Monday 12th July 2021 – The LV County Championship – Cheltenham College
Growing up, cricket week was always a highlight of my summer. For one week in August I would be sent down to my grand parents in Folkestone, where every day my Grandad and I would be given a packed lunch by my Nan and off we would walk to Cheriton Road to spend the day in what was always glorious sunshine. I would meet up with the same group of boys every year and we would spend time playing cricket in makeshift nets, hanging around the pavilion getting autographs and enjoying the freedom.
Two county championship games and a Sunday League match. None of the thrills of the T20, or international players being absent. I’d occasionally go back to see my Grandad, giving him a gentle nudge to wake him up. Such great memories.
As the years have rolled on, the counties have used the out grounds less frequently. In fact I can remember seeing Kent play at Dartford, Gravesend, Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells and Folkestone. Today it is Canterbury and now Beckenham to appeal to the South East London folks. But for some counties, cricket week is still a big thing, despite the impact of the pandemic on cricket and the world at large, such as the Cheltenham Festival.
The maths were simple. OK, they weren’t really simple due to the threat of bad weather across the four days. This season the county championship was split into two parts, with the top two from each of the three groups of six forming the championship group. With Somerset poised to win the group, the final spot would be decided in the game between Gloucestershire and Hampshire at Cheltenham, with the hosts holding a slim advantage at the start of play.
Who doesn’t love a bit of cricket with a backdrop? Whilst the restricted capacity at Cheltenham had seen many areas of the ground converted to hospitality tents, the free-for-all seats around the boundary fence were all taken by the time I arrived for the start of play. The downside of out grounds is most have no staggered seating, meaning that your view of the action takes place above the fancy dan headwear of the cricket crowd. The festival has been played in the grounds of the college since 1872, the longest use ground in first class English cricket, outside of the main grounds. The Harry Potter-esque Gothic Hall and the pavilion give the ground a historic feel, timeless feel, perfect for a day of cricket.
With the first day brought to an early end due to rain, Gloucestershire made steady progress to finish at 214/6, with the 250-mark well within sight and the extra batting point. Essentially needing to avoid defeat, they went into the morning session knowing that a score of 300+ would almost certainly give them second place.
Five minutes into the start of the day and with no more runs added, the first wicket fell, Jack Taylor falling for 34. And within three balls, they had lost two further wickets, still with no further runs. A small rally saw them at least not have the ignominy of being bowled out without any runs being added but they fell short of the second batting point mark.
Hampshire started slowly but surely, neutralising the new ball and the Gloucestershire pace attack, led by Worrall and Higgins. Lunch came and went with all their wickets in tact as the great and good of Cheltenham retreated to their tents. Within fifteen minutes of the restart, they reached the 100 mark without loss, with both batsmen vying to reach fifty first.
It was Weatherley who got their first, reaching his 50 off 111 balls with an edge that flew wide of second slip. Holland, at the other end, was enjoying some luck, none more so than when he was put down at mid-wicket on 48 which then saw him retreat into defensive mode as it then took another 10 minutes to move past the 50 mark.
With almost every other game interrupted temporarily or permanently for the day due to heavy rain, we saw a chink of blue sky over the pavilion, which finally led to a breakthrough for the home side, with Holland removed for 74 and ending a superb 174 opening partnership. A dozen runs later and he was joined back in the pavilion by his opening buddy for 78.
A third Hampshire wicket seemed to give the home side the momentum and what they then needed was stability. Nick Gubbins gave them that, sending the crowd into a deep sleep with an impressive 50 minute, 35 ball stint without moving off the mark. Spurred on by such activity, he ended the day on 31 not out, whilst at the other end a couple of late wickets gave the visitors a forty run lead at the close of play.
I’d headed off at the fall of the third wicket to get my train back, although with Gubbins defending his wicket for nearly an hour I was almost at Swindon before he moved off the mark. Cricket week is a joy that reminds us all of a time gone by watching cricket and with beautiful backdrops such as the Cheltenham College, long may they continue on the cricketing calendar.