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Preview 2006 Season

As the start of the new season draws ever closer, there are increased reasons for optimism for Offley & Stopsley Cricket Club. The 2006 campaign – the ninth since Offley and Stopsley merged prior to the 1998 season – promises to be an exciting affair as the team looks to make a debut splash in the Saracens League and once again contend for the title in the North Herts League; or at the very least put up a spirited fight against the spectre of relegation.

The pavilion has a new look, the wicket has been subjected to hours of loving care and the smell of freshly cut grass lingers gently in the wind like one of Mark Tattersall’s farts. It’s almost time for the players to take the field and for the umpire to call play as the action gets underway once more. With that in mind it’s high time we cast an eye over the players who will be donning the famous twin lions in 2006 in the quest for glory.

Although there is a new competition to look forward to on a Saturday – the energy-sapping, fielder-unfriendly 100-over Saracens League – there is also a sense of stepping back into the past as Steve Bexfield resumes the captaincy. After suffering a difficult season with injury last year, Bexfield is ready to climb back into the driving seat. It’s not stretching a point to suggest that he’s been a somewhat frustrated back seat driver since resigning from office, frequently attempting to direct field settings, bowling changes and batting orders in the manner of his favourite film, Driving Miss Daisy. As he approaches the zenith of his career – with his batting average threatening to dip below his age as he nears his 40th year – the challenge of the captaincy should help compensate for the fading of his once relentless appetite for runs. Bexfield has warmed up for the season by delivering a barrage of bouncers in the nets, something that should be really useful once he gets out in the middle at Offley.

Martin Bigmore returns as captain in the North Herts League. Bigmore will once again combine wicket-keeping duties with the captaincy and may even open the batting as he reprises his role as Offley’s left-handed answer to Alec Stewart. Bigmore, playing under a flag of convenience or possibly an Australian (or New Zealand or possibly even Fijian) passport, faces the challenge of moulding a cohesive unit from a talented but occasionally dysfunctional squad whilst at the same time maintaining his own form in front of and behind the stumps.

It’s not just the respective skippers who are under the gun as the new season approaches. There are no shortage of players who have points to prove, both to themselves and their teammates as the 2006 campaign draws ever closer.

Mohammed Qumar, The Worst Fielder in the World™, needs to prove that last year’s dramatic bowling success was not a one off. Qumar has struggled for consistency at times with the ball but if he gets it together he can be a real handful, generating pace and bounce. If he could channel just half of the energy and enthusiasm that he expends in his appealing into his fielding, Offley would have the new Trevor Penney on their hands and not the current version who fields like Penny Lancaster in six-inch stilettos. It would also enhance Qumar’s alleged all-rounder’s credentials if he could score that long awaited maiden half-century for the club or hold on to more chances than he shells. Hope springs eternal.

2006 is also a big year for Chris Austin. The Saturday stumper has spent time over the winter fine-tuning his game under the watchful eye of former England and Middlesex captain Mike Gatting. After intense discussions over pork pies, pizza and plenty of apple crumble, Gatting has helped Austin increase his repertoire of shots from the forward defensive, backward defensive and leg-side deflection to include a punchy cover drive and something that looks like a pull but probably isn’t. Under Gatting’s expert tutelage, Austin has blossomed to the point where he can make the net ripple with a full-blooded drive. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Gatting was sacked by Middlesex from his coaching duties with the club and was also fired as an England selector. He remains a key performer behind the stumps, often able to turn half-chances into byes or runs in the blink of an eye.

Colin Keeley will be determined to prove is critics wrong. The club’s one-time iron man (or was that Darrell Cooper?), Keeley has come a long way from the days where he would run to the ground with his coffin on his back, bowl 25 overs into the wind and then compete in a triathlon. These days it’s a minor miracle if he can come back for a second spell and Bob Seger’s classic hit Against The Wind was certainly not inspired by Keeley’s recent enthusiasm for sustained spells up the slope against the breeze. Recent performances in the nets suggest that Keeley’s desire to carve out a secondary career as a batsman may be thwarted by a lack of foot movement and coordination and he has invited uproarious comparisons to Devon Malcolm using a frying pan, not to mention Bungle from the popular children’s television series Rainbow. However, if he can stay fit and stave off the gout-like symptoms that have plagued him of late he could come again and recapture some of his old magic.

Committed fielder, occasional leg-spin bowler and traditionally useless batsman Wayne Cutts is also looking for a big year. Cutts recorded the highest score of his career in 2005, a scintillating 12 that evoked memories of Ricky Ponting in full flow, an innings that made a change to the usual sight of a blind fool flailing ineptly around with a white stick. Cutts is determined to crack the 50-run barrier this season and will also be hoping for greater opportunities with the ball after proving a real handful during winter nets. He is an enthusiastic fielder and despite being colour blind is not afraid to put his body on the line. Despite a tendency to wail – and throw – like a girl, he can be relied upon to put in the hard yards at square leg and won’t let anybody down, providing no one expects anything of him in the first place.

Matthew Freeman is another player who will be under the microscope. In Freeman’s case such attention is likely to be literal as his capacity for self-harm, hypochondria and abject lack of coordination is almost certain to result in him being prodded, probed and examined by a variety of doctors over the course of the season. If Freeman can stay fit (it’s a big if, rather akin to suggesting what might have been if the Titanic hadn’t ploughed into the iceberg) he has the opportunity to petrify a few batsmen into submission. In addition to having the potential to break down and bowl like a diseased pensioner, Freeman has the talent to bowl with genuine nastiness and slip through a legitimately heavy ball. On the batting front he needs to conquer his fear of the straight, pitched up ball and as far as fielding is concerned it’s up to the captain to strategically position him where he can do least damage. The club hopes that his appearances in 2006 will not be curtailed after securing his first proper job – as a medical expert and advisor on the set of the popular television drama Casualty

Marriage has helped transform Freddie Flintoff into a world class all-rounder; can it have a similar effect on Mark Tattersall? Tattersall’s absence from nets means that the jury is out although on his rare public appearances of late he has looked to be all round on a fairly world class scale. After suffering a serious injury in Jamaica – local fishermen were terrified by the sight of the helpless behemoth floundering in the shallows and accidentally harpooned him before they realised their mistake – Tattersall will be hoping to be ready to go in time for the start of the season. The man who bats like an idiot savant, rarely bothering to complicate the game with defensive shots, can generally be relied upon to launch the innings in some style and providing he can drag his ever-willing (albeit ever-increasing) rump to the crease he should pick up useful wickets with his swinging. The self-styled Offley Express would like nothing more than to recapture his form of 2004 when he stormed to the club bowling award and finished second in the North Herts averages. I’d like nothing more than to wake up next to Keira Knightley but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Despite his girth, Tattersall remains a cut above the rest in the field – rather a sad indictment of the lack of athletes at the club.

Phil Gourd returns on a wing and a prayer to resume his duties at mid-off. Gourd will hope for more opportunities with the ball this year after picking up a pair of four-wicket hauls in 2005. His performance at Potten End where he grabbed four wickets and weighed in with a stout 30-odd suggests he is capable of genuine all-rounder status. More pertinently perhaps it suggests that Potten End aren’t very good. Gourd’s tendency to try and work everything to leg may again cause him problems while his shuffling approach to the bowler’s crease resembles a darts player simultaneously afflicted by hemorrhoids and Tourettes. A reliance on a natural athletic ability that he patently does not possess means his fielding is slightly iffy and he lacks the pace to chase down the ball on its way to the boundary but can occasionally run alongside and provide an escort service of sorts.

Chris Latino will be looking to build on a promising debut season in 2005. Latino proved to be a fearless fielder and made a number of courageous stops. Hopefully he now understands the importance of not trying to chest down a screamer on the boundary. He needs to correct his unfortunate habit of being stumped first ball but has shown enough determination in the nets to suggest that he could make a regular contribution with the bat. His bowling is unlikely to recapture the heights of his golden first over for the club when he snatched three wickets but it remains an option.

After a number of seasons where his batting average plummeted while his bowling efficiency improved, Dave Bridgland reversed the trend last time out with a succession of hard-hitting displays with the bat. Sadly there were also a number of hard-hitting displays with the bat from the opposition when Bridgland had the ball in his hand. Last year Bridgland seemed most likely to take wickets by bewitching the batsman with indecision, namely should the ball be hit for four or six? Bridgland will be determined to excel with bat and ball in 2006 and his craftily flighted deliveries combined with his ability to hit the ball with immense power make him a vital part of the team. His wicket-keeping days are long behind him but he’s still solid in the field and invariably catches what he gets to, which, in common with many of his teammates, isn’t as much as it used to be.

Mo Chaudry’s emergence as a strike bowler was one of the big pluses to emerge from last season. Despite an initially erratic radar – notably a tendency to clean up the point fielder with his loosener – Chaudry proved swift enough to ruffle a number of batsmen with his speed. He remains a destructive force with the bat, capable of smashing the bowling all round the park but occasionally capable of self-destructing due to dubious shot selection. Chaudry’s commitment in the field – a commitment that traditionally borders on dementia – will be appreciated by the bowlers although he will hope to cling on to a few more chances this season after showing an unfortunate tendency to drop as many as held in the second half of the season. It would also help if he could avoid dislocating his finger in shelling a chance this year.

Jon Cerasale makes the switch from Sundays to Saturdays in search of greater drinking opportunities. Cerasale may not be the bowler he once was when he terrorised batsmen throughout Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire with his pace and bounce (to achieve a similar effect now the trundler would need to run in with the ball in one hand and an Uzi in the other). Yet despite the onset of time Cerasale can still generate decent pace with the wind at his back and a favourable slope and is the owner of a miserly economy rate – which is also the polite way of saying he doesn’t take many wickets these days. He remains one of the more accomplished fielders in the club while his batting is as destructive as ever. Cerasale may only be the pauper’s Lance Klusener but woe betide any bowler who serves it up in the slot. This is potentially a big year for Cerasale and if he can stay healthy and avoid too many curries and pints on Saturday nights we could witness a rebirth of a once devastating talent. Only time – and the odd vindaloo – will tell.

The club will look to Rizwan to provide early wickets with the new ball. Indications from the nets are that he has bulked up and has the capacity to fire the ball through at pace. There will be times when he inevitably goes for a few runs but his ability to rip through defensive prods with genuine speed is a key asset. His batting is once again likely to consist of a mixture of blast and block with little attention likely to be paid to line or length. Boundaries and dislodged bails will once again be the order of the day.

Nathan Brodie has a lot to live up to after earning Young Player of the Year honours in 2005. It remains to be seen how true rumours of his switch to a football career are – apparently he’s also a handy pugilist – but Brodie will be a vital cog in the field as Offley look to plug the gaps and stem the flow of runs. His batting has a tendency to be slightly hit or miss but there’s no doubt he has the talent to score consistently. He will be looking for his first ton this season and if he can subjugate the urge to run himself out when well set he could reach three figures. His bowling lends variety to the attack and he has the knack of getting good batsmen out. Unfortunately when he bowls he can’t field at the same time which tends to expose shortcomings in others.

Darren Lunney’s devotion to the pursuit of martial arts means that the club’s answer to B. Lee (Bruce not Brett) should be fully fit and raring to go once the season gets underway. Watching Lunney play cricket is a bit like a trip to the racetrack to watch the dogs. In the field he’s a greyhound, sprinting after the ball and chasing it down like a rabid animal. Unfortunately at the crease he’s a bit of a rabbit, trapped in the glare of the headlights, invariably hanging his bat out to dry, inviting the edge and failing to make the most of his talent. The first 20 balls are often crucial and if he can survive those there’s the chance that Lunney will be able to unfurl his wide repertoire of cross-batted shots to infuriate the fielders. His running between the wickets is a priceless commodity while his bowling is an under-used, underdeveloped talent; and rightly so.

The triplets, Zayyad, Ramiz and Jeff Francis are likely to miss substantial parts of the season due to university commitments. On their return it remains to be seen whether they bat like Michael Atherton after his stint at Cambridge or Bamber Gascogine on University Challenge. It’s not inconceivable that the standard of their performances may be linked to their refueling habits away from home – namely whether or not they’ve been eating all the pies.

(This article was written and submitted by Richie Barker)

Ultimately the club’s progress and success may depend on the performance of the supremely talented Richie Barker. Never one to be affected by success, Barker has modestly neglected the opportunity to point out that he has taken more wickets than anyone else over the past two seasons and also stormed to victory at the Offley Masters, cementing (in his own eyes at least) his status as the club’s premier two-sport superstar. Despite his success on the golf course and with the ball in his hand, the club’s self-styled answer to Shane Warne (both talented performers who prefer to rely on natural athletic ability rather than working out, not to mention staunch fans of pizza and the odd bottle of hair dye) will look to make his biggest impact with the bat in 2006. It doesn’t matter where Barker bats as he has iron in his wrists (possibly as a result of living on his own for so long) and has the ability to jack the ball out of the ground from the word go, providing he doesn’t come across a spinner first up. His performance at the crease might be helped if he abandoned buccaneering in favour of batting and dispensed with the habit of trying to flick everything for six. He will expect to be among the wickets once again and still has the ability to catch anything he doesn’t have to move far to reach, although his enthusiasm for chasing after the ball and firing it back in died around 2001.

All in all there are plenty of reasons for optimism as Offley & Stopsley prepare for 2006. There’s something in the air – possibly the smell of freshly applied paint from the pavilion – and it’s time to bring home another trophy or go down trying. There are runs to be scored, wickets to be claimed, beers to be drunk and curries to be eaten, not to mention a few laughs to be had along the way.

Here’s to another year in the sun ! ! ! !