The last few seasons have seen us playing the final league game with, at best, mixed emotions: in 2000 it was with the knowledge that, even if we won, we were certain of relegation to Division 3; last year we'd come to the end of the season having missed out on promotion by a few runs (and a few wash-outs). But today was different -- having guaranteed second place (and by quite a margin), the Romsey Town convoy headed south in something of a celebratory mood.
Setting off at about midday, the long journey to Helions Bumpstead was broken up by a few wrong turnings and a quick pint (or two, in Andy's case) in their local before we finally made it to the ground. And a very pretty ground it is too -- situated atop quite a decent hill, it's surrounded by trees, has a classic old-style (if not actually old) clubhouse, and such a wicked slope that one long boundary is about twenty feet higher than the other.
After some serious discussion of novel strategy concepts (i.e., who wanted to bowl; who wanted to bat) we ended up starting the game as we always do -- with captain Andy Owen taking the ball and delivering a maiden. Coming up the hill he produced one of the season's best spells (5 overs, 2 maidens, 3/2) before taking the wicket-keeping gloves from a relieved-looking Tony Desimone. At the other end Alfie Wilmshurst (0/29) continued his recent good form with the ball, triumphantly completing his first maiden over of the year, thanks in large part to Tony putting his body in the way a full-blooded cut shot off Alfie's final ball of the season.
Daniel Mortlock (0/20) then took over at one end, employing a generous approach in which the batsman was rewarded for having survived the first five (generally good) balls of each over with a gift in the form of a full toss or long hop on the last ball. Paul Henderson (1/11 off 7 very economical overs) implemented a similar strategy (but selfishly replacing the crap last ball with another good one), and it was clear that the Helions batsmen were struggling just to stay in, let alone score runs. At 74/3 after 28 overs a decent total was some way off, although their left-handed opener was still there and looked capable of scoring at a far greater rate than he had to date.
Another double bowling change saw Neal Baker (1/21) getting uncharacteristically fired up (``Picked the wrong ball to play that shot, didn't you'') and Russell Woolf (2/37) being desperately unlucky -- there were several of deliveries that missed the stumps by inches and many of the day's worryingly large number of muffed catches were off his bowling. Rich Savage (0/24), back after an enforced lay-off, produced the most eventful spell of the day, with one over lasting twelve balls and including three more dropped chances. The large number of spilled catches was particularly anomalous -- the fielding had been excellent otherwise -- but something to work on over winter, perhaps.
In the end Helions made it to 148/6, quite a respectable total, especially given the irregular bounce off the pitch, and testement to the above-mentioned opener, who was out in the last over for a defiant 86.
After a somewhat bland tea (6/10, although more than made up for by post-match chips made in the club's very own deep-frier) we set about a nice quick run chase to end the season and give us more drinking time back in Cambridge.
What we got was a little more interesting -- the runs did come pretty quickly, but clever bowling combined with the tricky pitch meant the wickets came pretty quickly too. Once again the talk was more of ``good starts'' than well-made fifties. The top three of Rich (13), Neal (28) and Tony (14, although having boasted about ``never having been out for a golden'' he was very nearly LBW first ball, Phil's umpiring bravery and integrity being severely tested) all played aggressively, particularly through the off side, and between them got enough runs to all but all but ensure a win, but didn't quite play up to the level that had netted them a combined total of over 700 runs this season.
The job of finishing the game off was thus left to our seldom-required middle order, with Rod Dennis (18) and Phil Marshall (11) relishing the chance to give the ball a decent whack, Rod in particular unlucky to get out to one of the only two catches of the day: if he'd hit the ball a little better it would have been six; a little softer and he'd have been safe.
At 99/5 things were a little shaky, with more and more balls keeping low and Bumpstead's slightly erratic leg spinner starting to get some turn and bite. The two batsmen's reactions to this situation were in stark contrast: Rog Shelley attempted to hit most balls out of the ground (and succeeded in getting 7 boundaries in his 36*); Andy blocked and deflected, once again putting a higher price on his wicket than any of the bowlers could pay. By the start of the 32nd over we needed just 8 to win; we were hoping to see Rog or Andy finish things with a boundary, but the aforementioned young bowler seemed to blow a fuse, conceding all 8 runs in byes and wides. Anticlimactic in the extreme, but the result we wanted: a tenth win and a successful end to a successful season.
After a few beers (and yummy chips) with the Helions lads, it was back to Cambridge to finish the day in style. Or at least in a drunken stupor at the Granta. Despite Neal's absence (having promised to finally buy all those jugs he owes for fifties, five-fors and hat-tricks) and Andy's brief escape to a christening, it was a pretty good turn out. And why not: with the Tony 'n' Alfie floor-show in full swing no man, woman or (particularly) beast was safe from their anarchic advances, whether it was to settle a bet about clothing or guess Russ's age. By closing time no-one could even spell ``haemmorrhage'' and so it was cleary time to stuff ourselves full of curry. By midnight even the India House wanted us out, so we dragged our stomachs home, incapable of contemplating the season's triumphs, and only all too aware of danger of ordering ``two more lamb buhnas here''.