This fixture – the second in the Bluemantles Cricket Week – has in recent years become something of a legendary affair, both for action seen on the pitch and off it. In short, this year’s instalment was no exception, as the home team pulled off a memorable run chase, followed by jubilant scenes in various Tunbridge Wells establishments.
Since taking over the fixture in 2019, skipper B. Pullan had, by his own reckoning, a fine record of one draw and one win (excluding the reduced version of the game in 2020!), so with a strong team of familiar faces selected, the pressure was on to deliver once again. Come game day, one potential spanner in the works was that many of the skipper’s charges had featured in the Bluemantles’ dismantling of the Band of Brothers the day previously. The issue on the morning of the game was not so much one of sore bodies (though a few of the team had incurred some suspicious injuries from the previous night – ‘Up the Hill’!?) as sore heads! Nevertheless, having repeated the morning routine of stopping at Crowborough Lidl to stock up on breakfast pastries and crates of beer, the skipper arrived at the ground in good spirits, thinking that (despite the blazing hot weather) he would cannily defy expectations and bowl first, allowing the lads to sweat out the alcohol in the field before mounting a similarly inspired run chase as that of the previous day. The problem: a revolution was afoot. Unbeknownst to him, word had got round to opening bowlers Charles Davies and Miles Rothery about this cunning plan, who put it in no uncertain terms that if he elected to field, they would refuse to ply their trade. In response to this, the skipper adopted his best Darth Sidious impersonation and informed his opening bowlers that if they persisted with this ‘insignificant rebellion’, they and the ‘pitiful little band’ of supporters they had gathered would not only be occupying numbers 11 downwards in the batting order, but would also have to watch him and his brother bowl from each end all afternoon! Whilst this Jardine-esque moment of authoritarianism seemed to work, as the skipper went out to toss, he was still hoping and praying that his opposite number – the legendary OA captain and schoolmaster Seb Phillips – would win the toss and bat. Of course, it didn’t pan out this way…
But by now, the fast-becoming-legendary Bluemantles’ opening bowling partnership of Rothery and Davies had come to their senses and were willing to do their thing. As well as providing a contrast in intellect, looks, age and physique, these two delivered a fascinating contrast in style during the opening exchanges. Akin to the difference in cricketing ethos and approach shown by Jardine’s fast bowlers, Gubby Allen and Harold Larwood, in the infamous Bodyline series, from one end you had Rothery bowling orthodox right-arm out swing to a traditional off-side field, and from the other Davies in-swingers and short balls to his own (much to the chagrin of his captain) unique field: had the first over of a mid-week friendly game in the UK ever been delivered to a field that included a third man, long leg, deep backward square leg and deep midwicket? One of Davies’ admittedly many cricketing quirks is that he refuses to have any slips, which he labels as ‘white elephants’, a term that had caught on with the rest of the team during the previous day’s play, which had seen, by my reckoning, four very manageable slip catches go down. Unfortunately, what was coming to be known as ‘The Curse of the Nevill’ persisted into the game in question, as the morning session saw the Bluemantles put down no fewer than seven catches. The OA opening pair of Kerr-Dineen and Lush made the most of their considerable luck, both racking up fifties (and a hundred partnership) by the twentieth over, leaving the skipper to wonder whether his choice to bowl would go down with those of Hussain in ‘02 and Ponting in ‘05 – a notion that several of the former rebels were evidently enjoying.
Tricky moments such as this call for your big-match players to step up, and though, by his own admission, he would not go onto bat like his model (more on this later), the Bluemantles’ own Jacques Kallis, Toby Pullan, steamed in for his captain, delivering a spell of 6-1-1-26 which, whilst it doesn’t sound that excellent, dismissed Kerr-Dineen for 65 and checked the OA’s progress. By this time also, skipper B. Pullan had turned to the first of his two off-spinners, St Andrews choral scholar Guy Minch, who was settling into his task with aplomb. Finally, a Bluemantles’ catch in the outfield was taken, as Josh Bebb held a good one off Minch, dismissing Lush for 63. At 145-2 the scoreboard was suddenly looking much healthier for the Bluemantles, and more good news was to come, as two balls after his first wicket, Minch trapped OA no. 4 Savill LBW via an excellent piece of bowling. The success of Minch prompted Captain Pullan to introduce the other of his two off-spinners, Oxford classicist and mathematician Richard Calver, who immediately settled into an excellent line and length. As the game entered its twenty-ninth over it appeared as if the OA numbers 3 and 5, Maclellan and Bett, were playing for lunch, but then in a moment of madness brought on by the accuracy of the bowling, the former tried to hit Calver over mid-on. The ball swirled in the air, and Davies swirled underneath it, but in the end he steadied himself, and just, just – painfully just – about held on. This moment of comedic excellence meant that lunch was taken with the OA score at 167-4, with the Bluemantles very much in the ascendency.
One thing that had been a source of much amusement for the players throughout the day had been the constant reiteration from the Pullan brothers about how the Bluemantles’ match fee was such good value on account of ‘the chance to play on a first-class wicket, excellent lunch and tea, and copious amounts of alcohol provided by the senior players. The players had borne witness to the quality of the Nevill deck all morning, and now the latter aspects of the quotation were proved true, as they were served an excellent ‘bangers n’ mash’, followed by cheese, accompanied by crates of beer and boxes (!!!) of wine provided by yours truly and Social Sec Davies respectively. Unfortunately, seemingly just as we were settling in, we were rudely interrupted by the bell summoning us back out onto the field of play. The fast-bowling collective had informed the skipper in no uncertain terms that it would not be functioning in the afternoon, so it was once again over to Minch and Calver. Watching these two off-spinners of contrasting style – the one relying on drift and turn, the other on height and flight – operate in tandem during the afternoon session was a pure joy. With help from a much-improved fielding performance from the lads, our spinners systematically worked their way through the rest of the OA batting, Calver finishing with figures of 8-1-3-26 and Minch with the outstanding 12-0-5-71. To ensure that he didn’t feel left out, the skipper brought himself on to take the final wicket and ensure that all bar one of the OA batsmen had fallen to spin bowling (of sorts!)
The result of this was that the Bluemantles returned to the pavilion an hour or so after lunch having bowled out their opposition for the competitive-but-not-overly-intimidating 219, which at 121-0 would have seemed like a pipe dream. Nevertheless, with a long(ish) tail, the skipper knew that his top-order batsmen would have to ‘get stuck in’ to chase the target down – something he told them in no uncertain terms during the interval. In what has become something of a tradition for this game after their opening partnership of last year, the Bryanston Common Room pairing of Calver and Sam Carter (who had kept excellently throughout the OA’s innings) strode out to weather the storm of the Old Amplefordian opening attack…. before both promptly returning to the pavilion for 0 and 1 respectively! Unfortunately, in the midst of this, our no. 3 of Fletching fame, Harvey Park, had also left a ball which, according to the opposition captain, had ‘pitched on off and hit off’. Precariously placed at 9-3 the Bluemantles were once again looking for their Kallis, Pullan T, to dig them out of a hole, which he did, to an extent… Perhaps feeling the effects of a long lunch, Pullan had evidently decided (much to his captain’s horror!) that attack was the best form of defence, as he morphed from Kallis to Botham and unveiled a brutal array of flamboyant, if chancy, strokes. Judging by his body language, the captain’s concern for this aggressive approach was shared by the ever-consistent Jackson, who at the other end was toughing it out for a gritty innings. Unfortunately, having rode his luck for 33 balls, Pullan was finally caught for a thrilling-but-unusual 49. Jackson was subsequently out for 20-odd, leaving the Bluemantles once again in trouble at 77-5. With Tea still half an hour away, the target of 219 seemed a long way off, and the prospect of batting it out for a draw even more remote…
At no. 5 had walked in a man that prior to this game had scored two runs all season. We all knew it: Josh Bebb needed a score. The challenge for a player once described as ‘the epitome of Bazball’ was that he would have to suppress his natural instincts and bat time for us. At the other end, he had been joined by the ultimate Bluemantle, son of the Chairman himself, Tom Ogden. Now, whilst Tom is undoubtedly a supremely talented all-rounder, with the bat he would freely admit that he’s usually ‘there for a good time rather than a long time’. Given the profiles of these two players, you can understand why the skipper was very pleasantly surprised when they batted out the remaining time before Tea, ensuring that the Bluemantles would start the final session of this ever-fluctuating match at 100-5. During the break, concerned by his own form and the potential fragility (and by now, being honest, drunkenness) of the tail that was to follow him, the skipper once again reiterated to the two not-out batsmen, Bebb and Ogden, the immense responsibility that rested on their shoulders. This was then reinforced by an expletive-laden, door-slamming speech from the ever-passionate and by-now-somewhat-inebriated Davies. The boys responded excellently, as having got their eyes in, defence began to morph into their natural attacking games, and they began to take advantage of a flagging OA attack. They had been told to unpick the target in chunks of twenty, and did so with aplomb, Bebb unveiling a range of punchy drives and sweeps, and Ogden more delicate dabs and cuts. Suddenly, once again, the Bluemantles were in the ascendency and the oft-cited ‘Win-Viz’ was back in our favour. To immense applause and chants of ‘keep going!’, Bebb eventually accomplished what must be the grittiest fifty of his otherwise free-flowing career. By means of simply excellent batting by this pair the Bluemantles passed 150, and subsequently 200. Ogden was nearing his own half century when he was finally dismissed for his excellent, supportive 45. This meant that the skipper would have to bat, but with barely 20 needed by now, even he was confident that we would see it home. Victory was eventually secured in fitting style with six overs remaining, as Bebb slog-swept a boundary to walk off 85 not out, a truly monumental innings. He was given a deserved hero’s welcome as he returned to the changing room, accompanied by renditions of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Fletching’s Barmy Army’. In the end, the Bluemantles had secured a comprehensive four-wicket victory, but at several times during the day, this had seemed so far away. All credit has to go to the OAs for playing their role in another superb fixture between these two sides. In time-honoured fashion, the two teams shared beers first at the ground itself, then at the pub, then at the curry house, before partying long into the night, ensuring that the 2022 instalment of this legendary fixture will live long in the memory!