The sun is out, there’s Test cricket on Radio 4 – Joe Root and James Anderson’s record breaking last wicket stand has just been broken as I write this – and on Monday the Cheltenham Cricket Festival starts.
I’ve been going to the College Ground since 1975, when I saw Gloucestershire bowl Essex out inside two sessions and Zaheer Abbas score a century before the close. On days like that, when you’re 13 years old, there isn’t a lot wrong with the world. One of my favourite Cheltenham stories concerns Zaheer, but more of that later.
Among out grounds, Cheltenham is king for so many reasons. The setting, with the backdrop of the two College chapels ; the history of the venue, with Gloucestershire having played there since 1872, and the draw it has for supporters, many of whom clear two weeks to watch all 11 days play.
This is not a token visit away from Gloucestershire’s now much improved Nevil Road base. Ringed as it is by tents buzzing with corporate guests, local clubs and businesses, Cheltenham is a serious source of revenue. Traditionally too, it is seen as a pivotal point in the summer, although the 2014 schedule makes it a little less so.
Although we are only in mid July, both the Championship and the group stages of the T20 are at an advanced stage. Gloucestershire has only three matches left to qualify for the knockout stages of the T20, and Friday’s narrow defeat at Taunton now makes that unlikely with Surrey and pool leaders Essex still to play.
Starting with a two point deficit for a poor pitch at the 2013 Festival, to still be in contention until Friday was better than some might have hoped for, especially given the raft of injuries the squad has endured.
Craig Miles hasn’t played at all and Gareth Roderick, James Fuller and David Payne have all missed big chunks of the summer. Michael Klinger only returned on Friday after breaking a toe. The two games at Cheltenham will be occasions in their own right, but with little in the longer term riding on them.
In the Championship, Gloucestershire welcome lowly Derbyshire and Division 2 leaders Worcestershire to the College Ground. After the Festival, they have only three four-day games left, so mid-table is probably the realistic target.
There have been some determined performances to secure draws but the depleted bowling attack has made it difficult to secure more than two wins against Leicestershire and Kent. Gloucestershire have frequently been playing the game off the back foot with such a meagre tally of batting points. They’ll be grateful that Sajeed Ajmal will be unavailable for Worcestershire. His spin at the College would have been hard to fend off.
The Festival closes with the opening match in this season’s Royal London Cup, the new 50 over competition to be played almost exclusively in the
school holidays. The slightly longer format, back up to one day international length rather than the 40 over duration first introduced in 1969, may suit
Gloucestershire more than the T20, with batsmen having more chance to build an innings.
Zaheer never had the chance to do that in Gloucestershire’s first one day final against Sussex in 1973. He made only nine before he was bowled by Mike Buss, but Mike Proctor – who is speaking at the Cheltenham Cricket Society on Wednesday – dug Gloucestershire out with 94, ably supported by skipper Tony Brown.
You could forgive Zaheer a failure. In 14 seasons for the county, he scored 16,000 runs at an average of 49 including, in 1977, a double hundred and a hundred at Cheltenham in the same Championship game, also against Sussex.
Following his retirement Zaheer worked for an airline before he was drawn back to play in a benefit match for former Gloucestershire and England fast bowler David Lawrence, a common fixture for the beneficiary of the year on one day at the Festival 20 years ago.
When he walked out to bat, “Z” was applauded from the pavilion to the moment he took guard. Everything was a little slower, but when faced with a half volley, he gracefully caressed the ball through the covers and the years rolled away.
After the match he signed countless autographs and one enthusiast asked him when he’d last played a game. Zaheer replied that he hadn’t picked up a bat for seven years. In that moment, if he wasn’t already, Zaheer assumed the status of a cricketing colossus.
Cheltenham is a great venue for meeting friends who you may only see once a year, but who you know will be there. The ground is intimate, and the wickets generally ensure a good duel between bat and ball.
For cricket supporters who live in the town, passing the College ground and seeing the marquees and temporary stands going up is a time of keen anticipation. The moment for the players to take over is almost upon us. I’ll enjoy the next fortnight as much as anyone.
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