Both Romsey and Abington came into today's match with three losses under their belts, so presumably at least one of us would be coming away from the day with the season's first victory. For our part we had pretty close to our best eleven, with eight or nine batsmen and half a dozen bowlers; unfortunately Abington II seemed likely to have a side even better than their best eleven, with, according to The Cambridge Evening News, a couple of batsmen dropping down from their first team. (And no, their firsts aren't in Junior 1 or even the Senior leagues, but way up in Tucker Gardner 2, playing against the likes of Fitzwilliam groundsman Dave Norman and ex-Romsey boy made good Joe White.)
Not only was the match well set up, but the setting was perfect: a beautiful, undulating ground with trees on three sides and then the brand new Abington Institute (of what?) and the village pub on the fourth. The pub crowd (and the smell of sizzling sausages, a bit too much for some of us) spilled out across the road as the day went on, and so we actually had some spectators for once, which gave the on-field dramas some extra intensity.
The dramas began as I headed out for the toss of the coin, having been informed by one of the Abington players that "heads is statistically more likely" -- now, I didn't want to pull rank here but, given that I've written several scientific papers on the subject, I felt justified in my skepticism about this claim. Still, with the coin tumbling through the air, there was no better advice to go on, so "heads" it was. And heads it was when the coin landed, too, which meant we were going to bat and I was going to spend the next few hours snoozing in the shade and recovering from the night before.
Of course it didn't quite work out like that. Our strong top order all got starts (except for poor Rod Dennis, who was the victim of some duff calling), but we needed at least one of Roy Page (14 off 33 balls), Oliver Harris (11 off 15 balls, before falling to a blinding slips catch), or John Gull (14 off 26 balls) to go onto a big score. Even worse was that the wickets fell in a big bunch, the score slipping from a respectable 44/1 to a miserable 45/4 in the space of a few overs.
That left us with Andys Page (18 off 29 balls) and Owen (36 off 58 balls) to halt the collapse, and they did this brilliantly, thrusting bat and pad down the pitch to combat the variable bounce. Combined with a record seven over-waist-high no balls, two of which resulted in catches being rendered invalid, the Andys put us back in front. After 25 overs we were 104/4 and, more to the point, had been scoring easily at about a run a ball for the last few overs. 200 was on the cards for the first time all year.
But you know what a new paragraph means: our second Romsey Collapse (TM) of the day, as we lost 4/13 in just 21 balls. It was thus left to Rog Shelley (12 off 28 balls), Tom Jordan (2* off 25 balls) and Russell Woolf (1 off 8 balls) to at least bat out our overs, and they went pretty close, adding 20 runs between them in the process.
Defending 137 wasn't going to be easy, but we knew that Abington had failed to chase a similarly small total the week before, and there was an unusual intensity about the team as we headed out into the field. Andy Owen (1/35) and Daniel Mortlock (1/34) both got early wickets with their seam-up stuff, and we got our fingertips to a few risky aerial hits, but the Abington top order's approach of trying to get the runs quickly was working all too well. Both Oliver Green (49 with 6 fours and 2 sixes) and Vikrant Sharma (29 with 3 fours and 1 six) were playing the sort of classy shots you'd expect from sometime Tucker League players, and the score was mounting at about ten an over. At the end of the 12th over Abington had raced to 89/2 and needed just 49 runs off 168 balls (and with 8 wickets in hand) to complete what seemed likely to be a pretty comprehensive win. Even Romsey don't lose from that sort of position . . . and yet we still felt we were in the game. The batsmen were continuing to play uppishly, for a start, and, maybe even more to the point, they'd only proved themselves against our medium pacers, and we had a couple of excellent slow bowlers waiting in the wings.
First to get a go was Russell Woolf, and from his first ball it was clear that we -- and he -- had got it right. After an over of mis-hits Russ made the breakthrough we'd so needed, and he then got two more wickets in his next over for good measure. Critical to his success was also Andy's bold captaincy: the moment we got the first wicket we surrounded the new batsmen with a slip, three short/silly/stupid mid-offs, and two short-legs. The combination of the bowling, the fielding and the situation seemed to be too much for the new batsmen, and suddenly Abington were 96/5. In the words of the posh wanker who finishes off the credit sequence of Channel 4's Shipwrecked: Battle Of The Islands, "The game is now on".
Of course Russ couldn't win the game by himself, as we needed someone bowling from the other end: step up Tom Jordan. And, after taking an over to find his range with his leggies, he promptly induced a rash drive which was brilliantly caught by a diving Jon Steele at mid-off. While all these wickets were falling around him Sharma was still playing well, although he hadn't faced many deliveries due to our policy of denying him the strike, the reasons for which were well illustrated when he launched Tom for a huge straight drive . . . only it seemed to be going more high than long . . . but it was going to fall just short of Andy Page hurtling in from long-on . . . until he put in a final, super-human effort and, even as he was falling to the ground, got both hands to the ball . . . and held it tight before throwing it high into the air with a wild roar of triumph. It would have been a good enough catch even mucking around on the beach, but given the pressure of the situation it was a breath-taking act of coordination and determination. Another wicket two balls later and somehow Abington had lost 6/13 in 6 extrordinary overs. They were now 102/8 from 18 overs and still had more than enough time to get 36 more runs they needed, but we had so much momentum it felt unlikely they'd even get close.
Yet there were still more twists and turns to come: Abington's second last pair avoided the trap of just defending and started looking for scoring opportunities -- just what we didn't want. In four overs together they added 20 to the total, seemingly without taking any undue risks, and they were suddenly within three big shots of winning.
Not only that, but John Gull had left early and so we called on Tom's recently arrived father (and occasional Romsey player), Paul, as a substitute fielder, only for one of the chattier spectators (who'd developed the annoying habit of watching from just inside the boundary line) to put it in the Abington captain's head that, given that John hadn't been injured, this was against the rules. So the game was paused for five minutes while the captains pored over the League rulebook to establish that not only was the use of a substitute fielder okay, but that we could even have had a second if we'd so desired.
Ironically Paul didn't even touch the ball, while it was his son, Tom, who finished the game off in short time. He bowled the last two Abington batsmen in consecutive overs to complete one of the most amazing Romsey Town victories in its long, although admittedly largely victory-free, history. After a big, happy team huddle, Tom and Russ were clapped off the ground by the generous spectators, deflated opposition and ecstatic team-mates alike. Russell had opened the door with his spell of 7 overs, 3 maidens, 3/19, and then Tom had kicked it down on his way to remarkable figures of 5.5 overs, 0 maidens, 5/18 (thanks to Jordan Snr for the nice two-part door metaphor, which has since been seen on CricInfo not once but twice).
Both teams retired across the road for beer and the inevitable post-mortems although, at the time, nobody spotted that the eventual margin of 13 runs was exactly equal to the difference between the two team's wide and no ball counts. Either way the season's all set up for a great finale as our final league game is the return match against Abington on Parker's Piece, so if the weather is even half as good as it was today we might even have a crowd of our own to cheer us onto mediocrity.