<
>

The bells toll for the end of another season

Come the end of the Norwich Union League season, there was only one place to be and one thing to do. It was not sending someone else to cover a match. It was certainly not sitting in front of the television watching it from a distance. It had to be going to a game and paying my last respects to the 2002 season. The last day of a season is always like a bereavement and this year it was doubly so with both the season and the Norwich Union League coming to an end at the same time. The only question concerned the venue at which to witness the final rites.

Cardiff was a possibility. After all, there was a certain logic in seeing the champions, Glamorgan Dragons, in action against one of the teams that have been on their tails for most of the summer, Warwickshire Bears. There were two of the relegated sides in action at Taunton. Somerset Sabres and Durham Dynamos in action at one of my favourite grounds, but the Sabres have not really cut the mustard, or anything else, this season and the Dynamos have not produced many sparks either. Yorkshire Phoenix and Kent Spitfires at Headingley? Too far to go when there was other fare available and neither side have really caught my imagination in the League, though a Waugh has gone to the Spitfires - as opposed to a Spitfire going to war.

There is nothing wrong with Division Two, so Essex Eagles and Sussex Sharks were worthy of serious consideration. Another chance of a Waugh and the Eagles soaring while the Sharks flounder. Hampshire Hawks against Northamptonshire Steelbacks at least had the benefit of being close to home, but they were both destined to finish in the lower reaches. Surrey Lions and Gloucestershire Gladiators were both going up, and there is a nice sound to Lions and Gladiators locked in combat, but an urban amphitheatre was not what I had in mind. Derbyshire Scorpions and Middlesex Crusaders looked a little dour, considering their positions in the League, so the choice was made.

I headed for New Road, Worcester. Worcestershire Royals were second in Division One and were in with a chance of the title right up until they came unstuck against Glamorgan Dragons in what football pundits like to call "an eight pointer." And on the day of the countryside march, Leicestershire Foxes seemed to be appropriate opposition. It was a good choice.

Here we were late in September yet the sun bathed the ground in warmth and, as always at Worcester, there was the cathedral standing serenely over mid-wicket ready with bells to toll the passing of the season. They were actually to announce evensong, but I thought I could detect a more solemn meaning.

Being there also gave me the chance to witness the battle for leading run-scorer in the League at first hand. As luck would have it, four of the top five in Division One were all there on the ground. Iain Sutcliffe three runs behind that Outlaw, Kevin Pietersen, but then Vikram Solanki finishing 40 in front of Pietersen on 555. There was a big gap to the top two, but once Ben Smith had set the mark on 654, it was up to Darren Stevens, batting second, to catch, match and beat him. Striking the ball quite beautifully, he was out three runs short of his old teammate.

Smith finished with a much better average as well, but the Division One averages did not make good reading for an Englishman. Brad Hodge, Matthew Elliott and Shaun Pollock were in front of Smith, even if Hodge and Elliott had played only a handful of matches. After Smith came Pietersen - still not available for England though not classified as an overseas player - Michael Bevan and Darren Lehmann.

It was not much better in Division Two. Stuart Law of Australia out in front with 561, followed by New Zealand Test batsman Craig Spearman, with Mark Ramprakash at least getting in front of Zimbabwe's Andy Flower. Mind you, there was a reassuring look about the Division Two batting averages. Always good to see a Compton at the forefront! And how granddad Denis would have been thrilled to see young Nick proudly at the top, followed by Graham Thorpe and even David Ward there as well to further please the romantics. So what if each had only one completed innings?

Turning to the bowlers, Neil Killeen of the Durham Dynamos gave the northeast something to cheer by taking thirty wickets to top the list. So too did Ed Giddins in Division Two, and at a better average as well. Robert Croft showed that there is a place for the spin bowler in this type of cricket with 28 wickets, while both Mike Smith and Dimitri Mascarenhas bagged 24.

But these are only figures. How can statistics convey the sense of excitement of a performance in this competition? Figures might be a measure of achievement, but they hide the enthusiasm of a Ronnie Irani, the emerging talent of a Rikki Clarke or the thunderous stroke play of an Ian Blackwell. And no statistic yet devised can conjure up the scene at Worcester on the last day of the Norwich Union League season.