Ryan Higgins ignites Gloucestershire as Cheltenham rocks to the Festival spirit
Thrilling 13-run victory breaks Worcestershire's hearts as County Championship showcases its true glories
Gloucestershire 354 (Smith 83, Higgins 76, Dent 58; Leach 6-79) and 184 (Barnard 3-17, Parnell 3-37) beat Worcestershire 293 (Whiteley 88, D'Oliveira 68, Higgins 3-52) and 232 (Ferguson 63, Higgins 4-64) by 13 runs
They will be waltzing in Montpellier Gardens tonight. Even the public reading of Sense and Sensibility will have to be postponed. There may even be a knees-up at the Bowls Club and raucous chanting in the Pittville Pump Room. Until the 2019 Cheltenham Festival this classiest of English towns was, with the exception of its racecourse, not comfortable with mayhem Then Gareth Roderick's six took care of Leicestershire last week and this evening David Payne's bouncer to Adam Finch, Worcestershire's last man, was deflected via edge or glove to second slip where the substitute fielder, George Hankins, scooped up the catch. Gloucestershire had won by 13 runs. At once Payne set off a manic lap of honour in which he was pursued by team-mates including James Bracey, the substitute wicketkeeper, who had taken four fine catches during the day. Also sprinting like a madman escaping the asylum was Ryan Higgins whose four wickets had brought his total in the match to seven in addition to his 112 runs. And there was Ethan Bamber, who was loaned to Gloucestershire for the festival and, given his thespian connections, knows a fine stage when he sees it. Two weeks repertory in Cheltenham probably suited him fine. Bamber's dismissal of Ben Cox, caught by Higgins at mid-on for 42, began a collapse which saw Worcestershire lose their last six wickets for 61 runs and finish three good hits short of their target, which was 246. But Payne and his mates were not alone. On the balcony of this great old pavilion, the coaches hugged and down below in the stands and bars supporters who really should have known better did little dances of delight. No doubt their health insurance will cover any mishaps. One player, though, remained motionless on his haunches for some time. Joe Leach, the Worcestershire captain, knows this result all but ends his team's chances of promotion. So there was stillness and movement. There was silence and noise. And to think that nine hours earlier the biggest event taking place on the College Ground was the watering of the hanging baskets.
Ah yes, the early morning. Let us rewind to the time before Gloucestershire had collected the 23 points which takes them up to joint-second in Division Two with Glamorgan. In the first 45 minutes of the day's play Gloucestershire's last two wickets had added a further 35 runs in 12 overs, five of which were sent down by the legspinner, Brett D'Oliveira in preference to Leach, his team's best bowler. Who, one asked, would Bamber have preferred to face? The decision seemed barely explicable at the time, and those runs, which seemed important then, were to look absolutely priceless seven or so hours later.
Anyway, Worcestershire needed 246 and one of the most vital innings in their season had the worst possible start when Daryl Mitchell nicked David Payne's first ball to Bracey. But Chris Dent, whose captaincy was masterly on this final day, had to rotate his attack carefully because Matt Taylor's side strain prevented him bowling. Perhaps realising this, Riki Wessels carried the attack to Gloucestershire, driving both new-ball bowlers for fours and clouting Payne over long on for six with a shot borrowed from short-form cricket. When Higgins came on, Wessels moved into overdrive, taking 17 runs off his first two overs and forcing Dent to bowl Tom Smith from the Chapel End just before lunch. A calming over, we thought - perhaps Dent did, too - but Wessels' attempt to cut the left-arm spinner's third delivery only nicked the ball to Bracey. Having made 42 off 44 balls Wessels ambled off to have lunch, perhaps reflecting, unduly harshly, that he had brought his downfall on himself.
Down below in the stands and bars supporters who really should have known better did little dances of delight. No doubt their health insurance will cover any mishaps
The afternoon's cricket contrived to be both tense and, in its way, rather tranquil. Higgins returned to his usual tight-fisted ways, conceding eight runs in seven overs and claiming the wickets of Ed Barnard and Ross Whiteley. That left Worcestershire on 100 for 4 but further decline was resisted by the gentle class of Ferguson and the obduracy of Cox during the twenty overs until tea. Ferguson cut both spinners and seamers alike when possible and reached his fifty after three hours' concentration a few balls before the break.
Ferguson, you see, does not do flash. Even in T20 cricket his shots have a trace of orthodox classicism about them. So imagine, if you will, the gentle grace with which he batted this afternoon at Cheltenham and the concern it aroused among home supporters sitting under the giant red and white gazebos which Gloucestershire had considerately erected for supporters seeking to avoid the heat. A silence settled on the ground and remained there for many overs. This was one of those days when the detailed plans of the coaches are bound tightly to the simple hopes of supporters.
Worcestershire took tea on 146 for 4 and one imagines that a few in the crowd enjoyed patum peperium. Cox and Ferguson added a further 36 runs after the resumption only for Bamber to make the breakthrough. Three overs later, Benny Howell took the vital wicket of Ferguson when a rather tired cut-cum-force off the back foot edged a catch to Bracey. Ten minutes later, D'Oliveira had gone too, caught by Hankins at slip off the underappreciated Howell. Worcestershire were 198 for 7. Can it be, asked the spectators, and tried to keep a tight grip on their wits.
Leach and Wayne Parnell added 31 runs and the balance of the game shifted. Worcestershire supporters, whose presence so enriched this game, began to nurture their own hopes. Then Higgins trimmed Parnell's off bail and knocked back Dillon Pennington's middle stump, all in the space of three balls. Finch came in and three overs later Payne rain in to bowl to him. Half an hour later there was a curious spike in sales of sal volatile in the Cheltenham chemists' shops.
Glamorgan and Gloucestershire now lead a group of six counties covered by 20 points. They will effectively be fighting over two promotion places when the Championship returns next month. Any readers with a clear idea of which of these fine teams will win promotion in September are encouraged to write in.
But none of that bothered Dent's players as they went over to the marquee and drank a well-earned beer or two. They returned over the outfield they have adorned so nobly this fortnight and must now prepare for T20 games. But they will remember the matches against Leicestershire and Worcestershire for as long as they play cricket. Indeed, days like this are why they play the game.
And there was even a reminder that Cheltenham College is, after all, a school when a page torn from an exercise book drifted onto the pavilion balcony. It read as follows: "Senior School Punishment Ledger: Note to Graves (C) Upper Sixth: Write out 200 times: The County Championship is the greatest glory in English domestic cricket. We do not need The Hundred."
The paper blew away before anybody could grab it. But maybe everyone had seen enough.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications