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As the days grow longer and winter turns inexorably to spring with all the inevitability of a Matthew Freeman injury or no ball, the new season draws ever closer. After an impressive 2006 campaign the boys from Offley & Stopsley are back in town as they look to hit the heights once more in 2007 and celebrate their tenth year at the Offley Recreation Ground in style.

The Saracens League Division 11 trophy (or at least the prestigious polyester blue pennant) is safely under lock and key and there are reasons for optimism as Steve Bexfield leads his side in their quest for the Division 10 title. Elsewhere the memory of being harshly punished for their patriotism by the Herts League still rankles and the fact that the team were controversially deprived of their rightful runner’s up spot should offer suitable motivation in the months ahead. A favourable draw in the Herts Trophy – the club are drawn at home all the way to the finals’ day if they make it that far – offers another potential source of silverware.

Although the club’s nucleus has a familiar look to it in 2007 the squad has undergone a number of changes from last season. Kiwi sensation Dan Jordan has finally returned to the Land of the Long White Cloud and the club will be hard-pushed to replace his runs and wickets. Veteran keeper and batsman Martin Bigmore has also moved on, swapping his Marsh Farm des res for the sunnier climes of Melbourne. There are no signs of young tyro Michael Cunningham returning to the fold after his early season stint with the team yielded more ducks and tantrums than runs.

In addition to those key departures Phil Gourd has retired, technically leaving a sizeable void at mid off but also leaving more sandwiches for the rest of the team at teatime. However, it will be a surprise if El Gourdo does not materialise in the pavilion at around the same time as the cakes and crisps. He may be available in an emergency but is likely to spend most of his time on the patio with a pint in his hand reminiscing about the good old days.

Reinforcements are set to arrive in the shape of former Luton Town opener Steve Hoar and the first product of the club’s youth policy, Steve Baron. Furthermore Gary Davison looks set be available for the entire season while Chris Austin is poised to play an increased role. Despite the departure of Jordan and Bigmore runs should not be a problem especially if Bexfield bounce back from his disastrous 2006 form.

For perhaps the first time in his career Steve Bexfield invoked comparisons with Mike Brearley in 2006. Sadly this was not so much to do with his captaincy skills as his dire form with the bat. It takes talent to score over 500 runs in a season without registering a single half-century but Bexfield succeeded with aplomb as he averaged a dismal 23.32. While he had the consolation of finishing 45th in the Saracens League averages, Bexfield will know that a repeat of last year’s struggles will lend credence to the belief that his eyes have lost their sharpness. He needs to bounce back to prove that it’s not downhill all the way for the veteran batsman as his 40th birthday looms with all the unpleasant inevitability of another single-figure score.

In a bid to alleviate the pressure on himself to score runs, Bexfield has been working hard at his bowling in the nets and will be confident that he can add to his career tally of 111 wickets with his mixture of probing, aggressive swing and mindless short-pitched deliveries. Therefore the coming season may see a new approach for the man who has 6,650 runs to his name (not to mention 726 leg byes) as he swaps his opener’s duties for an all-round role, potentially recasting himself as a poor man’s Derek Pringle. He’s still the fielder most likely to hit the stumps with a direct hit but years of experience have convinced most of his teammates not to bet the house on Bexfield’s catching abilities. Despite that he held on to seven stingers last year and showed no lingering fear of fielding near the boundary despite once narrowly surviving an assassination attempt from a sniper hiding in the trees.

The addition of Steve Hoar at the top of the order should ensure plenty of runs. Hoar has played in the same side as England spinning sensation Monty Panesar (for Luton Town – not England or Northamptonshire) and has experienced reasonable success in the upper echelons of the Saracens League. Despite being arguably the worst bowler ever to serve up an over for Offley, Hoar has the ability to contribute big scores and made his highest score of 166 in Offley colours in 2003. It remains to be seen how much success he has in adapting his technique from the bouncy wickets of Wardown Park to those at Offley. He has long displayed a propensity for falling victim to the pull shot and has the ability to get out in truly bovine fashion at times and it will be interesting to see how he copes with the transition after leaving Luton in high dudgeon after being controversially demoted to the third team at the end of last season. He is instantly installed as one of the better fielders in the Offley ranks although apparently he is no longer able to throw on account of a separated shoulder and may have to be used exclusively in the infield.

Mo Chaudry will look to build on his impressive season in 2006. His bowling may have headed south (the less said about his attempts to reinvent himself as a leg-spinner at Hatfield the better) but no one hit the ball with greater power last year. Chaudry led the club with 880 runs and also top-scored with a devastating 147 against Steppingly. He has the ability to savage attacks and hits the ball with tremendous power down the ground and single-handedly dug Offley out of the mire as they threatened to capitulate at Welwyn. In the field he is always committed but sometimes seems to have the ability to catch anything and drop anything in the same instant.

There’s no doubt that Nathan Brodie will want to get into his stride more quickly this year. Brodie enjoyed a wretched start to the season and spent most of May and June hanging around with Uncle Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie and various other assorted members of the Duck family as he piled up the blobs with reckless abandon. However, he impressed during the second half of the campaign and could be set for his best season to date. His catching remains on a different level to most in the club and he set a record with 25 catches last year. In an era when diving out of the way or sidestepping the oncoming ball are common afflictions (I name no names), Brodie is never afraid to put his body on the line and take one for the team. However, his performances in the nets suggest that the man called Bloodaxe could be poised to play an increased role with the ball after discovering the pleasures of delivering a well-directed short ball. His ability to bowl with real speed and venom should mean increased opportunities as a bowler although he will doubtless maintain his preference for batting. His extravagant batting technique and flashing blade could make him an all-rounder in the mould of Dwayne Bravo, although if he racks up another seven ducks he’s morel likely to draw comparisons with Juliet Bravo.

Offley and Stopsley’s Man of Steel, the indestructible Chris Latino, is anxious to avoid the scratches that hampered him last year. Ruptured knee ligaments ended a promising rugby career but he still went through the pain barrier to run into a sightscreen in the season opener. He later fielded against Hexton at a time when his leg was flapping around helplessly beneath the knee and even returned for the season finale. Perhaps not surprisingly his form with the bat suffered as a result of the various knocks and he ended up with more catches than runs. Assuming he has fully rebounded from being crushed by his own moped during the winter, Latino will be determined to put things right in 2007.

It promises to be a huge year for Darren Lunney. Frustrated by an indifferent campaign in 2006, Lunney has taken decisive action. After years of binding up his cricket bat with polyfilla, sellotape, sticky-back plastic, pritstick and the occasional nail, the northerner has signed an exclusive bat contract with Gray Nicholls and has two new blades. He has also backed his ability by betting that he will consign his previous highest score of 57 to the history books by registering his first century. Such a performance would be welcomed by all (even if there would be suspicions of match fixing). Lunney is evidently keen to make amends after averaging 10.81 last year. He has shown signs of improved form in the nets where even industrial steel capped boots have been unable to deter him from dancing down the wicket. He remains an electric presence in the covers but will want to show more consistency under catches. Forensic experts continue to search for the ball that is believed to be rattling around somewhere inside Lunney’s rib cage after dropping a sitter at Welwyn last September.

The club should benefit from having Gary Davison available for the full season. Davison has illustrated his professionalism and demonstrated his commitment to the cause by sacrificing prospective trips to Budapest and New York to allow him to play more games (That isn’t strictly true). Davison was outstanding in the field last season and pulled off sensational catches and it would be unfair to label him as the man who dropped the catch that lost the league after he shelled a sitter at Crawley Green. He showed decent form with the bat and his unbeaten 59 was about the only decent thing to come out of the disastrous trip to Hatfield. Davison may be poised for a move up the order on a Sunday and could even come into contention for an opening role after toiling away in the lower order last year.

It’s a big year for Chris Austin. The wicketkeeper-batsman made big strides last season and will be hoping to kick on further this time out. He provided an accomplished presence behind the stumps and his patented moves of stepping to his left before hurling himself full length to his right to snare the edge and pretending to lose his balance only to pluck a simple offering out of the air with one glove earned him a reputation as a livewire behind the stumps. His batting also developed impressively over the course of the season. After his stalwart defiance in the opening game at Holtwhites Trinibis where he held firm for an unbeaten 34 in a losing cause, he played more shots as the season progressed and finished with an impressive average of 26.42. He has the ability to improve further this year and a maiden half century should not be beyond him.

Wayne Cutts should have been sponsored by Biactol last year because if truth be told he enjoyed a rather spotty season. The high point of making his career-best score (a sparkling unbeaten 18 at Steppingly) was countered by the career lowlight of storming off in mid-over during the season finale after his attempts to locate the strip provided about as effective as NASA’s attempts to discover life on Mars. Overall his bowling was a disappointment but it’s hoped that the scorn and laughter that his dismal final over (seven balls actually, but only two were legal deliveries) will spur him on to greater things this year. However, he has shown added determination with the bat in the nets, demonstrating an enthusiasm for taking on the short ball and could be in line for a move up the order at the expense of one or two other less courageous souls. Cutts remains totally committed in the field and will always do his best – even if his best was only sufficient to hold on to one of the myriad opportunities that came his way in 2006. It’s not volleyball, Wayney; you don’t get points for spiking the ball into the ground. Despite his best efforts he has been unable to rid himself of the affliction of screaming like a small, frightened girl when the ball is hit in his direction.

Jeff Francis opportunities were restricted last season owing to university commitments and some hard partying in Bristol where he earned the reputation of being the West Country’s answer to Pete Doherty. When the party liaison did return to the ranks he showed no ill effects from burning the candle at both ends and played a couple of impressive innings, notably against Potters Bar, and proved that he has the temperament and ability to score useful runs. His running style still bears comparison to a cross-country skier and his bowling was not as effective as in recent years but he could still have an important part to play in the coming months. Damien Sale is another player who will hope for more opportunities in 2007 after making his debut last year while Zayyad will also be anxious to impress after a forgettable 2006.

In any other season Mark Tattersall would probably have walked off with the batting award but Dan Jordan’s brilliance scuppered that idea. However, Tattersall enjoyed comfortably his best year with the bat as he averaged 52.37, a performance that suggested he might have been better utilised up the order on a more regular basis in the past. He continues to bat with a wonderfully uncomplicated manner and technique that allows him to flick the ball over the ropes with the disinterested air of a man who is concerned solely with where his next pint is coming from. Tattersall’s ability to hit cleanly down the ground and deal almost exclusively in boundaries demonstrates a cavalier contempt for the concept of running between the wickets. That may be just as well because there’s a slight danger that the Offley Express is threatening to become a freight train rather than a high speed vehicle. His bowling wasn’t as effective last year as his batting was clearly his stronger suit but he still picked up 19 wickets as he began the descent from seamer to trundler. He performed to a typically impressive standard in the field and it’s fair to say that no one took the twin defeats to Nomads more personally and emotionally than Tattersall. He didn’t cry or anything but he was rather pissed off. He also learned a valuable lesson about batting last year – namely if it pitches on middle stump and it carries straight on it’s a fairly good idea to play a shot at it rather than lifting the bat and allowing it to hit middle.

After a rotten showing with the bat in 2004, Dave Bridgland has proved that rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated with consecutive strong seasons with the bat. He was exceptional in the early part of the season and enjoyed his defining moment in the sun with a display of bulldog defiance to ensure victory against Houghton Town, a display that fused the best bits of Zulu, Gladiator and El Cid into an Offley epic. (As Winston Churchill might have said, “If Offley & Stopsley Cricket Club lasts for a thousand years, men will stay say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” Obviously he can’t and we won’t but it was still rather splendid – after all we were 11 for six.) Bridgland finished third in the averages and after the disappointments of 2004 where he seemed to be on the fast track to becoming the new Warrington (hopefully good for 10), he has firmly re-established his batting credentials. He took 23 wickets with his blend of leg spin and other flighted fancies and also produced a number of sensational catches in the slips.

One player anxious to forget 2006 and move on as swiftly as possible is Jon Cerasale, when he may have offered conclusive evidence last year that no man can outrun time – especially when he’s as susceptible to injury as Cerasale. These days you wouldn’t find many punters willing to place an each-way bet on Cerasale outrunning Heather Mills-McCartney. A calf strain was the bane of Cerasale’s existence last year and limited him to just 47 overs. He has also been troubled by a long-term back injury although he looks to have been given the green light by the physio. The prospect of being referred to as Freeman Senior also seems to have had a positive effect and he has been bowling to good effect in the nets. His batting was a disappointment last year and an average of 14.33 was a dismal return for a player with so much talent and power. There’s no excuse for Cerasale finishing 12th in the averages again – not unless he wants to bat below Cutts and Latino on a regular basis. If he can stay healthy he could enjoy a massive year and flick a finger at Fate and Father Time.

At some point early in the season Colin Keeley should complete the 29 overs he needs to establish himself as the club’s most frequently used bowler. Keeley already holds the record for maidens (314) and wickets (221) and is closing in on Darrell Cooper’s record of 1297.5 overs. Keeley enjoyed one of his most successful seasons ever last year as he bagged 47 scalps to prove that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. The man who competed in triathlons for fun in his youth may have given way to a more circumspect individual but he proved last year that he can still run into the wind and put the ball on the spot to cause problems for good batsmen – even if they are still looking for the ball at Holtwhites Trinibis where Keeley got hit a long, long way in the opening game of the season. He may be nearly 40 but gout and time have failed to slow him down. Keeley’s batting has invariably been something of a curate’s egg, capable of mixing impressive stroke play with a dreadful lack of defense. He requires 200 runs to reach the 1000-run mark and after treating himself to a splendid new bat (albeit one that was instantly dismissed as too heavy after being cleaned up by successive deliveries in the nets) he could reach that landmark this year, especially if he can score his first 50 for the club.

No bowler could be forgiven for thinking that the fates are against him more than Rizwan. Despite bowling 96 overs and regularly tying down the opposition he was rewarded with a mere five wickets. He has invariably bowled without luck during his time at the club and with even a mild touch of fortune would claim 20 wickets. He has the ability to bowl with real pace and can hurry the best batsmen – he just needs luck. His batting is an undervalued commodity and he demonstrated last year that he has the ability to strike the ball cleanly and impressed with an unbeaten 37 in a lost cause against Hatfield.

Matthew Freeman probably needs his own preview. Nothing in life is ever simple where Freeman is concerned. Despite demonstrating hitherto unknown levels of fitness to play in every game during the Saracens League campaign he contrived to demonstrate his accident-prone nature by being knocked unconscious by a stray microphone at the end of season awards night. On the field he had his moments, claiming 35 wickets to help Offley to promotion and earning himself the Young Player of the Year Award in the process. Freeman bowled with real venom at times and was particularly keen to take out life’s frustrations on weaker opponents, apparently reserving his most fearsome spells and stares for small children and pensioners. At times he bowled with real venom, at others he served up dross on a silver platter. His batting went backwards and he demonstrated a craven lack of moral courage by refusing to face the quickie at King’s Langley, doggedly staying in his crease and leaving El Gourdo to take on the paceman in heavy rain and dreadful light. A highest score of 16 didn’t exactly back up his credentials as an all-rounder and he needs to improve on last year’s tally of 66 runs. His fielding was as inconsistent as ever as he stayed true to his credo of only turning up to bowl. How we all laughed as the ball fizzed through the area vacated by Freeman so he could go off to blow his nose, have a drink or eat some sugar. The potential is there but it’s time it was harnessed in the right direction. His sporadic performances in the nets suggest that it may take a while where his readiness to blame the light, coloured lines and background noise for his shortcomings surprised no one. Carlsberg don’t make excuses but if they did they’d probably use Freeman to front the advertising campaign.

Mohammad Qumar bowled well last year without quite reproducing the levels of success he enjoyed in 2005. However, that may have been because he didn’t get to bowl against New City. In honesty Qumar probably bowled as well as he ever has last season. After some frustrating times in the North Herts League he switched to the Saracens and played a key part in helping Offley maintain their promotion push down the stretch. He enjoyed his best performance against Holwell where he bowled with verve and speed. He still has the ability to hurry batsmen although he has finally recognised that bowling short at Offley is not a recipe for success. He made no secret of his frustrations with the bat last year as he was shuttled around between the 10 and 11 spots in the order. While some have attempted to pigeon hole him as a specialist bowler, Qumar prefers to see himself more in the Shahid Afridi role, at the very least capable of performing to an Abdul Razzaq level. Then again judging by Pakistan’s showing at the World Cup it’s tempting to suggest that Qumar should perhaps be playing at a higher level. A proud soul who invariably gives his all in the field, Qumar has proved sensitive to criticism regarding his fielding so we won’t say anything about it, save to say he felt suitably confident in his own abilities to berate his brother, Umar, after a particularly hapless piece of fielding at Hatfield. Still it must be easy to get frustrated when you’re not even the fastest bowler in your own family.

Gareth Mathewson delivered crafty spin bowling, useful lower order hitting, commitment in the field and helpful psychoanalysis in his first season at Offley. Whether it was ripping through the West Herts middle order or diagnosing Lunney’s low self-esteem, Mathewson was invariably in the thick of the action as he proved to be the greatest South African spinner since Nicky Boje. He did an excellent job with the ball and picked up 30 wickets to help Offley’s title bid in the Saracens League. He demonstrated the ability to hit the ball hard and doubtless took significant pleasure from finishing above his great friend Freeman in the batting averages. Mathewson also played a noble part in preserving the life of Wayne Cutts after the end of year presentation. After the hopelessly inebriated Cutts took it upon himself to walk home while under the influence of about 23 vodkas, he was saved from wandering into the A505 only by the alert thinking of Mathewson who resisted the temptation to run him over and instead gave him a lift to Round Green. (Where the skirt-wearing Cutts was subsequently assaulted by two 15-year old girls – but that’s another story.)

One of the highlights of last season was the emergence of the first graduate of the Keeley Academy. Steve Baron made his debut after being subjected to Coach Keeley’s expert tutelage and has already shown sufficient evidence in the nets to suggest that he has the ability to score more runs than his mentor courtesy of an effective, albeit rustic technique. In other words if it’s up there, it’s going and the youngster certainly won’t die wondering on many occasions. He looks to have the ability to bowl well and with speed and should benefit from regular appearances this year.Cliff Large and Paul Bridgland both saw limited action last season but they both proved that they can still be effective bowlers while Vamsi, one of Freeman’s less disastrous recruits could also get the call.

That pretty much covers everyone, does it not? I suppose it would be easy to dwell at length on the merits of the club’s premier all-rounder but perhaps the greatest attribute of the wonderfully gifted Richie Barker is his modesty. It’s certainly not his fielding or running between the wickets. Then again when you’ve scored over 7000 runs and stand on the brink of 100 catches and 150 wickets is it really necessary to be modest? After all where is it written that we’re not allowed to say how good we are? After being crowned as the Saracens League’s premier bowler in 2006 following a massacre of rabbits that combined the more gruesome elements of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Watership Down, Barker has belied that success with a typically inept showing in the nets where he has been hit to all parts by Wayne Cutts. Another new bat means he has an even wider choice of willow on match days although things might be helped more if he could remember to move his feet or play the occasional forward defensive. As it is his technique has declined to the point where he makes Tattersall like Bradman and Keith Towndrow resemble the very model of a defensive batsman. He has the incentive of captaincy to look forward to on a Sunday this year although it remains to be seen if he is capable of setting an example the night before the game by staying out of the pub. Judging by last year’s trip to Crawley Green there would appear to be a reasonable chance of an incident with a pedalo at some point.

That’s that then. 2007 beckons with the promise of another promotion campaign in the Saracens League and the chance to get some revenge on Nomads in the North Herts League. The prospect of a tour to Great Yarmouth should keep the momentum going into the dog days of August as Offley’s finest look to pile up the runs and wickets. The boys of summer are ready for another go round, determined to impress both of their watching fans – El Gourdo has now joined Wally to swell the ranks of the official fan club to two – as they prepare for another season of triumphs and disasters, tantrums and excuses and the odd bit of cricket along the way.

Once more unto the crease, dear friends, once more!