Exclusive: the cricket roundup stolen from the Ambridge Observer, which reports on a coronavirus-free world …
The sun shone, the mowers clicked into gear; the diehards were there with their sandwich boxes and their anoraks, which were often unnecessary; there was even the suggestion from one groundsman (not Tim Packwood of New Rd, Worcester) that “we could do with some rain”. And then our county cricketers entered the fray.
The race was on for the first wicket of the championship season and the first century and the old men prevailed. Jimmy Anderson struck in his first over against Kent, while Ian Bell posted the first 100 at Taunton. Both prompted muffled applause – it’s hard to make much noise with gloves on – and there was the sense the old order was prevailing. All was well with the world.
Yet after four days of uninterrupted cricket there were shocks and the greatest one took place at Headingley (yet again). There Gloucestershire played in the top division of the championship for the first time in 15 years and they won an extraordinary match by two wickets.
Dawid Malan hit a polished 87 in his first appearance for Yorkshire and on the final day Gloucestershire were set 387 to win. There were important contributions from the promising James Bracey and Miles Hammond – the Gloucestershire side always sound more threatening with a Hammond in their ranks – but the critical innings, an unbeaten 158, came from Cheteshwar Pujara on his return to Headingley.
Pujara, who had been nicknamed “Steve” when he played for Yorkshire since they could not pronounce his name, was delighted. “I enjoyed my time up here but I enjoyed scoring these runs as well,” he said. “At Bristol they call me ‘Cheteshwar’. I prefer that”. Gloucestershire’s coach, the highly regarded Richard Dawson, smiled discreetly after this victory on his old home turf before pointing out there were 15 games to go.
Lancashire defeated Kent by five wickets at Old Trafford; Anderson finished with seven wickets in the match which means he needs another 34 to reach 1,000 in first-class cricket – 584 of those have come in Test cricket. Darren Stevens, staying within the national speed limit, took five while the younger generation was represented by Saqib Mahmood and Harry Podmore (is he the son of Dave, who once brightened up the Guardian sports pages?).
At Taunton there were runs in abundance in a drawn game. Bell was not the only centurion; Dom Sibley also hit a 100 as did Matthew Wade on his debut for Somerset; and so did James Hildreth. The umpires may well have marked the pitch as “above average” though it is doubtful the spectators agreed. No doubt the ECB were happy with it.
The fourth day was a yawn; no run chase was forthcoming because the captains decided the surface was too batsman-friendly to set a target. Both sides took 11 points, which means Somerset remain at the bottom of the table on -1 after the deduction of 12 points for a poor pitch at the end of last season.
In the second division Middlesex played Worcestershire, who have been promoted six times in the past 17 seasons. The overseas players prevailed with Middlesex’s new captain, Peter Handscomb, hitting a century, which was matched by Worcestershire’s Hamish Rutherford. On a slow, true pitch it was tough for the batsmen to accelerate though any spectator drifting into a doze was soon woken by the hammering from the builders resurrecting the Compton and Edrich stands.
There was a more exciting game at Trent Bridge. Nottinghamshire’s latest import, Haseeb Hameed, hit a century on his debut, which was matched by one from the less exalted Hassan Azad of Leicestershire. In the end the home side won with only three overs to spare when Stuart Broad took the final wicket courtesy of a brilliant diving catch in the gully by Peter Trego, an unlikely Nottinghamshire debutant.
At Hove Ravi Bopara began his Sussex career with a polished 62 and Stuart Meaker snatched his first wickets for his new county but the Durham Kolpaks, David Bedingham and Farhaan Behardien, scored vital runs and there were important wickets for Brydon Carse.
Mark Wood looked on with a broad smile from the balcony and assured everyone, as he usually does in April, that he expects to be fully fit again before long. A delighted captain, Cameron Bancroft, said he would welcome Wood’s firepower for a few games before the Test series against West Indies.
At the venues that have been allocated Test matches against West Indies – the Oval, Edgbaston and Lord’s – there have been very promising ticket sales that suggest the game is still enjoying a boost after the excitements of 2019.
Last time West Indies were here they played the first floodlit Test in this country in Birmingham; this will not happen again this summer and the number of complaints about the absence of a pink-ball Test cannot be counted on the fingers of one hand – since that number is zero. In this instance the ECB was quick to recognise a concept that does not work in this country.
The counties reported good crowds for the first round of championship matches and already there are several sell-outs for the Blast.
Meanwhile there was great excitement at the offices of the ECB as the launch of The Hundred drew nearer. An excited spokesperson said: “Everything’s going really well. We’ve just received a massive consignment of fireworks and there are boxes galore of Hula Hoops and Butterkist Popcorn out the back”.