About this time every year Romsey leaves the womb of Cambridge's true pitches and manicured out-fields and ventures out into the real world of village cricket. Given that the fixture list isn't exactly a state secret it shouldn't be a surprise, but somehow it always does come as a bit of a shock. And the biggest contrast of all in our league is delivered by Harlton's home ground: a vageuly oval-shaped portion of an undulating cow field beside a ramshackle collection of buildings that includes one outhouse with the words "FOR LADIES AND NO. 2'S" scrawled on the door in dribbly white paint. The silver lining of this particular cloud was that, rather than lounging around in the pavilion as we tend to pre-match at Trinity, we headed out for fielding drills, with Nick hitting a variety of catches, almost all of which were held - and some spectacularly so. Meanwhile Andy had joined the Harlton captain on the sloping square to toss up with, for once, the whole team united in wanting to bowl first. Andy called correctly, and so we went into the field with hopes of restricting the opposition to double-figures - not unreasonable given that recent games here had seen teams dismissed for 72, 102 and 54. Although maybe the more relevant fact is that it's always the away teams that have been demolished, presumably as they have struggled to bat on a difficult track that the Harlton bowlers know how to use well.
As basic as the facilities at the ground are, Harlton have clearly embraced the possibilities of modern technology wholeheartedly. While Romsey pioneered on-line match-reports a decade ago, Harlton have now raised the bar even higher: our new recruit Jeff Beaumont arrived this afternoon with news that today's game was previewed on their web-site. A quick search revealed the following . . .
. . . which actually doesn't reveal much other than the sad fact that we haven't been doing very well this year.
Hence it was particularly satisfying that we started well today: after 7 overs we had Harlton struggling at 17/2 as Daniel Mortlock (3/20) and Jeff Beaumont (1/48 on his Romsey debut) got rid of both the openers. Daniel's wicket was rather fortunate, as the ball had bounced back onto the stumps after a perfectly decent-looking defensive shot, but Jeff's can be traced back to our rigorous training regime as Himanshu Agrawal had held a good catch at mid-on that Nick immediately credited to his pre-match fielding drills. However it was also relevant that the pitch, while far from true, didn't hold too many demons - those balls that did leap or, less often, shoot, generally did so slowly enough that the batsmen could react. Still it was clear that back-of-a-length deliveries on the stumps could only be defened . . . which made it extra frustrating that the bowlers coming down the hill got a collective attack of the yips. In the space of 5 overs from that end we twice broke the bowler's wicket, sent down a total of 8 wides, delivered several dead balls that didn't make it to the batsman, and generally lost the plot. Despite a tidy mini-spell from Ferdi Rex (1/16), Harlton were 83/3 at the drinks break, the sort of score that would do most teams even at Trinity.
Despite our plethora of bowling options, it was decided that Andy Owen's superior control was needed, and so he gave the keeper's gloves to Roy Page, who did a superb job in difficult circumstances, while the strategy was vindicated when Andy conceded just 17 runs from his first 8 overs. After Adrian Mellish (1/21) lured the "always can be relied on to contribute" Brett Jordan (on 4) into top-edging a drive that provided Daniel with his third catch of the day, we were probably winning again. After a few more good catches, including a superb one-handed diving effort by Nick Clarke (despite the fact that he hadn't of course had any practice catches himself), Harlton were 131/7 after 34 overs, and we felt we were a decent chance of bowling them out for 150-odd. But that didn't reckon on one Simon Webb, who smashed 33 runs from his last 19 balls, including a few imperious boundaries in Andy's last over that saw his figures balloon out rather unfairly to 1/39. Harlton's eventual total of 187/7 was maybe twice what we we'd hoped at the start of the day - and certainly 30 or 40 more than it should have been, thanks to our wayward bowling, and so it was a fairly quiet Romsey camp over tea.
The mood changed almost instantly upon the resumption, though, as Nick Clarke (39 off 44 balls) and Rod Dennis (24 off 43 balls) compiled maybe the highest quality partnership we've managed all season. Ignoring the fact that the conditions still favoured the bowlers, they simply defended anything on the stumps and hit anything even a little loose to the boundary. We were cruising at 74/0 after 14 overs - the target was now a very manageable 114 from 156 balls and we still had all ten wickets still in hand.
At which point we suddenly lost 3 wickets for 1 run, the most critical of which was also the most ridiculous: Roy Page (4 off 22 balls) called Nick through for a sharp single and Nick appeared to have made his ground pretty comfortably, despite the fielder's direct hit. There was the inevitable appeal . . . and, after a sufficiently long pause, the umpire's finger went up. There are two possible explanations: Nick hadn't grounded his bat; or the umpire had made a bad call. With no TV replay there's no point in even speculating which of these two had happened; but taken in combination we had suddenly lost our best - and in-form - batsman entirely by our own hand. Sure enough, the game spun on a dime: where previously we'd been scoring at almost a run a ball to a spread field, we now found the Hartlon players crowding the batsmen and suddenly runs became almost impossible to come by.
Still, Andy Owen (15 off 28 balls) was starting to get going, and it seemed he was going to get the perfect chance to avenge his last-over mauling when Simon Webb, now bowling, sent down a nipple-high full-toss, which Andy, considering it an effective free-hit, went to pull over the square-leg boundary. Unfortunately not only did he mis-time the shot, the ball being well caught inside the boundary, but the "no ball" call never came (an occurrence which has been noted on at least one previous occasion). The logic is the same as with the run out above: either through a bad shot or a bad call we had curtailed the innings of our other most reliable run-scorer without forcing the opposition to come up with something special.
After that we didn't go close: Daniel Mortlock (17* off 51 balls) never got out of neutral; Oliver Rex (16 off 18 balls) looked like our best chance of winning until he was caught off a nasty lifter (probably the only dismissal in either innings could be put down to the pitch); Himanshu Agrawal (9 off 9 balls) and Jeff Beaumont (4 off 3 balls) bravely tried the "high risk, high reward" approach, but it didn't come off today. Meanwhile Mr Webb had got some rather more deserved wickets with his nasty in-swingers, and after he castled Adrian Mellish (0 of 5 balls) and Dave Clark (1 off 5 balls) in consecutive overs, he had figures of 6/32 to go with his innings of 40* off 34 balls. No doubt who was the man of this match.
For us it was a case of "could have, should have". Even though we were well on top for significant chunks of the game (not that we ever dominated), we headed back to Cambridge with a paltry 6 "bonus" points to show for our efforts. We are still out of the relegation zone on the league table, but not by much: our average of 9.10 is only 0.30 above NCI IV's which has climbed to 8.80 after their predictable victory against last-placed Fenstanton yesterday. However since we're playing Fenstanton next Saturday we'll hopefully be able to post a win and open up that gap to around 1.5 again. That would also have the added bonus of justifying the kind suggestion in Harlton's match report that we're "a side that ceratinly doesn't deserve to be just above the relegation zone."