SEASON OF MISTS AND MELLOW FRUITFULNESS
Our local cricket club has packed it in for the season. The pavilion is shut, the outfield is unmown, the square put away in hibernation for the winter. Cricket bags have been stowed away in the loft and thoughts turn reluctantly to football and the international break (what on earth is the Nations League and what is its relevance – aren’t we soon to have a World Cup?). Autumn has arrived. The cricket season is over.
Oh no it isn’t! Not in the county championship, it isn’t. When club cricketers have carefully folded up their sweaters and put away the bat that they hope might last them another year, the professionals are still tilting at each other, the big prize, the championship pennant, still at stake. Yet what imbecile at the ECB thought it would be a good idea to schedule hugely significant final rounds of county matches…..in autumn? The confused and dislocated county championship fixture list has come under a great deal of critical scrutiny in recent years and rightly so. The ECB stand accused of shunting the four-day game to the margins of the season in order to free up the days of summer to accommodate their lovechild, The Hundred. Like lovechildren down the ages, The Hundred might be beloved of its mother but is an unwelcome addition to the wider family. Previous loyal (and legitimate) offspring feel sidelined, neglected and very much unloved.
It surely cannot have escaped the notice of the ECB fonctionnaires that the scores of some of these autumn matches make one blink in disbelief. 26 wickets fell in a day at Chelmsford and 23 at the Ageas Bowl. Let us take a closer look at events at Chelmsford. Essex 107 and 59; Lancashire 131 and 73. Lancashire won a pulsating match by 38 runs. Pulsating no doubt, but any sort of resemblance to Test match cricket, or even first-class cricket, is a misty mirage. Also,spare a thought for my old team Hampshire. (All right, if you are a Brown Cap, you will spare not a thought for anything else other than the Champagne on ice awaiting them in the dressing room when they trooped off the field having pipped the Happy Hants to the title.) Hampshire had to win and Surrey not to win to clinch the trophy. But they were undone in 101 balls, all out for 57, their hopes of a third championship lying forlorn in the dust, or more appositely, in the green dew. These are first-class cricketers, or are supposed to be, yet they get bowled out for 59, 73 and 56. Those are prep school totals. What’s gone wrong? It’s the time of year, stupid.
It's all a crying shame. The Hampshire v Kent was a pivotal match in the season and deserved better scheduling. Let me take you back nearly 50 years. Hampshire were playing Northamptonshire at Southampton in mid-August of the 1973 season These two unlikely teams were vying for the championship. It was not quite winner-takes-all, but the feeling was that the champions-elect would be whoever prevailed in this encounter. I was not playing. I was 12th Man. My contributions to the Hampshire campaign had been to help secure two draws, which kept intact our unbeaten record, one that was maintained until the end of the season. The match-winning efforts I generously left to others.
It was hot. It had been a scorching August and the wicket was dry and dusty, “perfect for their two Test spinners,” was the sour remark of our professional doomsayer, Peter Sainsbury. You see, he was a spinner (sorry, slow bowler) and he didn’t fancy being held up to comparison with Northants’ Mushtaq Mohammed and Bishan Bedi.
The tussle between the best opening partnership in the world (Richards and Greenidge) and the best left-arm spinner in the world (Bedi) provided as compelling a period of play that I have ever witnessed. The top of the Hampshire scorecard tells you all you need to know:
BA Richards st Sharp b Bedi 45
CG Greenidge st Sharp b Bedi 45
Both were stumped by yards, having previously run down the wicket and hit the Indian for several fours.
When I was writing Tom Graveney’s biography, he always amused me by describing anybody who got him out as “a seriously good bowler”. Barry Richards had little or no respect for anybody who managed to outwit him. Only two, Bedi and Jeff Thomson, did he rate for having dismasted him (in Thommo’s case, quite literally so; he had smashed Barry’s box into fragments and the damage to his midships back in the dressing room was stomach-churning to see). On this occasion, he sat on the bench as he took off his pads and muttered, “The bastard won’t do that to me again.”
The game progressed, with spinners dominating proceedings. The climax arrived late on Day 2. Hampshire were left with 90 to win. A formality? Not a bit of it. The wicket had now deteriorated to such an extent that it was turning square. You could see the Sikh, in his pale blue turban, literally licking his lips and his fingers. Barry, as he took guard, had set his cap at a very determined angle. It was going to be a battle royal. One felt that if Barry was there at the end, we would win. If he got out, we would lose.
The newspaper report the following day said, “Hampshire achieved their target with ease at 6.15 and thus earned themselves a day off.” Oh no, we did not! The day off was welcome but the victory was secured amidst the most nail-biting tension. This time, Barry did not run down the wicket. He blocked and he blocked and he blocked, all from his crease, picking up ones and twos from time to time. “I knew if I got out,” he said later, “Bedi would knock us over like a stack of cards.” At the finish, he was 37 not out in 30 overs. For the most graceful and attacking batsman of his generation, this was a self-denying ordinance unique in his career. Phew, what a match. It deserved a capacity August holiday crowd and that was what it got. Not tacked on to the fag end of the season when autumnal mists were rolling in.
This morning, I went out into the garden. I picked up an apple that had fallen from the tree. As with all cricketers, I set about polishing it to a nice shiny ruby red, ideal for swing bowling. Before I sank my teeth into it, I mulled over the symbolism of its drop from the tree. Hampshire’s hopes had similarly tumbled to the ground and like the fruit of the tree, it had happened in a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Too late for cricket.