After a couple of warm-up games it was time for the real thing today: the first league game in a season that would, hopefully, see an uninterrupted series of massive victories as we dominated Junior 4 in exactly the fashion you'd expect of a team that should never have been relegated from Junior 3 in the first place. First stop on this victory lap of Cambridgeshire was Weston Colville - or really the neighbouring village of Weston Green (not that you'd ever have guessed this from the enigmatic description in the CCA handbook that matches are to be played at "The Green"). Last time we played Weston Colville the most difficult task of the day was finding the ground, and there were several instances of Romsey cars passing each other in opposite directions. Today there wasn't anything that silly, although Marcelino was forced to reverse for several miles down a country lane when he found himself facing a truck coming in the other direction, and Richard Rex made a rather inauspicious Romsey debut by arriving half an hour after the match had begun.
Not that he missed much, with neither Daniel Mortlock (0/38, in his hundredth Romsey league game) nor Marcelino Gopal (1/31) able to make an early breakthrough. The only early wicket came courtesy of Tom Jordan's arm, but due to a tracer bullet throw from the deep and some indecisive calling, rather than a well-flighted leggie. Tom got his chance to bowl soon enough, though, as we decided to see how some slow stuff would work on the rather green pitch. The answer was "rather well": Tom (1/32) did make another breakthrough and Russell Woolf (1/25) was tidy, but the real star was Rog Shelley, who ignored his dislocated finger to take 4/19, his best figures since 1992.
Despite these successes, the Colville middle order put a high price on their wickets slowly building a competitive total through a combination of determination, luck (mainly in the form of inside edges past the stumps) and our generosity (i.e., dropped catches). To be fair, most of the chances that went down were pretty tricky, such as the two full-length diving efforts Nick Clarke almost held at mid-wicket, where he also made plenty of gutsy stops. Towards the end of the innings it seemed Nick was finally going to get his deserved catch when a top edge lobbed straight towards him . . . only for the ball to somehow slip through his fingers.
As Nick himself said as he picked the ball up from the ground, "How can it even be possible to drop that sort of catch?" And yet all of us (well, maybe not Andy) have done it, and it's clearly nothing to do with a lack of coordination or practice. One possibility is that it stems from cricket's unique assymmetry between bat and ball that makes wickets so hard to come by and hence so precious. This doesn't matter if the ball comes quickly, as there's no time to process the fact. But if there's that critical half-second to think "I musn't drop this" then taking the catch becomes as hard as taking a World Cup penalty or hitting the winning volley at Wimbledon.
Whatever the explanation, these missed chances seemed irrelevant - despite Colville's rearguard action they'd only managed to get to 153/8, and we wouldn't even need to score at 4 an over to register our first win of the season.
Despite losing a wicket in the first over, our chase seemed to be in good shape, with Nick Clarke (14 off 23 balls), Tom Jordan (15 off 44 balls) and Marcelino Gopal (17 off 18 balls) all getting in. Unfortunately, they all got out as well, with two wickets falling to inside edges (of the same sort that had scooted off to the boundary a few hours earlier). And when the first change bowler came on and began with a waist-high full toss that Lino dismissed into the trees, it seemed a sign that we'd start to accelerate towards our target. Unfortunately the rest of said bowler's spell was an immaculate combination of little in-duckers and chinamen, and he took an incredible 2/10 off the subsequent 59 deliveries (a fact that can be reported with confidence thanks to the superb debut scoring effort of Nicky Mellish, who has already progressed to "black belt" status in the form of recording the batsmen's dot balls and using a different colour for each bowler).
Going to drinks at 71/5 was certainly not ideal, although the general sense was that if Andy Owen and Richard Rex could stay together then we should have been able to get the 83 more runs required for victory. And they certainly buckled down, batting on for 11 overs until Andy got caught off a top edge for a dogged 10 of 37 balls. After a couple more quick wickets we were, as so often before, reduced to going for the batting points target of, in this case, 120. Richard and Russell (13* off 21 balls) at least managed that, and even got us within 25 runs of Weston Colville's total before Richard was bowled off the penultimate delivery for a well made 30 (off 71 balls). That left a rather unhappy Rog Shelley to face a single ball, which he negotiated without being bowled or getting hit on his already mangled fingers.
The Weston Colville players were understandably delighted with their first-up victory (achieved despite starting with just nine men and having lost several of their best players to the first team), but for us it was all a bit surreal: how did we lose? It didn't feel like we'd batted that badly, and we must have done okay in the field to keep the opposition to 150-odd. Given that even Russell's spectacular orange shorts-cum-spinaker were almost matched by the Weston Colville captain's similarly garish clothing choice, it just goes to show that sometimes it's not your day. This was doubly true for Tom Jordan, who was playing his last league game for Romsey before transferring to Burwell. A first league fifty or a five-for in a stirring victory would have been the ideal way to bow out . . . but hopefully he has plenty of both for his new team (except when they play us in the cup in two weeks' time).