For the first time since the '90s Romsey Town entered a CCA cup competition this year. And, given that there's a separate Lower Junior Cup for teams in Junior 3 and below, there was a little flicker of optimism that we might even progress through to the later rounds. First step on this hypothetical journey was an away match against Burwell III and, after packing Andy's car to bursting point, we arrived in said village in good time for the 1:30pm kick-off.
Burwell batted first and began solidly, progressing to 48/0 by the 12th over, as Paul Jordan (0/18), Daniel Mortlock (1/26) and Andy Owen (0/26) all managed to prevent the batsmen scoring too freely. But it turns out these civilised bowling figures weren't so much to do with the quality of the bowling as the quality of who they were bowling to. The single biggest mistake we made in the whole game was when Andy moved himself to short cover and held onto a sharp catch, thus bringing one Matthew Celima to the crease. From his first shot (a gentle push to a slightly over-pitched ball that raced away for four) he dominated the rest of the innings, smashing 164 undefeated runs off 90-odd balls, 21 of which were hit for four and another 9 of which were hit for six. Most of the fours and all of the sixes resulted in ball-hunts in the neighbouring nettle patches and ditches, and it was illustrative that these search parties were increasingly manned by Burwell players as our fielders found less and less enthusiasm for the task.
The issue was not so much that Celima was batting so well, but that he was clearly in a different league from everyone else on the ground. And so it turned out - he doesn't usually slum it the Junior leagues, or even the Senior leagues, but is good enough to play for Burwell I in the Tucker Gardener Premier League. To put that in perspective, that's eight divisions above us - imagine how the Cambridge United faithful would have felt if they'd arrived at Wembley today to find Christiano Ronaldo on the Torquay team sheet for the Blue Square play-off. (And no, the correct answer isn't "chuffed, because they would want to see him strut his stuff up close".) Things were getting so farcical that Andy even suggested to 'keeper Malcolm Creek that we forfeit the game and head off to a local pub to watch the football, and so it was just as well that Malcolm's local Histon hadn't made it into the play-off, as otherwise it could well have been "game over".
As it was the "game" continued, with Celima passing personal landmarks with increasing regularity while his partner, the remaining opener, reaped the benefits of the spread field to close in on a century of his own. In many ways this was probably the greater batting achievement, especially when he successfully negotiated our attempts to pressurise him in the "nervous nineties". But, with the exception of that brief moment of "excitement", the carnage continued unabated, 218 runs coming from the last 108 balls of the innings at the unbelievable rate of 12.11 an over. If any one image summed things up it was the sight of Andy fielding at long-on in a helmet, although it's arguable that the real nadir was when a club that has the resources to field such a brilliant batsman sent out an umpire who had no idea where square leg was.
When the carnage was finally over we shuffled off to the pavilion where hot cups of tea and a plethora of delicious cakes were waiting for us, along with a few quiet expressions of support from some of the less-impressed Burwell players. While we pondered the ethics of taking a fifth slice of cake, Andy tried to whip up a discussion of the batting order, but the basic take was "wherever", presumably on the grounds that no amount of shuffling was going to change the fact that the deck was stacked in Burwell's favour.
Still, Roy Page (32 off 47 balls) and Daniel Mortlock (14 off 22 balls and two bats) put on a fairly rapid 49-run opening stand without any real difficulty - at least until they found ways to get out to a near-wide and a half-tracker, respectively. After that Winker Watson (19 off 25 balls), Jon Steele and Tom Woolford consolidated brilliantly on this good start - even if Burwell were mixing the bowling around, there was no denying that we were scoring every bit as freely (if not quite as destructively) as they had earlier in the day. Indeed, our total of 110/3 off 22 overs almost matched Burwell's 113/1 at the same point in their innings . . . but really, despite Jon's optimistic rallying calls of "We can still do this!", the match was no more alive than it had been at the interval.
The only real interest was in personal milestones, something which was particularly apparent at this ground due to the batsmen's scores being displayed for all to see on the huge electronic scoreboard. The first drama was Tom getting stuck on 49 for four or five overs before he went to his first Romsey half-century with a massive drive over long-on. And then, as the match drew to a close, there was even more tension as Jon closed in on a possible century. He began the final over needing an even dozen, but was facing Darren Bellingham, a semi-ringer from the seconds who'd presumably been held in reserve in case things had gotten close. No matter, though: Jon's eye was in, and a four followed by a cheeky two took him to 94 with two balls remaining . . . or at least it should have, but some bad calling saw him run out for a superb 93 (off 78 balls). Jon's untimely dismissal left Andy Page to compile a superb 0* off 0 balls from the non-striker's end whilst he watched Tom's nine lives finally run out when he was bowled for 57 (off 64 balls).
And now we were really in trouble - Paul Jordan had gambled on not being needed and had taken his pads off, but these two quick wickets meant an emergency trip back to the changing rooms. Burwell could have instigated mayhem by appealing (presumably successfully) for "timed out" - not only would it have resulted in a team uber hat trick of three wickets in two balls, but with nobody else padded up there was the possibility that the process might have continued until we were all out. The ultimate Romsey Collapse (from 254/3 to 254 all out in two balls) would have been an appropriately farcical end to the game, but sadly sanity prevailed. Burwell thus waited patiently for Paul to finish changing, walk out to the centre, take guard, survey the field, re-check his guard and, finally, play out the one remaining delivery. The end result was that we finished up on 254/5, our highest total since May 2001 and yet still short of our target by 77 runs. Which is an interesting number: imagine replacing Burwell's number three with a merely very good batsman who had scored at "only" a run a ball; in that case their total would have been reduced by about 75 runs, which, naively, would have meant an exciting two-run thiller instead of a dull thrashing.
And so thus ends the whinge - taking a "scorched earth" policy to the moral high ground is about the only fun to be had from such a mismatch. It also ends what seems likely to be Romsey's last flirtation with the Lower Junior Cup until such time as the CCA finds a way to keep it Lower (or at least Junior). It's worth noting here that there's no suggestion that Burwell broke the rules, but rather that it's the rules themselves which are broken. Andy's proposed solution is a "single teams" cup that's open only to clubs that field one league team; another possible option would be to have a cup competition based on clubs rather than teams, with the clubs split up according to the grade of their highest team. Whatever, today's match showed that the problem which drove Romsey from the cup a decade ago is still there; hopefully the CCA finds a way to do something about it.