Gloucestershire 248 (Hammond 75, Bamber 3-39, Cullen 3-57) vs Middlesex
When the Conservative Party was trying to bolster John Major's popularity in 1992 it was decided he should visit Brixton, where he was brought up, in order to remind the electorate of his relatively humble background. Apparently Major disliked the whole business but cynics who watched the broadcast overplayed their hand in doubting the Prime Minister's sincerity when he saw one of his old homes and came out with the famous comment: "It's still there." Such reconnections with our past often prompt a deep emotional response; too deep for fine words at times. Just ask some of the spectators who arrived this morning for the first day of the Cheltenham festival.
The College Ground is still in its place, of course, and this game against Middlesex should help decide whether Gloucestershire will play in the top division of the County Championship later this summer. But for those who had doubted at bleak times during the past year whether they would watch first-class cricket again the occasion was about more than runs and wickets, however significant. It was about going home.
They were made welcome, too. Principally, of course, this came in the form of a fine and full day's cricket, one in which Miles Hammond made a polished 75 and Gloucestershire flourished early, reaching 153 for 2 before the Middlesex seamers responded so well before and after tea that the home side were bowled out just before the scheduled close still two runs short of their second bonus point. The visitors' resilience was also encouraging. One of the tests of the new conference and divisional system will be the attitude of teams once their chances of reaching Division One are gone. If the approach of Middlesex's attack is any guide, we need have no worries.
The day began poorly for Gloucestershire, if such an adverb can be ever be applied to a day at Cheltenham, when George Scott let a ball from Tim Murtagh hit his off stump in the seventh over. Perhaps Scott was overawed by the reputation of his former colleague; otherwise his decision was barely explicable. The rest of the morning, on the other hand, could barely be improved upon, at least from the perspective of home supporters, as Hammond and James Bracey took their side to 77 at lunch. The best shots of the session were played by Bracey, who drove successive balls from Daryl Mitchell to the College Lawn boundary, and these were good to see from a batsman who was also coming home after a bruising couple of Test matches. The College Ground's therapy does not discriminate between the watching and the watched.
Nor, however, does this true wicket tolerate laxity and when Bracey tried to force a ball from Blake Cullen that was too close to him through the off side the resultant edge gave John Simpson the first of his five catches. The rest of the afternoon session was dominated by Hammond and Tom Lace, the former pulling two long hops from Martin Andersson for sixes and the latter contributing a cover drive off Ethan Bamber that was as fine as we could wish.
All this was enjoyed by corporate guests who are watching their cricket in unfamiliar surroundings this year. The staid and very traditional white marquees have been replaced by multi-coloured, open-sided affairs - obese gazebos, someone called them - that offer the necessary ventilation in these strange times. On the Sandford Road side the canvas coverings look like giant meringues, brought to their scarlet, blue and tangerine points by an over-ambitious chef; at the College Lawn End they are wind-whipped sandhills and the hubbub within them increased as tea approached and some of the guests began to wonder if Hammond would make his second century at Cheltenham.
Nine overs before the interval we had our answer when Bamber's bounce surprised the Gloucestershire batsman and Stephen Eskinazi celebrated the signing of a new contract by taking the catch at first slip. The rest of the Middlesex attack responded well to this breakthrough. Lace's waft off Bamber merely edged a catch behind, Glenn Phillips was athletically caught by Peter Handscomb, who dived full length from wide mid-off to intercept a fierce drive and Jack Taylor was leg before playing no shot to Mitchell.
The rest of the session offered only modest encouragement to Gloucestershire supporters suddenly anxious about their team's prospects. The Price brothers, Tom and Ollie, boasting one first-class game between them, put on 36 for the seventh wicket before Tom nicked behind and Ollie was bowled for 31 on his debut. In that final hour or so it had become plain that Gloucestershire would struggle to claim that second bonus point and they duly failed to do so when Daniel Worrall became the impressive Cullen's third wicket.
All this was duly reported by the media pack but the festival has had to be adjusted for them too. Instead of the cramped but glorious gallery atop the pavilion we are now housed in a long white marquee from which our view of Cleeve Hill is hidden. One might cavil at being deprived of such a glory until one realises that the building obstructing our aspect is Cheltenham's hospital. And these things remind us of a debt we can never repay. They come as gentle reminders that without such buildings we would not have a festival here or anything else very much. But as we edge hesitantly towards the different life that some will call normality, we do well to remember that Yeats was right: peace does come dropping slow but it comes all the same. Arise and go to Cheltenham and you will see that it is true.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications