Beat Comberton today and we'd stay up in Junior 3; lose and we'd (almost certainly) be going down to Junior 4 for the first time since 1998. The initial requirement was simply for the game to go ahead - some early cloud cover gave some cause for concern, but it cleared, and in the end we played in near-perfect conditions. Next we needed to play - well, really, bat - properly for the first time all year, and once again we had all the depth we could want (e.g., a number eight with a top score of 90). The general sense was to bat first if possible -- given how well we've done defening low totals, we'd surely be able to hold a decent one -- and Andy secured our first victory of the day by winning the toss.
Our decision to bat first didn't seem quite so inspired when we lost an early wicket and limped to 3/1 in the first 3 overs, but then Dave Williams (38 off 55 balls) and Rod Dennis (41 off 62 balls) put together a superb partnership, defending the early bowling before accelerating to the point that we were 75/1 after 19 overs. We were a quarter of the way to achieving our goal, only for it to all unravel thanks to yet another foolish slog at a straight ball -- and after a second wicket fell three balls later we went to drinks far less happy at 75/3.
Comberton predictably lifted after these twin successes, and we lost 4/18 before Tom Jordan (6* off 37 balls at one stage) and Andy Owen (3 off 21 balls) managed to halt the collapse. Unfortunately the scoring was also brought to a halt, and one 11-over stretch yielded just 20 runs (half of which came in the form of wides and no balls). After Andy was dismissed that left Tom (who finished on 20* off 52 balls) and Daniel Mortlock (10* off 15 balls) to finish the innings with a couple of big sixes (surprisingly, given the extra-short square boundary, the only two of the day), but it was very much a case of "too little, too late". It was also late in the innings - off the last ball, in fact -- that the season's batting award was decided. If Daniel had been dismissed then the prize would have been Rod's (and having the top batsman average 21.62 would have summed up our season nicely), but Daniel remained undefeated to take the award (with an equally absurd season's total of 86 runs, less than the highest score of half today's line-up).
Our eventual total of 147/7 was some 20 or 30 short of what we needed, and about 50 short of what we should have had after our great start. Our failure to post a big total, even in this "do or die" situation, can't have been a big surprise given our previous efforts this year (highest total: 160 all out). Not even Elaine's delicious brownies at tea could distract us from the sense that we'd blown our chance.
Still, we'd restricted plenty of other teams to this sort of total this year, and the Comberton batsmen were maybe under a little extra pressure as they would be facing relegation if they couldn't reach 120 (i.e., three bonus points). We certainly started well enough, with Daniel Mortlock (1/27) and Marcelino Gopal (0/36) giving the batsmen no width and, once again, the whole team fielding brilliantly. The most critical work was done by Jon Steele on the short boundary, but Roy Page and Russell Woolf were superb in the short mid-wicket and cover positions, Dave Williams and Rod Dennis shared point and square-leg with great success, and Andy Owen made plenty of great stops behind the stumps with the ball swinging all over the place.
The only problem was that we couldn't convert this dominance into any actual wickets and, from 15/0 after 8 overs, the Comberton openers started to move up through the gears. An over before drinks they'd all but matched our earlier efforts at 70/1, but rather than losing two wickets in the next over, they scored two boundaries, meaning we were surely just 120 deliveries from Junior 4.
Clearly a change was needed, and we went for slow bowling from both ends. Russell Woolf (0/13) couldn't manage another one of his three-fors that seemed to appear as if a birth-right earlier in the season, but he was impecably tight, conceding just 1 run in a 21-ball sequence at one point. At the other end Tom Jordan (4/37) wasn't quite as tight, as is inevitably the case with wrist spin, but he flighted the ball beautifully, and lured both the Comberton openers down the track, bowling one and having the other stumped by Andy.
The new batsmen kept their heads, however (no slogging at straight balls here), and calmly took the score along to 109/2 after 31 overs. It felt like we were just being ground down, although maybe Comberton's focus on their "mini-target" of a 120 was working in our favour. Whilst they were in perfect shape to get to that, they were maybe letting the game target slip a little - not that getting 39 runs from 54 balls with 8 wickets in hand is that hard, but the game should have been over already given where they were at drinks.
And for our part we could see just the tiniest of openings now: a few tight overs and a wicket or two was all it would take for the required run rate to climb alarmingly. And that's just what we got as Tom took a couple more wickets, Russell took a superb catch off Daniel's bowling (which, aside from being a great reaction effort with a juggle, had the effect of handing Daniel the bowling award that would otherwise have been Russell's), and Dave, Rod, Neal and Jon all saved vital runs by making tireless chases to the long boundary.
With three overs to go Comberton had passed their relegation target but still needed 22 runs to win the match - somehow we'd forced their target up above a run a ball. Even more remarkably, the situation was almost identical to that we faced last week - and so we reacted the same way, Andy taking off his pads and gloves to bowl two critical overs at the end. It really felt like we were going to get the miracle we needed -- a narrow victory with both Comberton and us doing what we needed to stay up, even if Over or Coton (depending on the latter's results today) might take some convincing that the result wasn't contrived.
Unfortunately we're getting ahead of ourselves here, and the parallels with last week continued as we had a disastrous penultimate over during which we seemed to be a completely different team to that which had been so "on" for the previous 38 overs. There were two wides, two missed catches, and two unnecessary runs off misfields as the pressure told.
That left Andy with the task of allowing the batsmen just 2 runs off the last over of our season - a surely hopeless task, but one which you'd think Andy more capable of than anyone else. After a maddening bye and a quick single that we shouldn't have allowed, the task went from hopeless to absurd: we now needed four dot balls. The next delivery was recorded in the scorebook as such, but unfortunately only because the scorers weren't using the little triangles for non-bowling extras - our hopes of staying up in Junior 3 were dashed by the most innocuous of leg-byes. There was still pride to play for, and Andy at least ensured we had that, bowling one batsmen (to take his figures for 2/8) and then running out his replacement off the final ball to tie the game.
That it was an exhausting and exhilarating game of cricket was not in question, but to have tied two matches in a row from situations where the opposition needed, respectively, 16 and 15 runs from 12 balls (in low-scoring games) was just maddening. It was impossible not to think about the little mistakes we'd all made towards the end of the game ("if I'd stopped that ball . . ."; "if I'd taken that catch . . .", etc.), but the objective reality was that it was, once again, a brilliant team performance to have even got close to defending such a small total, and for every error there were many moments of inspiration or determination that got us into the most unlikely of ascendancies. It wasn't that we needed to field perfectly, as opposed to just very well, but that we needed to have scored a few more runs a couple of hours earlier.
There was some forlorn talk of of what might happen if Coton lost today and then were washed out next week, but it turns out that they thrashed Waterbeach today, with the result that they need a measly four points (i.e. 80 runs and 4 wickets) or a wash-out against Cambridge Jesters next week to stay up. Not that we want them go down mind, but at the moment that's our only tiny sliver of a crumb of a chance of avoiding relegation. (Unless, of course, there's an alternate reality in which Romsey scored just one more fucking run in each of their last matches and ended safely mid-table in fifth position with a league average of 12.64.)
After a quick drink at the ground it was time to regroup (both literally and metaphorically) at Mickey Flynn's to play some pool and nine-ball, sports it seems most of us are actually quite good at. Over a few pitchers of Carling we demonstrated just how wasted our youths were, before heading across the road for a midnight snack at The Curry Queen. And even if paying GBP 3.80 for a pint of Carling (i.e., two-thirds what we just been paying for a jug of the stuff) was a bit much, it was maybe an appropriate way to conclude a frustrating final day of a frustrating season.