Lancashire 139 for 1 (Salt 76*, Balderson 51) trail Hampshire 142 (Barker 44, Williams 3-14, Bailey 3-29) by three runs
It was not until early afternoon on the opening day of this match that bashful sunlight finally replaced stubborn haze but no one except Hampshire’s top order seemed put out by the tardiness. Summer arrived in these parts over two weeks ago and with it came the sweet realisation that many first-class cricketers would soon be seen on club or school grounds, much-loved venues that were already being spit and polished for a long-awaited occasion.
“When June arrives, cricket grows to splendour like a rich part of the garden in an English summertime,” wrote Cardus in Cricket (1930). “In June the game is at the crown of the year; from Little Puddleton to London the fields of village and town are white with players in hot action. Batsmen move along their processional way to centuries at Lord’s, while in a hundred hidden hamlets far and wide some crude but not inglorious Hobbs flings his bat at the ball, and either misses it or feels his body tingle as willow thwacks leather.”
There was more missing than tingling on this first day and a good dollop of edging, too, as Hampshire’s batsmen struggled to cope in that early haze and on a pitch offering little more than lively bounce. Inside the first hour, Fletcha Middleton’s ugly prod at a ball from Will Williams had given Salt the first catch of what would be a memorable day for him and Joe Weatherley had driven Tom Bailey to George Bell in the gully.
However, the main hatchway of the visitors’ innings did not cave in until the 20-minute spell before lunch that justified Dane Vilas’s decision to insert Hampshire. Having batted with his usual circumspection, Nick Gubbins was leg before to Jack Blatherwick for 16, although the batsman was statuesque for several seconds after seeing Neil Mallender’s raised finger, an attitude with which one could sympathise. The ball clearly pitched outside leg stump and it was unlikely that Gubbins was admiring the copper beeches behind the umpire’s head.
But festering doubts were replaced by simple amazement on the point of luncheon when James Vince was bowled by a classic breakback from Williams, the delivery jagging so far off the seam that the Hampshire skipper’s adjustment appeared to widen the gap through which the ball could pass.
Rather than arrest Hampshire’s decline, the match’s first interval merely postponed it. The normally adhesive and obstinate Ben Brown was cramped for room when attempting to pull a ball from Bailey and skied a catch to Josh Bohannon. Twenty minutes later, Felix Organ and Liam Dawson had also gone and had not Keith Barker shown some discrimination in making 44 off 71 balls, an already bad day for Hampshire would have assumed show-reel status. As it was, Vilas opted to call on the spin of Tom Hartley, a choice that looked dubious when Barker smacked the slow left-armer into the tennis courts but deeply wise next ball when he was bowled trying to clout him towards the balsam poplars and over the railway line.
And there was a fair case that even Barker’s selective aggression was a bad portent for the visitors. For one thing, it suggested that conditions were easing; for another it showed that attacking batting might be possible, even against Hampshire’s highly-rated new-ball attack. Perhaps Salt noted these things as he adjusted to his first Championship game for nearly 13 months; perhaps he was simply looking forward to opening a red-ball innings for the first time since August 2020, when he was a Sussex cricketer. Either way, what followed in the 35 overs after tea established a dominance that Vince’s men will do well to shift and may also have laid the foundations for Lancashire’s first victory of a season that has so far featured five draws and a binbag of frustration.
The galling thing for Hampshire was that Salt’s calibrated assault on their seam attack might have been ended almost at its birth. For having clipped Barker through wide mid-on for a fine boundary in the first over of the innings, Salt was immediately dropped by Middleton at second slip. As though realising this might be an enjoyable evening, the opener drove the next ball through the covers and the tone of the session was more or less set.
This, though, was no reckless assault, no T20 battering. Salt may have spent much of the last year playing short-form cricket but he clearly still knows how to build an innings against seamers of the quality of Kyle Abbott or Mohammad Abbas. Given the chance to attack, Salt seized it and his approach was followed by his opening partner, George Balderson, who made 51 before being bowled by a fine ball from Dawson that spun back through the left-hander’s gate. By then, though, Lancashire were 115 for 1 and some of Hampshire’s bowling had been ragged on a day in the dirt for visitors who later admitted they had misread the pitch.
Salt, by contrast, read things perfectly and so did the crowd as they relaxed into the gentle embrace of their evening’s cricket. Players like outground matches because it allows them to reconnect with the more innocent game they loved in the summers before they were paid to play cricket. But such pleasure is reciprocal. Spectators watch cricketers when the lads batted in junior games, evening encounters, perhaps, where the encouragement from the sides could be heard in the middle. That support is always present on the outgrounds and it was offered to Williams when he dismissed Middleton. Just over a year ago Williams was playing for Bridgwater at venues comparable to Trafalgar Road in the West of England Premier League and now he is not 12 months into a three-year contract with Lancashire.
And they’ve travelled for this game, you know, and not only from Petersfield or Basingstoke. There are visitors from Glasgow, if you please, and one club member has taken annual leave from his job in Kuwait, partly because he wants to help out and partly because visiting the cricket club represents his best chance of seeing his family.
Outground cricket attracts folk with no particular allegiance; come July it will be the same as Blackpool and Oakham, Scarborough and Cheltenham. More larks have been heard in England this summer but they share their own exultation at Trafalgar Road when Lancashire visit them. It is on such days that caring very much who wins is barely half the point.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications