If you read my earlier article entitled “A Short Trip to the Oval”, you will be aware that I cannot resist a tense last hour or so of a county championship cricket match. So it was last week when, after just two days of the scheduled four day match between Kent and Essex at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, the visitors were 180 for 9, only 64 ahead of their hosts with one wicket left. With the weather set fair for the day and despite the fact that the pitch was later described as “poor” by the English Cricket Board (ECB), who imposed an eight point penalty upon Kent, the odds were very heavily on a third successive home win.
I arrived on the ground at 9.40 to find John Jamieson and Tony Pigott from the English Cricket Board (ECB) still conducting what must have been approaching the longest pitch inspection in cricket history (Jamieson had been present at the ground since the start of the match 48 hours earlier). The players from both sides were already going through their cricket related preparations before embarking upon the more popular – and dangerous – games of football, the Kent version of which proved the downfall of spinner James Tredwell who was unable to field on the resumption of play an hour later.
The popular book selling father and son partnership of David and Keith Summerfield were still on the ground, having been thwarted (at least initially) in their dash to Hove by a flat battery on their van. The prompt attendance of the fourth emergency service, however, enabled them to get away with a sporting chance of reaching the south coast in time for the first ball of the day, although it meant that neither could we have our customary early morning discussion on the state of play in the match (and the world for that matter), nor could I purchase the two Neville Cardus books I had spied on the previous day. Saved from myself I suppose – but there’s always next week!
The Club, to its credit, had let people in free, given the likelihood of the game finishing before lunch. It was a glorious morning, fit to adorn a full day’s cricket in front of what transpired to be a decent crowd, boosted by healthy hospitality numbers (the conclusion of the game on the previous evening, which had still been a distinct possibility in the late afternoon, would have been a financial and promotional headache for the club’s Chief Executive, Jamie Clifford.
Unfortunately, Jonesy’s Kitchen in the newly and tastefully refurbished Leslie Ames Stand (which a few months before had been ripe for demolition) was only serving bacon rolls for breakfast, but an almost full lunch menu was on offer, although with the game finishing at 12.25, I doubt that many spectators would have stayed to enjoy it.
The entry of the Kent side, led by stand-in captain Geraint Jones, onto the field of play finally put paid to the pitch inspectors’ peering and scraping, and prompted the announcer to ask the “ladies and gentlemen” populating the outfield (actually two small boys and a young girl playing catch) to “vacate”.
David Balcombe, on loan from Hampshire, made short work of Tom Craddock, inducing him to snick a wide, lifting delivery into the captain’s gloves to leave Kent with just 70 runs to win. James Foster, the Essex captain, remained unbeaten, one short of a deserved half century – he has, along with Joe Denly and Jones, looked the most accomplished batsman on show. With memories of David Masters’s recent eight wicket haul in the final innings at Southend fresh in their minds, Kent supporters were viewing the “chase”, if a run rate of little over a third of a run per over could be called that, with expectation and anxiety in equal measure. Yet it was Graham Napier, whose contributions with both bat and ball on the first two days had been pitiful, bowling from the Nackington Road End where Balcombe had taken his ten wicket haul, who was the main threat, bowling with real pace and extracting considerable bounce. It was a short ball that claimed the wicket of the just 18 year old Daniel Bell-Drummond on his Championship debut, who played a hook far too early, resulting in the ball looping to cover for a simple catch. Little was expected of Sam Northeast and he lived down to those expectations by being caught plumb in front to a ball that kept rather low from Napier.
Replicating his recent form, Denly had looked comfortable, scoring 17 of the first 18 runs with two thumping fours and a Darren Stevens-like six over extra cover, before being adjudged lbw to another one that kept low, this time from Masters. 18 for 3 and alarm bells were ringing. To make matters worse, Martin van Jaarsveld almost immediately pulled up and called for a runner.
In view of the still small number of runs needed, it might have been wise for him to have left the field at this point, to return only if absolutely necessary – staying out there and playing a number of violent shots thereafter, one of which cleared the square leg boundary, cannot have helped the groin injury that had been sustained before his innings apparently. He was also shortly afterwards hit on the helmet by another rising delivery from the fiery Napier. I suspect that his pride, and anxiety to finish the job, which, with the captain’s brilliant cameo, he did, took over at this point. Bell-Drummond, who had probably not even taken his pads off at this stage, returned to do van Jaarsveld’s running for him (not that he needed to do much). Stevens’s poor Championship season continued when he snicked Napier to Foster to leave the home side at 35-4.
But our increasing fears at this point were unfounded as Captain Jones, in keeping with the Corporal of the same name in Dad’s Army, did not panic, but rather played half a dozen crashing shots (five drives and a pull) to the boundary in, I think, just eight balls, to herald a six wicket victory. Now what had all the fuss been about? Brief as it was (just 14 balls), it was reminiscent of his sensational Canterbury Week century against Somerset last year. It is heartening that he has found some form at the back end of the season because he is such a popular and committed player. It is reported that he doesn’t want the captaincy, either in the one or four (did I say four?) day formats beyond the end of this season. As we know, he has demanding commitments off the field as well as on it, and his position is, therefore, understandable. But if, despite Director of Cricket, Paul Farbrace’s protestations to the contrary at the Club Forum on the previous evening, Rob Key does call it a day, either in one day only or all cricket, Jones would get my vote. But that’s for the future.
Don’t let the eight points deduction for a poor pitch detract from another impressive performance by a Kent side that had the odds stacked against them when Essex won the toss. The batting of Jones (in both innings), Denly and Tredwell was as good as it has been all year, and Balcombe bowled with genuine pace, bounce and accuracy – he would be an outstanding acquisition for next season, but perhaps existing contractual arrangements and the rise in his stock in the Hampshire and wider county scene that his loan spell at Kent has engendered, might prove too great an obstacle.
So at 12.25pm, with the blue sky and warm sun still smiling on the ground, we all went home – well, those of us who weren’t being wined and dined with no tiresome distractions such as cricket in the Harris Room and Leslie Ames Stand hospitality boxes.