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All things considered the 2008 campaign was not the most successful season in Offley & Stopsley’s history.

After rolling through two successive promotion campaigns in the Saracens League, that particular bandwagon ground to a halt, coming to a spectacular and painful end at Bushey. The North Herts League provided its customary share of disappointment and the dream of successfully defending the Hertfordshire Village Trophy died in dismal conditions as Offley were ripped apart by markedly superior opponents.

Yet if there was a marked lack of success and silverware (and even consolation polyester pennants were thin on the ground), things were rarely dull as the club completed their eleventh season at Offley, an achievement that was actually commemorated in print and makes essential reading for anyone connected with the club.

The season started in dramatic fashion as Colin Keeley ripped up the record books and defied the march of time to skittle Lilley for 30. Keeley celebrated turning 40 by recording the best figures in the club’s history, finishing with the remarkable analysis of 6-3-10-8. Although Lilley’s shot selection did fluctuate between iffy, abysmal and blind, there was no denying the fact that Keeley bowled superbly and made the most of the conditions as Offley kicked off the campaign by annihilating their local rivals by 101 runs.

North Mymms were dispatched by 102 runs as Richie Barker scored an unbeaten 61 and took 5-13 before the Saracens League kicked off with a hard-fought 24-run win over Bentley Heath. Mo Chaudry (63) and Darren Lunney (32) shared a 103-run stand as Offley made 190-9 before Barker claimed 5-42 and Chaudry sealed the win with a late burst of 3-23. Looking back that may well have been just about as good as it got in the Saracens League and if we could have known what lay ahead we might have jacked it in there and then. But we didn’t know – and even if we had we’d doubtless have gone ahead with it and the devil take the hindmost.

Nathan Brodie secured his first league victory as captain in a tight seven-run triumph against Titanic. With Titanic’s players doing their best to maintain their concentration as they coped with the wit and banter of their chums from Lilley who were watching from the boundary edge (incidentally they were about as effective at this as the captain of the original Titanic was at avoiding the iceberg), Jon Cerasale smashed the attack to all parts. He cracked five sixes in his 69 as Offley posted 187-7.

The visitors were well up with the rate before Chris Latino pulled off an astounding catch at mid on as he hurled himself to his left to haul in an absolute shell. Barker claimed another four wickets (it would have been five but he was denied a stone cold lbw shout on the grounds that although the batsman was hit in front of the stumps the ball had pitched outside off stump – think about that for a moment) before Brodie set a captain’s example and bowled the last over. Titanic needed 10 to win but could only muster two singles as Brodie claimed the crucial scalp of Fox thanks to a finely judged catch by Lunney on the boundary.

Offley made it five wins in a row with a comfortable friendly triumph at Boxmoor (Lunney took 3-23 and top-scored with 34; the other big event of the day was a pitch invasion by members of the local Hemel Hempstead Chav Society and an interruption while the police restored order and conducted their inquiries).

However, hopes of a sixth straight victory went out the window on a brutal day at Ickleford. Steve Bexfield lost a crucial toss and the hosts piled up 237-8 in sweltering conditions, leaving Offley with no real option but to try and hang on for a draw. Bexfield dug in to score a dogged 43 but after Lunney was dismissed for 9 – unsettled by sustained attempts to stick it up his snot box – wickets fell regularly. Keeley and Brodie both fell to irresponsible shots before Matthew Freeman dug in for 13 overs to score a valuable 15. Latino fell to a shot that would have embarrassed a quadriplegic with no hands (ironic really because he punched an attempted sweep shot into his stumps) but, in an atmosphere that you could cut with a Stanley Knife, youngster Gary Chamberlain helped negotiate the final four overs as Offley clung on for a share of the points.

Offley turned the tables in the North Herts League the following day as they cruised to a 44-run triumph. Offley batted first and scored 214-6 after Barker (55) and Hoar (25) set the stage with an opening stand of 81. Brodie added 37 as the Ickleford bowlers were treated with some disdain. Ickleford never seriously threatened to make a game of it and with Keeley picking up 3-33 and West Indian paceman Carl Clare claiming 2-26, the only real disappointment was that Offley failed to pick up a bonus point for bowling Ickleford out, as the visitors closed on 170-9. Elsewhere the Second XI made their first appearance of the season and slipped to a narrow 55-run loss at Biddenham despite an unbeaten 90 from Bexfield.

Brodie scored his maiden century for the club against Parkfield & Headstone. After a succession of near misses where he had routinely got himself out when well set in the 70s, Brodie finally conquered his personal Everest by registering 100 as Offley made 216-4. An exhilarating partnership of 59 between Chris Austin (31*) and Chris Latino (13*) put Offley out of reach. The visitors displayed no interest in chasing the target and opted to play for the draw, an enterprising approach that earned them a solitary point.

Hoar (56*), Barker (47) and Brodie (38) set up a crushing seven-wicket win at Hatfield and Bexfield’s Seconds earned their first win with a three-wicket victory over Codicote before the game of the season at Datchworth ended in dramatic fashion with Freeman defying gravity and the cumulative effects of a huge tea to jump for a catch that preserved the draw when it seemed as if the ball would clear the ropes to give the hosts victory. Read the match report.

Hoar’s 51 was the highlight of a turgid draw against Greenwood Park as a ludicrously slow pitch frustrated the efforts of both teams to play their shots as Offley used eight bowlers to no avail in a bid to break down the visitors’ resistance.

The club’s unbeaten streak disappeared in grotesque fashion at Holwell. Seven batsmen were dismissed for 2 or less and Cerasale’s unbeaten 28 was the sole redeeming feature in a total of 86 all out. Extras added 27 to the cause but Holwell cruised home by nine wickets. Elsewhere the Seconds were routed for 69, a performance that meant Offley’s 22 batsmen had amassed 128 runs between them once extras’ contribution had been discounted.

Dave Bridgland made his first appearance of the season against Baldock and announced his arrival in fine style as he helped himself to 102, his second century for the club. Chaudry added a rapid 67 and Brodie made 44 as Offley racked up 244-2. Baldock lurched to 158 all out.

Barker’s unbeaten 52 at Pirton set up a comfortable win in the first round of the Village Trophy. An epic run chase against eventual winners Langleybury revived Offley’s hopes in the Saracens League. Martin McCulley returned for his second stint with the club after being scorned by Ickleford and promptly celebrated with three wickets in a marathon 21-over spell that had him mincing to the crease on fumes by the end. Langleybury still scored 201-8 and Offley were up against it despite Bexfield’s 59. However, Scott Addy produced his customary one good innings of the season, hammering a rapid 32 to revive Offley’s hopes. Austin batted with unusual flair before Freeman and Latino, Offley’s own Laurel and Hardy, dragged Bexfield’s team past the winning post with two balls to spare.

A brilliant 100 from Bexfield helped Offley to 220-8 against Houghton Town despite the complete disintegration of the lower order that featured four ducks. However, thanks to a combination of injury (Qumar’s hamstring snapped like a dry twig under the foot of a rhino), belligerent batting and the customary re-interpretation of the laws of the game by the Houghton Town umpires (namely the decision to award wides despite hitting the batsman on the pad), the visitors won a tense and exciting game by two wickets, a result that just goes to show that moral victories aren’t worth having.

Cerasale revived Offley’s fortunes with a virtuoso performance against Nomads at Crawley Green. On the day that he revealed his middle name was Piers, the Invincible Italian claimed 3-17 to skittle the hosts for 126. Offley withstood a middle order collapse before winning by four wickets, Cerasale finishing unbeaten on 37.

Bexfield recorded a century for the Seconds as they overcame a rocky start against Codicote. The top three of Austin, Latino and Damien Sale mustered two runs between them and Offley were firmly in the mire at 15-5. However, Keeley slapped his way to 48 before Bexfield made an unbeaten 101 and Freeman added a defiant 12, apparently earning the tag of the best number 11 the opposing keeper had ever seen. Presumably he hadn’t played much cricket. The visitors then made a mockery of the 40 over contest by lumbering along to 132-2.

Spin was the order of the day when Offley entertained Luton Indians. Barker took the new ball and bowled unchanged, claiming 6-44, including one wicket where the ball actually turned. The visitors made just 94 but that looked as though it would be enough with Offley slumping to 71-6 as Monty-wannabe Sobti ran amok, picking up four scalps. However, Lunney and Barker dug in, eking out the runs a single at a time before they finally saw Offley to their target in the 49th over. Sobti finished with the figures of 24.4-8-35-4.

The game against Reed at Weston provided some big hitting on both sides as temperatures rose in the heat. Offley stormed to 260-7 as Bexfield smashed 74 before tossing away what seemed an inevitable century. Keeley made 36 as a makeshift opener and Brodie overcame preparing for his knock by vomiting blood to make 63.

However, Reed stormed off in pursuit of their target, victimising the immobilised Freeman in the field and quickly driving up McCulley’s blood pressure. The young Greaves, a rotund teenager with the finest mullet since Billy Ray Cyrus, weighed in on the act as he hammered Keeley to all parts of the ground – and various parts of the car park as well. It was all too much for the veteran bowler and he lost his temper in some style, crossing swords with Brodie (after a failed attemp at a catch) in an exchange that left both players threatening to leave the field. Considering Keeley’s figures of 8-1-71-1 it was understandable that he was a little aggrieved with life. The game was firmly in the balance with Reed on 225-5 before Rizwan took a magnificent catch at deep extra cover to end Greaves’ brilliant innings of 88 off 56 balls and Reed’s run chase ran out of steam as they finished on 244-8.

Keeley and Barker shared seven wickets to bundle Hatch End out for 142 but the highlight was a magnificent one-handed catch by Addy behind the stumps, as he defied gravity and hurled himself to his right to haul in a ball that seemed headed for the vacant second slip area. Chaudry made a useful 36 and although Lunney punched a full toss to square leg off his glove and Cutts recorded his third duck in a row (he blamed this on a lack of opportunity), Offley limped home by two wickets to keep their promotion hopes intact.

Majid Shah hit 83 as Offley drew at North Mymms. However, the game was overshadowed by farcical tragedy, as the skinny Lunney collided with the more portly Sanjay Roy as they both went for a catch. Roy was carted off to hospital with broken ribs and various other injuries (despite being given the all clear by Dr Addy), injury being added to the insult of his duck. Lunney suffered a broken hand. A lousy weekend was capped by a grotesque collapse at Ickleford where Offley stormed off in pursuit of 210 and reached 59-0 before falling to 89-8 amid a torrent of inept shots, suicidal running and questionable umpiring decisions en route to a 74-run loss.

Bexfield missed his first Saracens game for three seasons, wisely making himself unavailable for the trip to desolate Stevenage. It looked a wise move as the hosts scored 201 on a rather questionable-looking surface despite miserly spells from McCulley and Tattersall and Keeley’s 4-49. The hosts were particularly confident at the interval, optimistically predicting that their self-styled best bowling attack in the division would have few problems in knocking Offley over. However, Brodie (61) and Chaudry put on 82 for the opening wicket to provide Keeley with a launch pad for an assault. Batting with verve and determination, and consistently mowing the ball over cover point, Keeley raced to his half-century with a pair of majestic sixes before being bowled for 53. Despite the loss of three quick wickets, Tattersall steadied the ship with one of his best innings of the season (namely scoring more than 2) and smashed a quick-fire 26 to give Offley a six-wicket win with 10 overs to spare.

A pathetic 46-run loss to Hatfield followed despite Clare’s 3-28 and 68 from Barker. Offley folded for 153, a score that called into question the wisdom of selecting Rizwan at number three as a specialist batsman. The Seconds scraped a draw at Woodford Green with Bexfield’s 96 underpinning their total of 137-9; the next highest score was Marc Ward’s unbeaten 11.

Bayford looked ready to inflict a crushing defeat on Offley after they made 150-9 and then reduced Offley to 3-2 after seven balls, including Bexfield out first ball, and then 40-5. However, Barker survived a confident shout for caught behind before he’d scored and shared a stand of 92 with Chaudry. Chaudry’s dismissal coincided with the arrival of a plague of flying ants that made life a misery for anyone in the middle. Keeley swallowed one and promptly headed for the sanctuary of the pavilion by hacking a ball to cover but Ward and Barker (44*) saw Offley home.

Despite Keeley hitting the biggest four anyone had ever seen (it would have been a six at any other ground, including the MCG), a dismal collapse at Breachwood Green saw Offley fall to 87-7 before an unlikely stand of 86 between Clare and Latino salvaged the situation in unexpected fashion. The West Indian was cruelly deprived of a maiden 50 when he was run out in the final over for 48 but with Latino defying the heat and the uncharted territory of lasting more than 15 minutes at the crease to make an undefeated 32, Offley finished on 173-8. Barker and Keeley both took three wickets and when the dangerous Nick Merchant sliced a catch to cover off Rizwan the game was effectively over. The Seconds lost a close one at Whitwell (actually that’s a lie) after the hosts ran up 249-6 (Freeman 7-0-50-0, Gourd 2-0-31-0). Bexfield made 87, Addy blasted 30 and Ward hit an impressive unbeaten 26 but five ducks from the middle order sealed Offley’s fate.

August 2 took Offley to Bushey. It also took Keeley, Freeman and Latino on a tour of Hertfordshire (via London), an interesting trek that led to them arriving an hour and a half after the scheduled start. It just goes to show that a player on the pitch is worth three in the Bush(ey). With Cutts and Barker absent at the former’s wedding, Offley conceded 198-9. Austin and Latino battled bravely but with Bexfield, McCulley and Keeley all failing to get off the mark, the team surrendered their long unbeaten record with Freeman unable to pick the ball out of a low sun and Bexfield throwing in the towel in a bid to protect his younger from the blindingly low sun. The ensuing difference of opinion between Keeley and Bexfield scarred the season and things were never the same again. It was an excellent wedding though. It was certainly a great deal more excellent than the nine-wicket loss against Holwell the following day.

On a brighter note Offley scrambled through to the last four of the Village Trophy. Lewis hit a murderous 70 to help Weston reach 123 all out but Barker slowed them with 4-21 from his four overs. Offley lost wickets at regular intervals but Tattersall held his nerve amid some suicidal running (namely McCulley, M. And Austin, C.) before Latino hurled himself into the crease to complete the priceless second run off the final ball to enable Offley to advance by virtue of losing fewer wickets.

Cerasale (37*) and Bridgland (41*) rescued Offley from 36-4 in the semi-final against Much Hadham and lifted the team to 118-4. Cerasale followed it up by taking 3-14 as Offley advanced to face Little Gaddesden with a 20-run victory. As it transpired this would have been a good time to pack up and go home. Hampered by the weather, a lost toss and an abjectly shite performance, Offley conceded 159-1 in 15 overs. The final margin, a 59-run defeat, was nowhere near as close as the outcome suggested. It was a massacre.

It was a similar story at Baldock where the Seconds filled in for the club in a North Herts League game. Charlie Page produced a magical spell of 3-8 but it couldn’t stop Baldock making 221-8. Needless to say (well I think it’s pretty needless to say it), the Offley reply fell short of its target despite 18 from Damien Sale and 10 from the ever-improving Ward. Baldock won by 129 runs.

Lunney took over as captain from Bexfield and immediately led the team to defeat, as Potters Bar beat Offley for the second time in three seasons, inflicting just Offley’s third defeat in three years in the Saracens League, to effectively end Offley’s promotion bid. Barker took 5-62 but Potters Bar made 193-9. Offley’s reply fluctuated between superb (Bexfield 91), brutal (Barker 48) and utterly awful (everyone else – the other nine batsmen contributed 10 runs between them, including ducks from Brodie, Shah, Austin, McCulley and Page). Offley lost by 26 runs, a defeat that seemed inevitable once Bexfield walked (Say it ain’t so, Bex!) to end the 87-run stand for the sixth wicket. Paul Bridgland and Clare both took three wickets to set up victory over Flamstead before Offley headed off to Yarmouth on tour.

Despite the opening fixture at Lowestoft being called off, presumably on the grounds that it was too sunny, Offley won two and lost one. There was nothing memorable about the reduced overs win at Tas Valley but the victory at Brooke was arguably the performance of the season. Brodie, Barker and Tattersall all passed 50 as Offley made 230-5 against a strong team. Freeman and Cooper produced fine opening spells but the game looked to be heading towards Brooke before overseas player Parikh (six centuries in his last seven innings) was well held by Austin standing up for 67. Offley stormed home by 57 runs.

The evening fancy dress party produced some epic hangovers following a night of dancing between a mad monk and Osama Bin Laden, heavy drinking from the Grim Reaper and Wilma Flintstone and some extra-curricular activities from Father Nathan and a Roman Centurion who finally got the opportunity to use a Trojan (even though he might not have done). Unfortunately when Offley’s 10 men turned up at Happisburgh they were still rather the worse for wear. Tattersall set the innings in motion by being out first ball and a series of abysmal shots (highlighted by a stone cold sober Bexfield lobbing a full toss to square leg) as Offley collapsed to 78-8. Only Freeman with a gritty 28 failed to give his wicket away. However, Cooper and Barker added a record 80 for the ninth wicket to give Offley a chance. Cooper and McCulley bowled well, Barker bowled with good fortune and Lunney got smashed all round the houses by some ferocious looking opponents and the hosts duly won by five wickets.

Bexfield smashed 112 against Old Camdenians as Offley scored 239-7. However, chances went down (someone with the initials WC flushed Offley’s victory chances down the toilet by spilling a pair of absolute sitters off McCulley) and a running battle ensued between Lunney’s team and the resident drunk Australian umpire over his interpretation of the laws of the game. Freeman and Bexfield both made some choice comments and the game petered out into a disappointing draw. It was all too much for Cutts who brought the curtain down on his season, and, as it turned out, his Offley career.

It wasn’t as disappointing as the defeat against Crawley Green. Offley scored 150-9 thanks to Cerasale’s magnificent 84 not out, an innings that was betrayed by a complete lack of support from the other 10 batsmen, only two of whom managed double figures. Nomads eased home by seven wickets as Offley’s NHL season ended in defeat. Elsewhere, the Seconds ended their season with another resounding defeat, conceding 202-5 against Southill Park before being dismissed for 109. Bexfield made a typically valiant 73 and Lunney scored 24 but the remainder contributed 12 runs between them, despite Shaun Creech’s highest score of the season (1).

Bexfield, Brodie and Chaudry all scored 50s as Offley slaughtered Monken Hadley. Offley made 220-7 before the visitors were rattled out for 82. Barker took 5-21 to set up victory over Sandridge as the Saracens campaign ended short of promotion.

A rotten display with the bat against Studham (113 all out, Extras 37) led to a comprehensive defeat before Offley hammered Kensworth the following day. Offley batted first on a dreadfully slow pitch and toiled to 130-6 from their 40 overs, Austin top-scoring with a sparkling 37. At one stage the visitors were 19-8 as Freeman (3-11) and Ward (4-6) ran amok. At 25-9 it looked as though Kensworth might out-Lilley Lilley, before a last-wicket stand of 18 lifted the total to 43 all out.

Brodie passed 1,000 runs for the season as he made 69 to set up Offley’s 206-5 against Codicote. Barker also joined Brodie and Bexfield in the 1,000 run club. Offley eventually won by 19 runs. They lost by eight wickets at Datchworth the following day where useful runs from Freeman (24) and Chamberlain (21) were compromised by a complete lack of runs from anyone else, although Chamberlain’s two sixes provided a speck of gold in an innings that was essentially a sack of shit. Creech’s spell of 3.2-0-39-0 merely hastened the inevitable defeat.

St Joseph’s arrived for their annual game and duly inflicted another crushing defeat. Freeman bowled well, taking 4-30, while Lunney succeeded in persuading a series of batsmen to part with their wickets with a mixture of flight and filth. His final analysis of 7.4-0-59-5 made slightly incongruous reading. St Joseph’s ended on 226. Offley’s reply was similar to most of their Second XI performances, which is to say that Bexfield made 51 and no one else did anything. Offley folded for 131 in the face of McCulley’s lethal burst. Reunited with his former colleagues, McCulley extracted a heavy toll on his recent team-mates, claiming 4-11, including the wicket of Freeman without scoring. McCulley may have taken many wickets over the years but it’s unlikely that he’s enjoyed any more than removing Freeman for a duck.

The season ended as it began against Lilley. Needless to say it didn’t end with Offley bowling out their rivals for 30. Unfortunately it ended with a defeat that was in some ways inevitable once Ray Counsel dropped a sitter of a catch off Gareth Tompkins with the grace and dexterity of a baby giraffe trying to catch a beach ball. Lilley scored 211-6 despite Freeman clinching his first bowling award.

Bexfield and Barker began the run chase with a flurry of boundaries before Bexfield and Chaudry added 118 for the second wicket. Offley were 157-1 and rolling home. Unfortunately Majid became the latest Offley bowler to spark a collapse among his temporary opponents. He held a fine return catch to dismiss Chaudry and then removed Lunney as he the batsman sought to smear a full toss over midwicket and was caught at point. Bexfield was denied a run when the Lilley umpire fielded the ball and was still annoyed when he attempted a huge swing against Qureshi and was clean bowled, a dismissal that cemented his status as Qureshi’s rabbit.

Latino came and went, although not before scoring 6 and ensuring he only tied Phil Gourd’s single season duck record, before Freeman attempted a suicidal single and was run out. The customary flock of ducks descended (Counsel, Paul Bridgland and Ward) as Offley slumped to a 15-run defeat, a result that scarcely seemed conceivable half an hour previously.

Thus the curtain fell on another year at the Great Offley Cricket Ground, the eleventh season since Stopsley joined forces with Offley. (Incidentally a full account of those 11 occasionally glorious years can be purchased either online or by seeing Richie Barker.)

Bexfield set a new club record with 1407 runs and Barker took a record 88 wickets. Latino equalled Gourd’s duck record (worth another mention really, especially as at one stage he looked odds on to shatter it some time in August) and Freeman cracked the 50-wicket barrier for the first time. McCulley and Majid produced match-winning performances against Offley but not for them, which probably says a great deal, although at this time of day I’m not sure exactly what.

There was no promotion and no silverware in 2008 but there were plenty of tears and tantrums to make up for it amid the battles won and lost. Yet despite everything else in a season that made the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult look like an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants the club survived to contemplate life in 2009, which, I suppose, is just about all Offley’s boys of summer can ever ask for.

See you in the spring.