Blenheim Park CC, Blenheim Palace South Lawn, 35 overs.
Each May, since time immemorial, as the wisteria blooms hang full and heavy on the vine, eleven Bodley men, good and true, make the journey north up the Woodstock Road there to play cricket on the broad expanse of the south lawn of that stateliest of homes, Blenheim Palace. To cross the vast courtyard, through and around the milling throng of gawping tourists, then traversing the splendour of the Italianate water terraces and on to the sunlit uplands of the majestic cricket field, all the while burdened down with the weighty paraphernalia of the summer sportsman, is as second nature to the seasoned Bodleian cricketer. Onward, across the Duke’s back lawn, we make for the modest woodman's hut hidden in the clump of trees that serves as pavilion for the game. In the dark interior plans are hatched. Let them bat first says the captain for the pitch has never really been to the liking of Bodley’s finest. The toss is made, the captain calls it and Bodleian CC get set to snap into their fielding drills. Just one problem. Not all of the eleven are here yet. But look over yonder! Here comes Tim Saunders, and Ross, and Iain, and Phil and then finally the elegant figure of David Shackleton appears. Sustainable cricketers all, cycling here in a Bodleian CC peloton from the metropolis. Those of us who have driven by car can only look on in awe.
Out in the field the team take up their positions. Tim Saunders keeps wicket with two slips and a gulley standing sentinel. Nigel sprints in from what those in the know call the “Walker End”. Like a well-tuned vintage Bentley motor car Nigel doesn't disappoint on his home turf. It's a maiden - of course it is. Phil takes the second over from what we must call the “Woodman's Hut End”. Bowling to off stump he probes and teases the batsman. Then in his second over he strikes as the Blenheim opener misjudges a shot to midwicket and Ross takes a fine catch. Advantage Bodley. The pugnacious Blenheim number threes struts to the crease and takes an ostentatious guard. Nigel is finding the edge. One flies to point but falls tantalisingly short. Another flies sharply to the keeper's right. It’s in the glove, and then it's not. Close! Disaster then strikes the Bodley cause. Rob, vigorously chasing down a ball in the outfield, pulls up in agony. A strained calf muscle means he must leave the field. Come forward Tim Philipson, Bodleian’s 12th man, who like the good scout has come prepared. Immaculate in whites he prowls in the covers. Phil takes out the second opener. Clean bowled, a wicket maiden. Then it's time for Leigh to have a bowl. It takes an over to hit a rhythm. Then he too is posing questions to the batsmen. But Blenheim’s chirpy number three starts to open his shoulders and is hitting both decent balls or not around the park and over the boundary rope. It’s starting to run away from us and we need a wicket. Iain, bowling some cunning mixed length stuff takes one courtesy of Nigel's assured catch at mid-off. However, the belligerent number three remains. More destructive biffing from him, accompanied by yet more chirping put Bodleian on the back foot. Then his century is up. Bodleian heads drop. This could run away from us.
Up steps brave Sir Gavin of Eynsham. The combative centurion awaits at his mark. Gav thunders to the popping crease … Clean bowled him! Back in the hutch he goes! Robinson, the swerve-master, Robinson the meister-swinger is back. It's as if winter never happened and was nought but a bad dream. Summer is this noble one's season and the greensward his natural habitat: now he was back with a vengeance. In his seven over spell five Blenheim wickets fall to his guile and craft. Watch and learn youngsters, watch and learn. David, now bowling from the Woodsman’s Hut End, gives away little for the Blenheim batsmen to score off. His accuracy and admirable parsimony is rewarded in his final over with a wicket as Phil pouches the catch at deep point. Then back on to bowl comes Phil and swiftly wraps up the Blenheim innings as the number eleven offers up a catch to Ross. Blenheim are all out for 192 in the 34th over.
Then it’s over to the hut in the woods for tea. A good array of tempting fare is laid before us: sandwiches of course, pork pie too, scotch eggs, scones with jam and cream, fresh fruit is helpfully provided for those on a diet. Tea taken, it’s back out to the field of play. The captain has marshalled his troops and pulled together a rare assemblage of Bodley batting talent. Some of our number have made themselves unavailable for this fixture: the siren call of the “Wood” festival in the remotest far Chiltern Hills has claimed James and Stu both. Gareth is tramping the lonely grouse moor in the furthest reaches of Caledonia. Matthew has tennis to play. No matter. With the firepower of Bharat, David, Tim Saunders, Ross, Leigh and Iain at the top of the order we have batting talent aplenty. 193 is a decent total but we feel we are up to the task.
Bharat and David are our chosen opening partnership and take guard. Blenheim’s bowlers, one of whom is the aptly named Spearman and our nemesis in previous encounters, are both accurate and wily. They know the pitch well and give away few loose deliveries for our batsmen to score off. Nine overs pass. We haven’t lost a wicket, Bharat and David have not looked troubled, but we haven’t scored many runs either. In the hunt but with work to do. Then, in the tenth over, David falls. Bowled by Master Cox, the young seamer, for 7. Huge disappointment for the travelling Shackleton supporters’ group picnicking on the long-off boundary. Oh well, back to the bubbly. Bodleian are 20 for one off 10 overs. Tim Saunders joins Bharat at the crease. A short partnership as Bharat is bowled, as so many Bodleian batsmen have been down the years, for a useful 23 by the wily Spearman. 32 for 2 in the 13th over. Ross Quest now strides forth to join Tim. Much is expected of these two. Who can forget Tim’s entertaining batsmanship on tour in the rolling hills of Hampshire or his heroics against the Authors XI at Warborough? A farcical run-out means there will be no reprise of that at the Palace. Tim sets off for a quick single, Ross declines it and Tim is stranded midwicket. 37 for 3 after 15 overs. Now comes the partnership of the innings as Iain joins the left-handed Ross. Iain starts to get the measure of the Blenheim change bowlers and blasts them down the ground. Some lusty free-swinging blows and the Bodleian run rate begins to climb. Ross the quieter of the pair is playing himself in, biding his time. Then he too finds his range and starts to plunder the bowling. There follows some wonderful big-hitting to gladden the hearts of the Bodleian CC faithful. Fours and sixes begin to rain down on the Blenheim outfield. The hundred is up in the 23rd over and all to play for. Iain, bowled for a fine 26, by the Blenheim captain Canham now makes way for Leigh. Marston’s finest is not there long: bowled for 5, another victim of their skipper. Milner tarries for an even shorter stay. Canham strikes again and off goes our Captain Courageous for a resounding nought. Thank goodness for the stout-hearted Ross at the other end. He continues to go about his work, making light of all that is thrown at him and now ably supported by another stout-heart, Sir Gav of Eynsham, they push on. The pair have together put the Bodleian in with a shout of victory but the overs are counting down. Will we have enough time to get the runs? Two overs left, 178 on the board for the loss of six wickets.
Ross brings up his century and the crowd erupts. The tension is unbearable. Gav departs the scene as Canham strikes again for his fourth wicket. One over is left, ten to win, and Cox senior is the bowler. All the Blenheim fielders are posted, in a ring, on the boundary rope. Four runs are scrambled off the first five balls and two Bodleian wickets are sacrificed in the chase: Phil run out and Nigel caught going for glory. Tim Philipson is there for our final stand. Last ball and six runs for victory. Ross swings, misses and two byes are taken as the Blenheim keeper races to retrieve the ball. All over. We close on 189 for 9 with Ross scoring a magnificent 106 not out.
Doubtless we’ll be back next year, like the blooming wisteria, to put ourselves through it all over again.