Luke Wells straightened from his crouch, like a rifle, butt and barrel aligned. He took in the umpire’s raised finger and turned towards the stumps and waited, as though stillness was needed for the disappointment to settle on him. The Sussex batsman had reached this final match of the 2014 season averaging under 30 and without a century. He had batted to lunch at Northampton, on a tricky morning when 41 wickets fell across the country, and into the afternoon to make 81.
Two days later, batting again, Wells made determined, cautious progress until bad light left him 91*. The next morning, the very last of the 2014 season, Wells crept towards his hundred, eventually reaching it and mopping his brow before raising his bat – the gesture of relief preceding that of celebration. On he batted, doubling his previous best of the year to finish on 162.
The batsman who has struggled for runs must find comfort in striking form at the tail end of the season. There will be fresh memories to sustain and create expectation for the following spring. But won’t there also be regret? That tiny technical adjustment, that sliver of luck, that random dose of form – had any come earlier, the long summer days could have been prosperous not a struggle. Or maybe doubts steal in: it was a one-off, in a match with nothing to play for against a weakened opposition; a tainted ton.
Luke Wells enters autumn ruing that his best form came so late in the summer, but rewarded by Sussex with a new contract, giving a focus for spring. A young man, Wells could easily find somewhere to play cricket this winter, to make his rich form a patch, not a spot.
At the end of every season there will be players reaching their peak just as everyone else is ready to pack up. One hundred years before Wells, at the same Northampton ground, Geoffrey Davies of Essex rounded off his season with 118. Davies was probably thinking of action overseas in the winter – not on the hard tracks of the Southern Hemisphere, but on what was to become the sodden battleground of the Western Front. He didn’t need to wait until spring to represent his county again, however, as he spent the next 12 months in the Essex Regiment.
In 1914, the County Championship stuttered to a close as the British Expeditionary Force found its feet and very soon combat action in Europe. Kitchener’s New Army was to take recruits from England’s county game. Davies, an undergraduate and potential Test cricketer had just two years of first class cricket before joining the military.
Late in the next season that never was, Temporary Captain Davies was leading his men into action at Hulluch in France. Lethal miscommunication saw his regiment surrounded by the enemy. The regiment suffered 80% casualties, amongst them Davies, shot dead, 99 years to the day before Wells’ season-ending century.
For Wells and so many others who find late season form, it raises hopes of a fruitful new season. For Davies, his late season form was the last and unfulfilled best.