Does the conclusion of a season in any other sport provoke the same sense of mourning as that of the cricket season? Undoubtedly all sports fans experience a sense of melancholy at the end of a particular season but the end of the cricket season seems to incite a greater depth of disappointment and regret at its passing. Perhaps such emotions are generated by the knowledge that six months will pass, half a year, prior to the beginning of the next campaign. There will be plenty of matches in far flung climes but they cannot, and do not, compare to the pleasure of spectating in the flesh. Perhaps it is the changing of the seasons, the loss of summer with its warm, balmy afternoons merging into the sun-kissed evenings.
Whatever the reasons, the sense of loss is marked. The season is short; for the lay spectator it is often curtailed even further. For all of April of the present campaign one felt as if the spectating season would never start. Half a dozen days came and went as spring’s worst afflicted cricket pitches across the country accept for those at the highest levels. An epiphany was reached whilst residing in one of Hove’s beautiful deckchairs though at the beginning of May; within days temperatures were pushing thirty Celsius and the picturesque New Forest venues of Bashley and Bolton’s Bench could not have appeared more stunning or bucolic.
Indeed, no English cricket season passes without a major influence from the weather but nobody expected the incredible heatwave that dominated the middle section of the summer as normally verdant outfields were dramatically blanched by the unrelenting sun, forcing fielders into oft futile chases toward the boundary as the ball skipped remorselessly across the scorched outfield. Even the normally immaculate greensward of Arundel’s famed Castle Ground appeared parched and tortured for the visit of the Kia Super League.
The aforementioned Sussex locale and a litany of other pre-selected venues again provided an underlying theme throughout the season with an agreeable mix of new ventures and rekindled favourites. Thus, the previously experienced intimacy of Arundel, the sheer beauty of Wormsley and the irresistible charm of the Cheltenham festival mixed adeptly with new journeys to the homely climes of Hove, the littoral frolics of Sidmouth and the grand vista of Stansted Park.
Nevertheless, it was the closest venue that provided a most special opportunity as Sussex Sharks arrived at the Rose Bowl with a much vaunted T20 attack including the exciting talents of Jofra Archer and Rashid Khan. Neither disappointed, the former returning from a James Vince mauling in his opening over to dismiss the Hampshire skipper and claim a further two victims, the latter bowling a beguiling, spell-binding four overs without full reward in proving his value as arguably the game’s finest spin bowler. In an age where T20 cricket has become a binge of sixes and boundaries there is a certain satisfaction in experiencing a contest where the bowlers dictated terms.
The subtle beauties and vagaries of the county game seemed to perpetually be battling against a simmering undercurrent of controversy liberally laced with plenty of cause celebres that persistently threatened to spill over though. As English cricket raged from one fudged fiasco to the next, amid a strange fusion of navel gazing and unabashed hubris, so one felt the need to venture back to the soul of the game, to re-connect with what this great game is actually about and to just enjoy the game for what it is. Few places could better Lyndhurst or Bramshaw, both within the parameters of the beautiful New Forest national park, for sheer unadulterated beauty. Both provided solace and a much required dose of the hackneyed grass roots cricket with all its glorious warts, foibles and idiosyncrasies to remind one that one doesn’t need to be sat in a cavernous stadium surrounded by punters in fancy dress and drinking copious amounts of weak alcohol to enjoy the magnificence of this beloved sport. It is an oft complicated sport that never fails to provide such simple pleasures.
Once again the Minor Counties provided a form of cricket that continues to entertain greatly with its varied cast of characters, contests and outposts. There could have been no more enjoyable afternoon all summer than that just a few feet from the seaside in beautiful Sidmouth, despite the less than clement weather, whilst a return to Wormsley always gladdens the heart. The re-introduction of a T20 competition, re-vamped with coloured clothing and white balls, proved a great success and hopefully will provide another pathway for aspiring players into the professional game. It was very much a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose though as Berkshire claimed two of the three trophies on offer, the second of which completed a hat-trick of Championship titles. In a season of many memorable moments perhaps the most noteworthy was the Home County’s magnificent riposte in their T20 semi-final against Devon after posting a modest target, defying the west-country county with a tour de force of spin bowling led by another virtuoso performance from the irrepressible Chris Peploe. In an ever transient format of the sport there has not been such a dominant county for almost a quarter of a century.
September, of course, is not the final month for spectating. Such a pastime is a year round business but the focus of one’s gaze will drift from the cricket field to other sports; some that are performed indoors and without influence from the elements or requiring one to constantly check and re-check the weather forecast. Such experiences will fill a void during the winter recesses but they are little more than an ersatz imitation. Nothing can adequately substitute for the glory, the beauty, the magnificence and the sheer, unadulterated joy of an afternoon at the cricket where the fresh air brings joy to the soul and the sound of bat on ball resonates so pleasantly within one’s mental and physical faculties. Start the countdown until we can all start doing it again.