading. There is the faintest sound of traffic on the nearby road but it is soon drowned out by the neighbouring livestock residents. Curiously, the club is named the Marlborough Cricket and Hockey Club although there are no facilities for the latter sport on this particular site. The pavilion itself is pleasant whilst trees flank two sides of the ground. The boundary along the northern edge of the ground drops away slightly just beyond the whitewash as if emphasising that a boundary has been struck. Beyond the facilities themselves folds of the North Wessex Downs provide a most pleasant vista to the north. The ground and the scene is quintessentially Minor Counties.

 

Oxfordshire strike early after the resumption in play but Wiltshire wicket-keeper Tom Morton increases the tempo with a series of well struck shots that gambol over the boundary whitewash. Unfortunately for the South Wilts stumper support is fleeting and changing as wickets tumble. Morton himself is last man out, for an attacking innings of 45, but the hosts lead is in excess of 300 and the visitors face an awkward seventy odd minutes of play prior to the close.

The awkward nature of the day is soon emphasised as a cool wind and menacing grey clouds scud over the ground during the interval between innings. One over is bowled before the umpires offer the light to the batsmen whilst spits and spots of rain can be felt in the ether. Brighter skies appear on the horizon whilst Wiltshire’s players indulge in a game of Football near the pavilion, giving the impression that they think play will resume fairly imminently. The cloud thickens though and there is much cogitation out in the middle between the umpires and the groundsmen with gesticulations in the direction of the approaching weather from the north. The appearance of the covers does not bode well with 22 minutes past 6 the designated time for a decision as to whether play will continue this evening. Almost everybody expects Tahir Afridi’s sole over to be the final passage of play for the day as autumn begins to wreak its influence. Nobody is surprised when the inevitable is confirmed soon after.

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Ed Young turns his arm over in preparation for the Oxfordshire innings

 

One ponders whether the Minor Counties Championship will make a return to Marlborough any time soon. If the proposed reduction in Championship matches comes to fruition then grounds not used on a regular basis could well be those eschewed for the revised fixture list. In recent seasons Wiltshire have regularly visited Corsham, Devizes and the South Wilts club, located just outside of Salisbury. One would imagine that those venues with established histories of hosting Minor Counties Championship contests are likely to continue hosting fixtures with others potentially surplus to requirements. Naturally, the potential of extra limited overs contests opens another door as one has shut though but the three day Championship fixture does offer a different experience to the limited overs equivalent. Naturally, the harsh realities of life at large will influence and dictate how the Minor Counties structure and fixture list evolves. Perhaps one will have to cherish those sultry afternoon’s with even more gusto if the Championship fixture list is indeed reduced.

 

 

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