Gloucestershire batsmen put on a festival against Worcestershire
Higgins, Smith and Dent all reach half-centuries as hosts build strong first innings at Cheltenham
Gloucestershire 339 for 7 (Smith 79*, Higgins 76, Dent 58) v Worcestershire
It is a pleasing paradox that this most time-gilded and treasured of festivals rarely fails to illustrate the wonderful ambition of youth. Supporters arrive from Gloucestershire and far beyond ready to reminisce about Tony Brown or Mike Procter only to find themselves delighted anew by cricketers enjoying Thomas Carlyle's "glad season of life." That enjoyment was illustrated, albeit with mixed results, on the first day of this game by Dillon Pennington and Adam Finch, two Worcestershire pace bowlers who were sharing the new ball for England's Under 19 team 18 months ago. Yet it was best exemplified by 24-year-old Ryan Higgins, whose 76 off 59 balls was surely one of the best short innings played on the College Ground in recent years. Higgins began to bat about 40 minutes after lunch when Gloucestershire skipper Chris Dent, having laboured conscientiously over his 58, nibbled at a good ball from his Worcestershire counterpart, Joe Leach, and gave Ben Cox his 300th dismissal for the county. At that point the visitors were 125 for 4 and Leach was probably content with his decision to forego the toss. Yet when Higgins was dismissed, ten balls after tea when attempting to sweep Brett D'Oliveira but only nicking a catch to Cox, his 96-minute innings had moulded the shape of this day's cricket. His 128-run partnership for the fifth wicket with Tom Smith had transformed the atmosphere at Cheltenham.
Rather more significantly, the stand between Smith and Higgins foreshadowed a productive evening session for the home side in which the dismissals of Jack Taylor and Benny Howell were offset by the collection of three batting bonus points. When bad light ended our cricket four overs early Smith was 79 not out, five runs shy of his career-best score and well placed to extend Gloucestershire's dominance on the second morning.
And home supporters are well aware that those bonus points do far more than help confer respectability on their season. Should their side win this game they will almost certainly move up to second in Division Two with four games left to play. For the first time in many seasons Gloucestershire, Glamorgan and Northamptonshire are all credible promotion candidates. It is an intriguing and rather lovely prospect.
Equally fascinating, however, is the idea of Higgins facing First Division attacks. His batting on this opening day at Cheltenham was an utter joy, never more so than when he levied six boundaries in ten balls, two in succession off Finch and four in an over off Ed Barnard. Some of the deliveries offered width but it remains true that most bowlers will lose their line when facing a batsman who hits their blameless deliveries to the boundary and does so with orthodox shots all around the wicket. Yes, Higgins gorged on the loose stuff sent down by the Worcestershire seamers - this was a particularly tough day for Finch - and capitalised on his two escapes when Daryl Mitchell at second slip and Cox put down tough chances. But there was a natural ability and uncoachable freedom about his batting which should stay with spectators even when they cannot recall other details of this match.
For their part, Worcestershire's bowlers can look back on a day in which they took at least two wickets in every session yet came off the field disappointed with their efforts. The morning had begun perfectly for them when Miles Hammond nicked Leach's fourth ball of the match to Cox. Twenty-five minutes before lunch Gareth Roderick, fresh from his heroic six in last week's dramatic victory over Leicestershire, had sliced a drive off the impressive Pennington to Callum Ferguson in the gully. Leach's removal of James Bracey and Dent after lunch had given Worcestershire the advantage, only for Higgins to change the day. Brett D'Oliveira's fine spell of leg-spin after tea restored some order but the visitors' pace bowlers were ineffective with the new ball and this in a game Worcestershire need to win if they are to revive their own chances of promotion.
And before one accords the efforts of Higgins and Pennington no more than local or even domestic significance it is as well to recall that barely a year ago a young Sussex bowler took eight wickets at the College Ground and helped his side to a marvellous 28-run victory. His name was Jofra Archer.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications