The long-awaited and much loved Cheltenham Festival, the high point of most Gloucestershire followers’ season, is already half over for those who aren’t fans of the games’ shortest format (of whom there are quite a few). Why? Because the first Championship match of two, against Glamorgan, finished in just two days after 25 wickets fell on the first day.
Consolation for those cricket fans on the English side of the Severn is that Gloucestershire won this most bizarre match by ten wickets. It was an outcome that most couldn’t have foreseen after the first two innings lasted just 73.3 overs with the Welsh county bowled out for 117 and the hosts replying with 141.
The general consensus among coaches and players was that the pitch was certainly lively on the first day and offered considerable help to the bowlers, but was by no means unplayable. On the second day, when the home county needed 135 to win, the pitch was much less threatening so much so that the home openers, Chris Dent and Cameron Bancroft knocked off the runs with little trouble. All this suggested that there was moisture evident in the pitch on the first day which dried out as the match progressed. Whatever the reason the surface did present problems to the batters on the day one. There was uneven bounce, balls from one end often keeping low and from the other often lifting from a good length. There was also movement: off the seam and at times in the air in the cloudy humid conditions.
Glamorgan, who batted first, may have had the worst of the conditions. Gloucestershire coach Richard Dawson felt that when his batsmen took their turn they tended to play their perceptions of the conditions rather than the ball in front of them. When Glamorgan batted for the second time it often seemed that wickets were lost to shots by batters who felt that they may as well score a few runs before the inevitable ball with their name on it arrived. The second Glamorgan effort was particularly poor.
With two days without cricket fans on both sides of the Severn were left with plenty to ponder. Not the least telling of their impressions will have been the inability of modern batsmen to cope with conditions which favour the bowler. On the same day the 25 Cheltenham wickets fell just one was lost by Kent at Beckenham (another outground) as they amassed over 400. The Beckenham scenario seems more familiar in recent seasons, particularly since the uncontested toss experiment began. It would have been interesting to hear the thoughts of some of the older players, who attended the annual PCA gathering at the Festival on day two, on the inability of modern batters to fight for runs on tricky pitches. It seems the excitement of much white- ball batting now comes at a cost. A persuasive case for compartmentalising the different formats.
Although cheated of two days cricket the Gloucestershire fans who watched the county’s last home match, at Bristol against Nottinghamshire, will at least have seen two absorbing days at the Festival. The pitch for the Nottinghamshire match was so dead that if the game had lasted a week there still wouldn’t have been a conclusion. Nottinghamshire’s assistant head coach Paul Franks was highly critical of that surface. There were no complaints from Glamorgan coach Robert Croft on the wicket for the Cheltenham match.
If there was some poor batting on show at the Festival there was some excellent bowling. All the quicker bowlers on both sides at different times in the match acquitted themselves well. Much the most impressive was Gloucestershire’s Mr Consistent Liam Norwell. He exploited the generous seam movement offered in both innings with admirable skill, his 6/38 in the second innings adding to his 2/17 from nine overs in the first. He now has 29 wickets at 15 apiece this season with four five- wicket hauls.
Norwell was a model of accuracy throughout. His style is that of the classic hit the top of off stump English seamer. The opposition bowler to take the eye was Glamorgan’s South African international Marchant de Lange. A much more intimidatory quickie, de Lange used the bounce from College Lawn End to induce nicks behind the wicket. It was exciting to watch his determination and aggression.
Such is the dependence now of county cricket on overseas imports that de Lange was one of seven non- British- born players in the Glamorgan side at Cheltenham (there were three Welshmen and one Englishman). How different from the last Glamorgan Championship-winning side of 1997, the majority of whom were either Welsh born or brought up- with Waqar Younis the only overseas player.
Deprived of two days cricket thought they were, the devotees of the Cheltenham Festival turned up in good numbers on both days. With more close neighbours, Worcestershire, due in the Championship on Sunday next, another good crowd is anticipated. The Festival also has three NatWest Blast T20s this year, with the game on Sunday week against Sussex already sold out ten days in advance. Festival cricket in these parts is as healthy as ever.