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The team that had forgotten how to win took on the team that didn’t know how to lose at Offley as Steve Bexfield’s team turned the formbook on its head to make a blistering start to the North Herts League campaign.
Last year’s undefeated champions won the toss and elected to bat first on a used wicket with a dangerously short boundary on one side. At this point it’s fair to say that Offley’s morale was not particularly high. However, Tom Reilly made the early breakthrough by bowling Hamed without scoring. That brought the dangerous Naveed to the wicket and he and Narinder were soon carrying the attack to Reilly and Matthew Freeman, taking the score to 34-1 after just four overs.
However, Freeman kept his nerve to bowl Narinder for 14 and followed it up by castling Bob for 7. Freeman might have had two wickets in as many balls but Sajid survived a perilously close shout for leg before.
At this stage the game looked to rest on the outcome of the duel between Naveed and the Offley bowlers. Naveed smashed an imperious 6 off Reilly and then helped himself to 14 in three balls from Richie Barker, admittedly aided and abetted by a fairly rotten piece of fielding on the boundary by Bexfield. The batsman was ranging in on the lady footballers and threatening to reduce their numbers when he failed to deal with Barker’s flipper. In actual fact Naveed failed to get enough bat on a fairly rank full toss and instead of hitting it over the pavilion he merely contrived to hit it very high to deep midwicket where Darren Lunney held on to a crucial catch to give Offley the momentum. Barker almost took two wickets in two balls when Sajid failed to keep the googly under control (which is to say he smashed a delivery that pitched half way down the track outside leg stump to backward square leg) but Steve Hoar was unable to hold on to a difficult chance.
Mo Chaudry cleaned up Shazad before he had the chance to trouble the scorers before Kashi joined Sajid in a dogged partnership that threatened to drag the visitors towards 200. However, the visitors’ hopes of posting a threatening score ended when Sajid pushed the ball to mid on and set off for a quick single. Rhinos are not normally noted as natural predators but one moment Freeman stood grazing at mid on, the next he was hurtling towards the ball like a dyspeptic rhino bursting out of the undergrowth with an arse full of buckshot. Freeman swooped down to pick up the ball and threw down the stumps in one astonishing movement to send the batsman on his way for 26.
Jon Cerasale capped a miserly spell of 8-1-21-1 when he trapped Tosseef in front and the innings was all but over when Chaudry won an lbw appeal against Kashi for 26. Javaid hit a big six over extra cover before edging a catch to Chris Austin, a deserved rewards for Austin’s outstanding performance behind the stumps as the ball shot through and occasionally leapt improbably to strike him in various places, and Reilly ended the resistance when he ripped a ball through Tam’s defences as Houghton Town finished up on 168 all out, an improbably low total.
With the ball keeping low on a slow, crumbling wicket that had now been used for 120 overs over the weekend, Offley’s hopes of chasing down their target depended on a solid start and the ability to strike a balance between not losing early wickets and keeping up with the required run rate. A strong batting line-up looked capable of getting the job done but Offley’s track record of chasing down scores with a team packed full of batsmen is not exactly crash hot. Consequently there were a few nerves when Barker and Hoar set out to begin the reply.
In the even there was little cause for worry. Hoar began to lay the foundations for a lengthy occupation while Barker opted to blaze away, carrying the attack to Tam and Bob and hitting both of them out of the attack as he raced to 28 before he fell lbw to ball that hit him somewhere around the ankle and didn’t leave Umpire Bigmore with a great deal of choice other than to send the batsman on his way.
At 55-1 Houghton Town had a glimmer of hope but Hoar and Reilly snuffed out any hope of a victory for the visitors by sharing an unbeaten century stand. Hoar needed a little luck to survive a shooter and Reilly survived a strong appeal from behind the stumps for a one-hand one-bounce catch at slip, but the pair were soon into their stride, mixing easy singles with crisply executed boundaries. The nagging doubt that things were going slightly too well were dispelled as the batsmen took complete charge. Hoar unfurled a splendid slog sweep and Reilly mixed a couple of trademark cuts with a brutal assault on the youthful Shazad, hitting him hard and long down the ground as Offley closed in on their victory target.
Ultimately victory arrived with eight overs and nine wickets to spare as Offley eased to one of the most comprehensive and surprisingly comfortable victories in club history. It provided a fitting reward for an excellent all-round effort and ensured that Offley can dream of North Herts success for a little while longer.