Mallards v Durham @ Durham 21 May

Trust is a prominent theme in English cricket these days. Newly appointed Director of Cricket (can someone please tell me what that means?) Andrew Strauss can’t trust Kevin Pietersen not to go mouthing off to his mates, Moeen Ali can’t trust his top order to stay in long enough for him to complete his throw-downs, and Durham University can’t be trusted to keep a promise about giving us the use of a proper wicket. Once again, a collective sigh went out around the North East on Wednesday evening as the inevitable and now familiar message filtered through from The Despot that we had been shovelled off to the all-weather track.

“Dear All, we’ve just been informed that…” You’ve got to be kidding.

And so it was the following evening that a procession of Mallards trudged across the bridge, having been forced to walk by the picturesque, manicured, and noticeably empty, MC1 ground, to do battle once again with the University Staff. It is a fixture that brings out a degree of intensity in the team, imperceptible to outsiders (and probably most insiders too) but that is perhaps the key to the great rivalry between the sides. A pitch inspection revealed that the car keys were completely unable to penetrate the concrete leading to the same low, skiddy bounce the sides have come to know and loathe in recent times. The outfield was looking a touch on the long side, though less bumpy than in previous visits, and somewhat greasy as the result of the lightest of rain coming from the sky.

The team’s spirits were greatly lifted by the presence of opening batsman Steele, appearing for the first time this season. Steele’s return was so appreciated that the team decided to honour the occasion by making him captain, the absence of usual captain Wood, vice-captain Stig and intended captain-for-the-day Nitsch (who had cried off at the last minute) doing nothing to lessen the honour. Despite the late withdrawal, Nitsch had managed to arrange a replacement in the form of Niranjan, imported from the Corbridge Millers, who was making his Mallardian debut – a significant moment in the career of any cricketer.

Further trust issues threatened to arise at the toss, when the home team insisted on a retirement score of 50, rather than the usual 30. This could be interpreted as a sign of a team with one or two strong batsmen who might be required to protect a weaker middle / lower order and score a higher percentage of runs for the team. However as captain and opening batsman, Steele’s eyes took on a certain twinkle at the prospect of a rare chance at a cheeky half century, the terms were swiftly agreed and the Mallards would bowl first.

After a short delay while stand-in keeper Taylor composed himself, the regular new ball pairing of Browne and Dunhill set about their work. At the end-with-no-significant-landmarks, Browne, after a few balls to find the rhythm, bowled with good pace and swing. Dunhill was typically metronomic from the Goalpost End and created the only chance of the opening exchanges but was unable to cling onto a low return chance. The Durham openers, Swift and English settled into their work with confidence if not too many signs of urgency. Despite this the score progressed to 53 without loss after 8 overs, Browne’s allotment of four overs went for 30 and Dunhill’s tidiness saw a return of no wicket for 17.

It was at this point that minds started to turn back to the increased retirement score and the prospect of having to chase a significant score. Then those same minds turned to the sheer number of bowlers being sported by the Mallards and the memory of successfully chasing 150-odd last year so confidence remained high.

At the Featureless End, McGuinness stepped up as first change in the quest for a breakthrough, and one boundary aside, began tidily with 7 runs coming off the 9th over. Wisbach took over from Dunhill at the Goalpost End, immediately finding turn and was able to provide the breakthrough, with Swift swatting the last ball of the over to debutant Niranjan who calmly accepted the offering. Swift on his way for 30 and the score at 65.

McGuinness and Wisbach continued, with Durham’s number 3, Smith showing some early intent and taking 11 of Wisbach’s second over. Fortunately the onslaught didn’t last as Smith attempted to take a foolish single in the next over with Cox and McGuinness teaming up to run him out by some distance. 82/2.

Cox took over from Wisbach (2 overs, 1 for 16) at the Goalpost End conceding three off his first over, before McGuinness completed a tidy three over spell (no wicket for 13). Cox claimed the wicket of Wastell for three in the next over (16th for those who have lost count), sharply caught by McGuinness at square leg.

Debutant Niranjan replaced McGuinness at the Barren End and was straight on the money, showing good variations in pace and flight. He claimed two wickets in his second over, the opener English, clean bowled for 33 and Moore, also bowled for 0. Another couple of tight overs saw the score at 109/5 after 19 overs with Niranjan finishing 3 overs, 2 for 13. The last over saw Cox concede 12 runs, including fours off the last two balls, albeit claiming the wicket of Bartlett caught at deep backward square by Browne for 10.

So Durham finished on 121/6. A reasonable and certainly defendable total, but the Mallards were happy enough after the strong start by the Durham openers. Some sound fielding and tight bowling making the difference in the middle overs, though the slightly ambiguous positioning of the boundaries did make for some brief debates (“It’s over there, but in a little from where you think it is” possibly isn’t the most accurate description… Another trust issue?)

With the rain having dried up during the first innings and the outfield drying out, Mallards openers Steele and Mexter stepped out with some confidence (and both dead keen for that rare 50). Moore and Bartlett opened the bowling and were tidy. Steele and Mexter stayed strong though, with Steele looking like he’d never been away. Mexter was playing some confident strokes and was keen to keep the score moving, it was a shame to see his innings coming to a premature end – caught by Pyati off the bowling of Moore for 7, with the score at 10.

Lucas was in at number three and also showed positive signs, before falling victim to an excellent overhead catch by Bartlett for just 2. The change of bowling had worked with seasoned campaigner Metcalfe, at the Desolate End, inducing the batsman with his seemingly inviting pace before snaring him with inch perfect line and length. 25/2, Niranjan in at 4 and continued the positive approach combining nicely with Steele to move the score along to 62. Both hitting some very fluid strokes and regularly finding the boundary..

Then the wheels came off a little. Metcalfe enticed a false stroke from Steele on 32, caught by Boothroyd before Scutt (bowled) and then McGuinness (caught, Smith) both strode boldly out to the crease and back again in quick succession and both for 0. 62/2 became 63/5 as Metcalfe’s final over turned his figures from simply tidy to the rather deadly 4 for 18. Was this to turn into a good old fashioned Mallards collapse?

With 6 overs remaining and 59 still required, things weren’t looking great as Cox joined Niranjan in the middle. With the new batsman came a new bowler in the form of Mivheer (who curiously didn’t feature in the batting 11 – trust issues?), found noticeable movement straight away. Nonetheless, thanks largely to a Niranjan boundary, 7 came off his first over, 52 required off 5. Sathar was the bowler chosen to fill Metcalfe’s shoes at the Wasteland End. He also went for 7 from his first over, however he did claim the significant wicket of Niranjan, caught by Swift for 24. He was replaced by fellow spinner Wisbach, 45 needed off 4.

Cox offered a chance in the next over as he picked out Swift on the boundary, but the chance was generously spilled over the boundary for 4, just 5 off the over. 40 needed off 18 balls, it looked bleak. Cox was able to clear the boundary in the 18th and a smattering of singles saw an improbable 22 needed off the last over. Opening bowler Bartlett returned for his fourth, and despite boundaries off the second and sixth balls, the Mallards ended on 108/6 and defeat by just 13 runs with Cox on 28* and Wisbach unbeaten on 7.

A valiant fight from all involved, but just not enough to get over the line. Fortunately one thing you can trust on is a decent pint in the Rose Tree where the debrief session covered such topics as Rum and Orange, the wisdom of mixing salt and vinegar and beef flavoured crisps, and various schemes for getting ourselves onto the number one pitch.