The Art of Playing for a Draw
The consensus of those preparing the ground on Friday afternoon was that their efforts would be futile as the weather promised two days of torrential rain. Saturday passed by as did the promised storms, Sunday came with the lightest of drizzle, the covers stayed on as the captain and his wife cut and filled sandwiches for the first cricket tea since September 2019.
The early arrivals, Max and Chi cleared the covers, set up the score box, put out the flags and came up with the awesome offer that their respective partners would help set out the tea. The strip was cut and rolled as the remaining players from both teams gradually assembled; Asif arriving with a comfortable 2 minutes to spare.
Oxford Downs won the toss and batted. The ease with which the first ball was clipped for 4 was an ominous portent of what was to come. The worn wicket seemed to holding up well, the ball carrying well through to keeper, Jamie Lumb. Max Nalborczyk lifted MSCC prospects at the end of his first over. He found a delivery that homed in on the top of the off stump, bringing a nod of appreciation from umpire Simpson as the opener departed shaking his head. At the other end Ellwood was showing great strength off the front foot, check driving for 4 then powering the ball through the covers. Nalborczyk picked up a second wicket as the ball was feathered through to the keeper.
22 - 2 was the best position MSCC had as the game rapidly moved in Oxford Downs favour. Asif and Max bowled tidily, but runs came quickly as every bad ball was dispatched. The wicket was changing character as the effects of the roller wore off. There was less speed on the ball and more movement. Howard Lancaster came close to a very hard chance at cover, Chris Price on his season's debut was unable to hold on to a second at point. Ellwood fell to the bowling of Way, MSCC’s first change bowler for an excellent 63, Nalborczyk taking the catch.
The Downs batsmen continued undaunted keeping up a scoring rate of five and half and over. A moment of magic from Squiff Wordsworth led to the end of the next partnership. A fabulous pick up and throw left the Downs captain stranded yards short of safety and in the same over Harry Way took a comfortable catch at Mid off.
Paul Wordsworth bowled a very tidy spell of seven overs including the only maiden bowled by a Middleton bowler he finished with 1 - 28. Riley looked to have a good chance of taking wickets until he fed three four balls in a row to the Downs middle order. As tea approached Asif picked up his only wicket as Riley held on to a towering blow at long off.
Tea was taken outside the pavilion. The lemon drizzle blueberry cake being given Asif’s seal of approval. Harry Way and Stevyn Jackson had to cut their teas short in order to be padded up and ready to open the batting. The Down’s bowlers had more pace than Middleton’s and in Watts had by far the most accurate and miserly bowler of the day. Harry Way was up for the challenge and covered the moving ball by getting well forward. Stevyn opted for a more aggressive approach. Watts was a bit too good and uprooted Stevyn’s middle stump. Riley joined Way and although progress was slow against Watts, both picked off Watts every time he dropped short.
The best chance of a Middleton victory would be for Way and Riley to see off the openers and then attack the second string bowlers. As the final twenty overs approached this remained a possibility. The Downs had a secret weapon in 13 year old Henry Welch. He bowled supremely well turning the ball both ways with his legspin and googlies. Way played his only false shot and departed for a hard fought 19. 140 runs were needed from the last 20 overs on a wicket which was now offering considerable turn and assistance of the seam for the faster bowlers.
Riley looked to play expansively, passing fifty, surviving three close calls, two for LBW and one for a stumping.
Middleton were trying to find a way to win the game but the hill to climb was steep and ground beneath their feet crumbling. The light which had been poor for most of the match was deteriorating fast. Welch beat the bat as the succession of Middleton batters failed to pick which way the ball would spin. As the run rate climbed wickets fell but Middleton continued to attack. Riley fell for a hard fought 85 just after Lancaster had mis-read a googly to be bowled for 14. Even in the final over Middleton batter were looking to play positively, guest player Chi falling LBW and Asif caught off the fifth ball.
With one ball remaining the Captain gave the instruction that we should now attempt to avoid defeat and play for the draw. The fielders drew close, as vultures around a fresh carcass. The Downs skipper was bowling, two victims already in the overs to his very slow googlies.
The ball was released, Wordsworth advanced to meet it and negate the spin. A moment’s indecision, and now Wordsworth scampered back into his crease to play the ball after it had turned. The ball pitched and bit, Wordsworth adjusted his balance, pitched and leant, the ball kissed into his pads. The fielding team appealed, but the ball was neither in-line nor going to hit the stumps and the draw had been salvaged.
Both teams retired to the joys of bar and barbeque, manned by the Hickman family who went over and above the call of duty as the teams mixed and mingled as some sense of normality returned at least for now.