Report by Daniel Mortlock:
What a wonderful feeling it was to wake up on this sunny August Saturday, secure in the knowledge that we were all but guaranteed to stay up this year: a mere 3 points (i.e., 120+ runs, or 80+ runs and 2 wickets, etc.) would be sufficient to ensure we stayed ahead of our opponents, Milton II. It was easy to imagine a relaxed outing as we mixed the bowling around and enjoyed a relaxed game of village cricket for its own sake - it was almost like a dream . . .
. . . and so it turned out. The actual situation was rather different.
First, Milton II had 5 more points than they did a week ago because they'd successfully appealed against the imposition of 5 penalty points for sending in a late scorecard. The CCA Official Handbook states that a club is to be fined £5.00 on the first two occasions that a scorecard is late, £10.00 for each instance thereafter, and "After 3 fines have been incurred by a team during a season any subsequent breach of the rule will automatically incur a 5 point deduction from the total league points gained by the team during the season." In other words, there must have been at least three previous times that they'd failed to complete this onerous task and so it's certainly not beyond the bounds of belief that they made this mistake a fourth time. Still, there we have to stop speculating and just accept that the CCA followed their procedures, and that they were correct to give Milton II their 5 points back. More importantly, these 5 points were critical: suddenly we needed to score 200+ and take 6 wickets, or score 160+ and take 4 wickets, etc., to remain safe, which really meant we needed to win.
Second, it further transpired that the only reason that Milton II were even within a shout of staying up was that Helions Bumpstead had failed to register a player (known only as "Unsure") when they beat Milton II back in May. Without that error, Milton II would have taken just 6 points from the game, rather than the 20 they ended up with, in which case they wouldn't have been able to catch us today even if we'd lost and gotten no bonus points at all. So it was kind of maddening to think that we were in danger of demotion because of an administrative error by a club that was completely out of the (anti-)relegation race.
Third, and maybe most frustratingly, it wasn't at all clear we were actually playing Milton II today. An initial enquiry about whether they had any of the first team players yielded the answer "just one"; but this magically went up to three in subsequent conversations. A potted inspection of Milton's PlayCricket web-page reveals that today's second eleven had, prior to today, played a total of 63 games in the firsts and just 37 in the seconds this year. And while Milton I was only playing in Junior 2 North (i.e., the same level as us), they've been good enough to win that league with matches to spare and are clearly playing a higher standard of cricket than the seconds. And so the real problem is that, by the sheer bad luck of playing them in the final round of the season, we found ourselves up against a much stronger opposition than most teams who'd played Milton II earlier in the year. The CCA does have some rules in place to limit this sort of "team strengthening", but they're so anodyne as to be almost useless: they allow a team to field up to three "higher team players" (which is bad enough if, say, they happen to be a pair of undismissable batsmen), where a player is so defined if they played their previous two matches for a higher team (which means players can be repeatedly "reset" by rotating them into lower teams). It all translates to the fact that the second and third (etc.) teams from larger clubs have a "get out of jail" free card whenever they're facing relegation (or fighting for promotion) towards the end of a season. It's a point we've made in 2006, 2007 and again in 2009, and not only when we're the team that's been affected.
Given all of the above - and the fact we were missing about half our regular top order batsmen - it was clear our best chance was to win the toss, bowl first and (hopefully) restrict Milton 1.39 to a sub-par total. But, in keeping with the way our day had begun, they won the toss and, understandably, chose to bowl first. Our reaction was to lead from the front, with the two main candidates for the batting award - Nick Clarke (367 runs at 45.88) and Daniel Mortlock (229 runs at 45.80) - both in the top three. The idea was that they would duel it out with a pair of unbeaten centuries, vying to take their average above Ferdi Rex's extraordinary 88.33. Which is, almsot exactly, what didn't happen: Nick got a ball that leapt off a length - the only time this happened all game - before he'd gotten off the mark, and Daniel contrived to chop on from a ball a foot outside off-stump with just 1 run to his name. Nick (367 runs at 40.78) thus deservedly won the Batting Award, but far more important was that our hopes of posting 200+ were all but gone at 2/2 after 4 overs.
Rod Dennis (44 off 70 balls) and Richard Rex (17 off 58 balls) were then faced with the challenging task of negotiating the still new ball and rebuilding our innings. With the ball still moving in the air, they had to eschew run-scoring, at least initially, and this is what they did, not offering a single chance all the way to drinks. By the time they were both dismissed (in the 25th and 26th overs) they'd all but ensured that we'd make full use of our 40 overs, but at 72/4 with less than 100 balls remaining we were still some way from setting Milton I-II a challenging target.
Our innings then entered its third phase, as Olly Rex (29 off 37 balls) Andy Owen (17* off 58 balls) played with considerably more abandon. Andy kept finding the fielders, but Olly looked capable of lifting the whole innings, and the bowling, while still good, suddenly seemed far less threatening. When Andy and Olly had taken us to 140/4 with 2 overs left it was even possible to imagine we might make it to 160 . . . but some rather wild slogs at obvious - if effective - slower balls meant that the last 12 deliveries yielded just 5 runs and 2 wickets.
145 seemed like a pretty crap total - and, more importantly, unlikely to tax what was likely to be a strong batting line-up. Our only real option was to somehow take 10 wickets - controlling the scoring wasn't going to be enough. The dream seemed to be alive when the first ball of the innings was full and straight and the Milton opener shuffled across his stumps and was hit in front of the middle one . . . but unfortunately the ball was "going down leg" and so we had to keep searching for our initial breakthrough.
From there it was primarily a war of attrition as Daniel Mortlock (1/22), Girish Lakhwani (0/14) and Catherine Owen (0/15) all proved difficult to score off, while also proving reasonably easy to keep out. The score thus ambled along to 67/2 after 20 overs, which would have been great if we'd been bowling first, but was of little use given our low total.
A reluctant Richard Rex (1/7) took the ball, despite the stiffness from 6 hours in the car this morning (ironically taking the season's outstanding batsman many miles from the Milton ground) and immediately got a wicket when he held a smart return catch from a double-bouncer. And yet that still was just a hiccup in Milton sqrt(2)'s steady progress - we needed everything to go right, and it just didn't.
If this was a Hollywood film then the situation would have been set up perfectly for captain Andy Owen to grudgingly take the ball and nab a quick five-for, winning the match and topping the bowling averages by 0.01. But Andy could only manage a solid spell of 1/24 which meant, aside from anything else, that Matt Commin took the Bowling Award for his fiery early-season spells.
Another option for "instant Romsey legend" status would have been to take a stunning catch, and we went close on several occasions. Nick Clarke did brilliantly to get his hands to three hard-hit balls at short-cover, but none stuck; both Andy and Faruk Kara (0/16) went within inches of taking brilliant return catches, but their hands just wouldn't close around the ball; replacement 'keeper Dave Clark got his gloves to a few leg-side edges, but . . . well, you surely get the picture. We kept at it in the field, with Catherine, Girish and Olly Rex all running tirelessly to restrict second runs, and Olly (0/30) bowled some serious heat in a last-ditch attempt to manufacture a miracle, but the whole thing was rather summed up by poor Russell Woolf, back from injury and finally thrown the ball with just 2 runs needed: he succeeded in inducing the uncontrolled aerial hit we were hoping for . . . but the ball went sailing over the long-on fielder and into the trees.
We had thus been beaten comfortably by the better team on the day; but the sense that it wasn't the team we should have been playing still rankled. Milton's offer to go for a drink at the local pub was no doubt genuine, but somehow it would have been like twisting the knife, and most of us just wanted to draw a line under a most frustrating season.