Three days in September
Three days of cricket-spectating at the end of the season. Sandwiched between a county championship fixture at Lord’s and an ODI at Old Trafford, was the final game of my club first XI’s league fixtures. That club match was more dramatic than watching Middlesex recover from a 190 run deficit to defeat the County Champions, Yorkshire. It was an occasion of more disappointment than watching England, for the first time with both my sons, fumble and spill the chance of a rare ODI series victory over Australia.
Nick Compton and James Franklin’s progress on Thursday had been closely monitored. Until their sixth wicket partnership, Yorkshire threatened to take the match inside two days and with it the plan for live cricket to accompany the reunion of my college old boys team. On a warm Friday morning in the Upper Compton, we saw a lesser Compton bat with diligent correctness. His partner after Franklin’s early dismissal, Simpson, batted as though the lesson of his long wait to bat had truly sunk in.
200, the lead we felt might make Yorkshire uncomfortable, was in sight when Compton fell and was achieved before Simpson was out. 40 overs later and the lead was 380. Toby Roland-Jones had a maiden hundred and James Harris a solid 60. The pitch seemed flat, as did some of the Yorkshire bowling, but the affront to their Champion status was evident from the double tea-pot Sidebottom gestured to Middlebrook for allowing an all-run four and the double, double that bowler and captain showed to Sidebottom for dropping Roland-Jones at long-leg. In the final overs of the day, the plummy PA announcer noted that Middlesex had reached their highest score against Yorkshire, surpassing a total set in 1877. Gale, whose team had the hosts 146-5 129 overs earlier, reacted by throwing his cap to the turf.
Our reunion could continue for a second day at Lord’s although I was heading north. To top our day at the Home of Cricket, we joined a crowd behind the Grandstand watching the final overs of the 4th ODI on the screens on the bar wall. The bar was shut and we stared at England’s chase and Maxwell’s boundary brilliance through metal grill, while security staff circled unsure of the etiquette of removing cricket spectators watching cricket after the close of play.
Two days later, my sons and I found our seats at Old Trafford while Jason Roy challenged a first over lbw decision. Sat down, we saw his hesitation the following ball when faced with the same situation – such indecision doesn’t bode well for a format that demands instant choices. Timed out, he wasn’t allowed to challenge the second errant judgement.
England batsmen fell to a succession of crooked shots to straight balls and bats pushed at wider ones. ‘This will happen from time-to-time to a young team,’ is the conventional explanation, that means nothing to boys aged 14 and 9 hoping to find some heroes. Finch and Bailey ensured the match continued at a pace, which was a better outcome for fans young and old than a slow, stuttering overhaul of England’s score.
Travelling home, a little unsure of themselves as critics, the boys and I agreed that, yes it had been a rubbish match. Disappointing, but not in the same way or to the same degree as my experience the day before – the middle of the three days in September.
As the rain fell at my club on Saturday morning, the 1st XI were second in the table. A win that afternoon, against the top team, would seal promotion and reward for a season spent, until the final month, leading the division. A few miles west, the team in third could leapfrog us, but only if they won and we did not.
The wet conditions reduced the match from 50 to 33 overs a side. The visitors set 132 as the target for victory and promotion. Early wickets fell and kept falling in our chase. As the middle-order folded, the runs stagnated. Finally, a little momentum, but still wickets fell, so with the team barely half-way there, there were nine down.
Spectators’ attention was turned to sporadic reports from the match featuring the team in third. Initially news was poor: our competitors for promotion were progressing well towards their target of 200. An envoy was sent to their ground to provide reliable updates. The first call from our source brought news of a switch: seven down with over fifty to get and batting slowly. Perhaps our struggles would be academic, although it was pleasing to see our final wicket pair battling on.
The team and supporters gathered in front of the pavilion, watching our game that could be extinguished at any moment, listening to the club chairman relay updates from our source. When the ninth wicket fell and the final overs began at the match out of sight, we began to take ball-by-ball feed. The moment of our probable promotion would be announced live; but we continued to calculate the required run-rate. They needed 12 per over off three; then 12 off each of the last two, which rose a touch to 14 off the final over. Two tenth wicket partnerships were in parallel progress, ignorant of each other, and holding the fate of a 22 week season.
The final over, described to us, began with a six. “Who’s bowling? The left-arm spinner!” It continued, leaving four runs needed off the final ball. Quiet.. “It’s what. You’re not winding me up. He’s hit it for six.”
Grimly, our attention turned back to our match, our tenth wicket partnership. Finally, our batsmen were making clean strikes. Thirty runs short quickly became twenty. The opening bowler, brought back, was struck for six. 50 partnership; 12 to win from seven balls. Then a skied sweep to deep backward square, right in front of us, and in an instant, a bold innings, the match, promotion gone.