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Offley & Stopsley 140-8 Vs Ickleford II's 237-8 ; 10th May
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Steve Bexfield’s battered and bruised Offley side were left clinging on for a draw at the end of a torrid encounter with Ickleford. After two years of sweeping all before them (including annihilating Ickleford by 134 runs during last season’s undefeated promotion campaign), Bexfield’s men were forced to dig in for the draw as Ickleford pressed for the victory.
Matters got off to a poor start when Bexfield lost the toss and Offley found themselves sentenced to 53 overs of hard toil on a fast and rutted outfield under an unforgiving sun. Colin Keeley was left with serious grounds for complaint as he repeatedly found the edge of the openers’ bats only to be rewarded with a succession of boundaries slashed through, wide and over a packed gulley and slip region. At the other end Matthew Freeman defied the heat to produce an inspired spell of 12-3-30-0, possibly his best stint of his career and certainly his best effort of the season. On a day when the smart money was on Freeman succumbing to heat stroke or dehydration, he proved the doubters wrong by delivering a staunch performance that deserved a wicket.
Keeley finally made the breakthrough when he had Shinner caught behind by Chris Austin but by that stage Offley were already looking firmly down the barrel. Things were not helped by Richie Barker damaging his left hamstring as he broke into a panicked jog down to fine leg in pursuit of a leg bye before diving on top of the ball and sustaining a serious injury to his right thigh, a display of athleticism and coordination that almost merited an orange disc and a special parking spot.
Mo Chaudry replaced Freeman and mixed moon balls with exocets – in other words a normal spell – as he picked up three wickets but also surrendered a few boundaries. At the other end Keeley gave way to Barker and although he also picked up three wickets, a dreadful two-over burst from Chaudry and Barker went for 31 runs and ensured that survival would be the limit of Offley’s ambitions. Austin capped a fine performance in the field by adding a stumping to his four catches but by the time Ickleford had exhausted their 53 overs, an Offley win was effectively out of the question and the only serious question that remained to be answered was whether Ickleford would pay the price for batting too long.
Bexfield and Darren Lunney adopted an over-my-dead-body approach in the early stages and they held out until the 15th over. The right-left hand combination was supposed to frustrate the bowlers by ticking the scoreboard over but judging by the fact that Lunney faced just two balls in seven overs from occasional Offley seamer Martin McCulley it was hardly a runaway success. The partnership was broken when Lunney was trapped in front for 9 with the score on 35-1. Chaudry came and went for 9 but a draw looked on the cards at the halfway point of the innings before Bexfield’s hitherto flawless innings came to an abrupt halt. Having looked in complete control, Bexfield decided to steer a wide long hop to gulley and the floodgates opened as the captain departed for 43.
Austin, the ideal man for digging trenches, marched to the wicket and held on for a while before falling caught behind, slashing wildly and getting a thick edge through to the keeper. When Nathan Brodie was fifth out attempting what appeared to be an overhead smash more suited to the tennis court, half the side were out with 18 overs remaining and Ickleford were hammering at the door like barbarians at the gate. Having been shouted out by his captain and effectively strapped into his pads, Freeman joined forces with Keeley and the pair prepared to mount a salvage operation. They survived until the 34th over when Keeley decided he’d had enough of digging trenches and went hurtling over the top, launching the ball towards the ozone layer and succumbing to a catch at short midwicket.
Barker hobbled out to join Freeman and it was almost possible to cut the tension with a Stanley knife as the pair dug in, steadily chipping away at the remaining overs. Freeman ate up the overs with aplomb, guzzling them down as if they were the last box of chomps in existence. The pair guided Offley towards a batting point and survival was in sight when Freeman chipped a soft return catch. It was a tame end to a doughty innings and destroyed Freeman’s ambition of batting the entire season without being dismissed. Chris Latino assumed the vigil and on reflection punching the ball into his stumps attempting to sweep was not terribly helpful. He failed to trouble the scorers. However, Gary Chamberlain joined Barker and the pair stayed together until the start of the final over as Chamberlain ignored his inexperience and some of the helpful advice from the fielders to survive untroubled for 11 balls.
The last over was to be bowled by McCulley, a crafty seamer with the ability to make the ball wobble like his belly during a quick single. Barker, displayed a nice line in forward prods and pushes, designed to secure minimum runs but maximum abuse from the fielding side who seemed to be under the apprehension that because they had scored a lot of runs, Offley were morally obliged to give their wickets away. McCulley went through all his variations – slow one, straight one, straight slow one, quicker one, away swinger and cutter – but failed to make the breakthrough as Offley clung on.
There was little doubt that Bexfield’s men had the worst end of the draw but better that than the worst end of a crushing defeat, an outcome that looked likely on numerous occasions throughout the afternoon. The result ended Offley’s winning start to the season at five games but ensured they remained in touching distance of the leaders at the top of Division Nine.