Report by Daniel Mortlock:
Annoying as it was that Romsey Town lost last week, the fact that NCI also lost meant that, happily, we were finally safe from relegation. Less happily, we were also finally "safe" from promotion, although that hadn't really been a remotely realistic possibility since mid-season. With little to play for from a team pespective (even though we could still finish anywhere between 3rd and 6th), that meant today's match against NCI would be more about enjoyment and personal achievements, with a natural focus being the season's batting and bowling awards, both of which were still undecided. James McNamara might be averaging a fraction of what he managed last year, but 360 runs at 72.00 is still pretty awesome; and, going into today's game, his average was almost 50% higher than that of Ferdi Rex (139 runs at 46.33). That said, if James were, say, to get a duck today, his average would drop to 60.00, and so if Ferdi could get 102+ or 42+ not out then we'd see a surprise come-from-behind winner. The bowling was also a two-horse race, with Andy Owen (28 wickets at 14.21) leading Daniel Mortlock (20 wickets at 15.00). Daniel could go below Andy's current average by taking 2/12, 3/26, 4/41 or 5/55 (or fewer, in each case), but it's maybe more relevant that Andy needed just 3 wickets to equal Agha Khan's all-time club record for most wickets in a season . . .
. . . which made it all the more surprising that he elected to sit out today's match. Nobody was really able to work out the reason, but the result was that Daniel went out to toss up with the NCI captain and, having called incorrectly, was left to inform the team that we were going to bat first, something we'd done only 4 times in 14 previous league matches this year.
Our first cricketing task of the day was hence to negotiate the hard new ball, which Nick Clarke (15 off 18 balls) and Richard Rex (5 off 37 balls) managed very nicely. Richard, in particular, had taken his instructions to "make sure you stay there for the first ten overs" very seriously - but perhaps felt he'd overstayed his welcome by lasting all the way 'til the 12th over, the last ball of which he hit straight to short-cover before calling for what, given the fielder had made a great stop, turned out to be a suicidal run. This, actually, was somewhat thematic, as our running had been atrocious (and remained so until about the 30 over mark): we missed countless comfortable singles with the NCI field too far back; and we also should have gotten a number of third runs when long-distance returns were off target or fell short by about 30 metres (which, for Nick's benefit, is about 33 yards). Parker's Piece rang out to the sound of Andy's impassioned cries of "Run hard, boys!", something he was able to do as effectively as ever despite his unfamiliar role as a Pimms-drinking spectator.
Still, any early scoring difficulties had to be seen in the context of a very strong batting line-up that included 7 of the club's top 17 batsmen (by career average) . . . even if the comfortable all-time leader, James McNamara, was bowled cheaply for 2 (off 9 balls). This meant that Ferdi Rex had his chance to top the batting averages, and he gave it a great shot by playing a very disciplined innings: by the time he'd passed his half-century his season average was higher than James's. More importantly, in combination with Cam Petrie (31 off 46 balls) and Dom Summers (33 off 40 balls), he'd taken us to 147/4 with 6 overs still to come.
A total of 180-190 was on the cards, but then Ferdi was brilliantly caught (for 52 off 62 balls, meaning James got the batting award after all), catalysing a rather embarrassing collapse of 6/18 that saw us bowled out in the second last over. Even though it was hard not to be disappointed by our eventual total of 165, the reality was that it was probably a winning total in the conditions.
Inspired by last week's revelation that Faruk Kara had taken a wicket first ball four times this season he was handed the non-new ball . . . and went within inches of a fifth first-up wicket when the NCI opener's risky cut shot passed within inches of Cam Petrie's out-stretched hand at short-cover. And then, just a few deliveries later, the same batsman hit a near identical shot that Cam got a hand to only for the ball to pop out. (Nick Clarke, who'd asked to be put at short-cover himself but had reluctantly accepted his designated spot at short-mid-wicket, did not record an official reaction to this sequence of events but did offer up a wry smile to his captain.) Still, Faruk stuck to his guns, getting more-than-deserved wickets when edges were held first by slip Daniel Mortlock at and then by 'keeper Ev Fox.
When we took a third early wicket (with just 23 runs on the board) it was easy to imagine a celebratory romp to victory - certainly Faruk's reaction that he'd been "robbed of a ten-for" seemed to suggest he thought further wickets would come as a matter of course - but instead we entered a rather frustrating period of play where the NCI fourth wicket pair of Ullah (who'd already taken a five-for today) and Karuppiah compiled a worryingly sensible partnership that coupled reasonably solid defense with decisive punishment of bad balls. We served up a few too many of these, with Rexes Olly (0/18) and Ferdi (0/24) both, uncharacteristically, sending down some high full-tosses that were (correctly) no-balled. Add in the fact that we kept dropping catches (albeit no real sitters) and it was hard not to fear that we were going to let another match slip through our grasp. With the score at 77/3 at drinks NCI were definitely winning - we were just 66/3 at the same stage of our innings - and the implication was that we needed to do something different.
Which we did by bringing on a third Rex in three overs, Richard following on from his two sons. Richard's lack of pace had a predictably bamboozling effect on the batsmen, who were able to score just 9 from his first three overs, although some variations in line made our field settings seem a little foolish. The primary victim here was an increasingly sweaty Dom Summers, who repeatedly found himself running from backward square-leg to the vacant third man area to chase down late-cuts that, while nicely hit, pulled up in the long grass.
Third man was also the centre of the non-cricketing action when two American tourists ambled in a neat diagonal across the playing area. They were warned off but, unlike the day's other transgressers, refused to deviate from their chosen path, offering up the excuse that "we're late for our bus" even while refusing to - or perhaps being unable to - move at more than a casual stroll. Nick's suggestion that they "should have left a bit earlier" was not taken up and, sadly, neither was hit by a wayward pull shot before they finally completed Operation Enduring Stupidity.
By this stage we'd also brought on our sixth bowler for the innings (two more than NCI had used), James McNamara coming on to replace Ferdi with the score on a most worrying 100/3. James's Midas touch with the bat might have deserted him today, but he had it with the ball, Ullah top-edging his second ball to Rod Dennis at deep point . . . which would have been great, but Rod seemed to be staring dreamily off into the middle distance, his reverie broken only by desperate calls of "Catch it!" which, thankfully, he had enough time to do. (It was somehow appropriate that NCI's immaculately completed scorecard on the Play-Cricket site lists this dismissal alone as a rather enigmatic "ct Unsure".) That already felt like the match-winning moment - and any doubt about the result was surely erased next over when Karuppiah was well caught by Cam (still at short-cover) off Richard (who, job done, returned to his native mid-on spot with with nice figures of 1/15).
NCI then collapsed even more decisively than we'd done a few hours earlier, losing 6 wickets for just 10 runs. James got two more wickets in his second over (to briefly be on dream figures of 2 overs, 2 maidens, 3/0, before finishing with 3/22) as Nick Clarke, now finally on his preferred off-side, took a sharp catch and the next batsman just kind of stood there and allowed himself to bowled. Daniel Mortlock then brought himself back on with the plan of finishing things off, and promptly took two wickets of his own to have NCI all but gone on 110/9. This also meant Daniel had figures of 3/20 and a season's average of 13.91, good enough to win the bowling award if he could prevent more than 6 being taken off his final over . . . but a rather chancey assault in his final over saw a comparative blow-out to 3/30, meaning the bowling award went to Andy (completely deservedly, since he'd have had a field day on this wicket if he'd been playing).
More importantly, NCI's last wicket pair seemed to have been emboldened by this success and started combining aggressive hitting, quick running, and what can only be described as some extraordinary good luck, to start chipping away at the 56 runs they needed for victory (which, in turn, they needed to have any chance of avoiding relegation). Most impressively, the batsmen weren't perturbed by their inability to hit boundaries (something that had proved all but impossible all day) and just kept running quick singles and sharp twos to keep their target within reach. With 10 balls remaining they needed just 14 runs . . . but Faruk (3/36) managed to turn one just enough, bowling the NCI number ten to finally finish off a superbly dramatic game of cricket.
NCI were understandably disappointed to have been relegated by such a close margin, but that didn't stop both teams retiring to The Elm Tree to sample their impressive variety of real ales (and slowly-made cups of tea). Most of the Romsey eleven then moved 50 metres (which, for Nick's benefit, is about a quarter of a furlong) down the street to The Free Press for an impromptu club dinner. And thus ended the near-perfect final day of the Romsey cricket season.