The joy of 'Shantry's Match'
Surrey 406 and 30 for 1 need 187 runs to beatWorcestershire 272 and 350 (Shantry 101*, Ali 51, Leach 50, Dernbach 4-72)
They will call it "Shantry's Match" and men reading about it will think themselves accursed they were not there.
On a mellow September afternoon when Worcestershire's hopes of winning promotion were in severe and unexpected peril, the county's No. 9 batsman, Jack Shantry, fresh from taking his 50th wicket of the season on the second evening of the game, strode out to the middle at New Road and struck his maiden first-class century with some of the cleanest and simplest hitting you are likely to see.
In company with Joe Leach, Shantry extended Worcestershire's second innings total from 171 for 7, which represented a paltry lead of 34, to 279 for 8 when Leach was lbw to Zafar Ansari for 50.
Then Shantry added a further 71 with Mitchell McClenaghan, who added to the mood of fiesta at New Road by playing a scoop shot and a reverse sweep off Jade Dernbach. In case you have not noticed, Dernbach is neither a slow bowler nor a terribly placid soul on the field. He was not pleased by the New Zealander's temerity.
But no one else's strokeplay, however outrageous, could detract from Shantry's innings in all its mad, "up guards and at 'em" glory. He began by taking 14 off a Stuart Meaker over with an orthodox straight drive, a top edge for six over third man and a curious heave, seemingly of his own devising, which may have some place in a book on baseball.
Before long, Leach, who had made 70 in the first innings, took his cue from his partner and their stand became something of a hitting contest. When Shantry slashed a drive through point, Leach responded by whacking Gareth Batty cleanly off his length and over long-on for six. The fifty partnership came up in 45 balls and Surrey's bowlers began to wilt.
The crowd, as crowds will when enraptured by the utterly unexpected, cheered every blow as it cracked around New Road. Before Leach and Shantry came together it had seemed likely that Worcestershire's season would end in anti-climax with a third-day defeat and promotion nothing like secure.
Nor has Shantry's innings changed everything: Surrey are 30 for 1 and need another 187 runs to win the game but they have already lost Rory Burns, lbw to McClenaghan for 5. All the same, the pitch has been lively in the first hour of these golden early autumn mornings and there is work for Gary Wilson's men to do. And there will at least be cricket on the last day of the season here.
That it should be so is credit to Shantry's daring, underpinned by the support of Leach and McClenaghan. When Dernbach was recalled to the attack, Shantry glanced him down the leg side before thrashing him over midwicket. A single off Batty took him to his fifty off 37 balls. The hundred partnership came up after the pair had been batting for 15 overs and Leach reached his fifty off 67 balls.
Inexplicably, Ansari's left-arm spin was only introduced into the attack in the 71st over but he earned an immediate reward with the wicket of Leach. Nothing, though, could stop Shantry now. It was as if he knew that this was his day and he was damned if he was not going to enjoy it.
He cut Batty for four to overtake his previous first-class best of 55 not out and then he hit Ansari over long-on for six. Encouraged by McClenaghan's shot selection, which seemed to come from an emporium of the bizarre, Shantry drove, cut and slashed on. He reached his century, which came off 86 balls with 18 fours and a six, by leg glancing Dunn to the boundary.
New Road rose and cheered and clapped. Don Kenyon, Tom Graveney and Graeme Hick have made centuries on this ground and not received ovations more warm or heartfelt. Shantry, a beam on his face as wide as the Severn, raised his bat to the pavilion, to the new hotel and to the Basil D'Oliveira stand. Dolly would have loved this knock, you know.
Shantry raised his bat one more time for good measure and he even lifted it towards the cathedral, as if expecting divine applause; who knows, perhaps he got it. When Dernbach ended the innings a few minutes later, we went through the whole bally rigmarole again but nobody minded a bit. Not even Surrey. Well, not much.
And all this followed a half-day's cricket in which Worcestershire had looked nothing like a Division One batting side. From the moment Daryl Mitchell inside-edged Dernbach onto his wicket in the fourth over of the morning to that when Ben Cox obligingly hoicked Dunn to deep square leg Dernbach at 2.28, the home team's players had looked unnerved by what was at stake.
This may have worried their coach Steve Rhodes and it certainly justified the county's decision to sign Alex Gidman, which was announced on the second evening of this game. It also caused furrowed brows among the spectators watching their last days of sport at this cricketing Elysium. They experienced relegation here only two years ago and even if they secure a top division place over the next fortnight, the loyal supporters at this gentle, lovely, homely club with its cakes, bookstalls and postcard views have no wish to spend their winter fretting over what might lie ahead.
Well, if all their players show Jack Shantry's courage, and if they also recruit an effective overseas player this winter, they need not worry too much. Promotion has yet to be clinched, and with Vikram Solanki batting serenely, Surrey may still be favourites to win this game; but the happy boisterous crowd who streamed out of New Road on Thursday evening knew that they had seen something which will warm them should fog wreathe the Severn and Teme in a few months' time.