(Credit: Pete Langman)
Having won the toss, captain Ben Bickley took one look at the gunmetal skies above Blenheim Palace and put the home team into bat. His logic, no doubt, was that the pitch would behave like any mistress who has been starved of that lifeblood attention through the glorious early summer and sulk at being asked to dance only now the weather had turned. And sulk she did. Several players were heard to remark that you could tell cricket was back because it was raining. Of course, we all knew cricket was back as we were finally where we belonged; a cricket match isn’t really a Cricketers’ match without a fine stately home in attendance, after all.
Nick Creal and Matt Funge took the new ball, with Blenheim Park sending Tom Boardman and Simon Parker out as opposition. During those first overs the wicket certainly extracted its revenge, as Boardman fell victim to a wicked delivery as Creal’s fourth ball cut back off the seam, sliced the batsman in half and took out his off stump. Matt Funge took a different route in his first over, as his second ball reared up like a dragon woken from its slumber after a particularly hard day’s village burning and maiden scoffing. Add to this an outfield that suggested that the shot/runs exchange rate was already in post-brexit dividend mood, and it looked as if runs on the board were going to be at no little premium. Realising that hitting the ball along the ground was not likely to lead to much in the way of scoreboard pressure, Keyes began to hit over the top. Both bats lived dangerously, with Keyes narrowly beating Creal for height at mid-wicket and Parker beating Malick Kudmany at first slip for, hmm, catching, I suppose. By the time Keyes was trapped lbw, much to his chagrin, to a perhaps over-conditioned Brodrick, he had hit 46 runs from the partnership of 68 (several also being donated through a combination of wide bowling and not-quite-wicketkeeping), including 4 sixes and two fours – he was helped somewhat by a field that was perhaps overly generous with its gaps. A few runs later Parker fairly lashed Brodrick through short extra cover, only to find himself consigned to the pavilion as Sam Baker simply plucked the ball out of the air as if to say ‘ball? Ball? No one’s hit a ball in my direction … oh, did you mean this?’ before producing it from behind the batsman’s ear …
Confident that they were now deep into the Blenheim tail, Shiv Chowdhury ran Hughes out with a direct hit from the covers, and Malick did for J Spearman c&b (his mantra, to be fair, was that he doesn’t drop them off himself). The wobble was corrected as Bartlett and T Wheedon took the score to 126 before Creal ran out Bartlett for 28 and bowled Robert Kerr for 2, in between which Wheedon plundered an extra 16 runs. Blenheim finished on 152 from their allotted portion of 35 overs. Quite a result considering that they were on 77 for 4 with 9 overs to play. The Cricketers were perhaps not at their best in the field, but ring-rust is there to be shaken off, and so we took to our socially-distanced teas with something approaching gusto, and awaited the second innings.
And so Paul ‘Smudger’ Smith and Shiv Chowdhury strode out to do battle with the Duke of Marlborough’s finest. And they were doing well, what with taking a bye off the first ball of the first over and Smudger hitting balls 1 and 5 from the second over for 4. Then, however, disaster struck. Smudger was cleaned up by the diminutive (in both stature and summers) bowler, F Spearman. It wasn’t so much the ball that impressed, mind (though it was rather good, as, in truth, was his fielding), it was the celebration. A fully-fledged fist-pump that would do any international star proud. How I wished my camera had been rather quicker on the uptake.
Sam Baker was next in line, and saw Shiv depart for 8, his stumps rearranged by T Wheedon, before he was caught off the same bowler for 23 – a superb catch taken by Parker at, you guessed it short extra … revenge is certainly a dish that comes pre-sweetened, if the look on his face was anything to go by. Still, at 46 for 3 off 11 overs the Cricketers were there or thereabouts, and even though Chris Bickley was bowled for 4 by J. Spearman, Shyam Odedra and Matt Funge set about repairing the damage, putting on 36 before Shyam was caught Spearman (J) bowled Spearman (T) for 20. Jonathan Bennett added 31 with Matt before he was bowled by Wheedon for 10, and still, at 117 for 6 with 6 overs to go we were still in the hunt. It was then that the wheels rather came off the Cricketers’ wagon as James Brodrick scratched around for a few overs for a duck, losing his bails to P Spearing and Nick Creal found himself in and out again, lbw to Spearing first ball. Suddenly, at 122 for 8 with 3 overs to go, things didn’t look quite so rosy, and when Matt was stumped for 45 it was 133 for 9, and all hopes lay with Malick and Pete Langman, who had managed to snatch a tie from the jaws of defeat in last year’s thrilling game at Fontwell. Malick greeted Pete at the crease with the words ‘I think this is beyond even our powers’, and as it turned out he was absolutely spot on. Pete managed to add a couple of runs to the tally before Malick was castled by a ball which, to be absolutely fair, really had no business bouncing as unenthusiastically as it did. His four runs led the Cricketers to a total of 135, a mere 17 runs short.
Seeing as the Saturday had been wetter than a haddock’s stag do in Hartlepool, and Monday was as dank and dismal as a spinster’s underwear drawer, we were extraordinarily lucky to get a game at all, and win or lose, it is the game we love, played against an opposition we like and respect, at a venue which cannot help but inspire.
Still, as Ben Jonson would say, To Penshurst!