Worcestershire232 for 6 (Whiteley 88, D’Oliveira 66*) trail Gloucestershire 354 (Smith 83, Higgins 76, Dent 58, Leach 6-79) by 122 runs
Every moment one spends at Cheltenham is precious but no festival in recent years has been as rich in promise as that which currently garlands the College Ground. The six struck over point by Gareth Roderick to secure last week’s victory over Leicestershire already has legendary status in Charlton Kings and by mid-afternoon on this second day the prospect of a second, rather more comfortable win for Gloucestershire beguiled both the serious drinkers in the Old Patesians marquee and the county chief executives enjoying their reunion at the College Lawn End.
Replying to the home side’s 354, Worcestershire were 68 for 5 when Brett D’Oliveira joined Ross Whiteley. Most people agreed Chris Dent would enforce the follow-on; few considered the possibility he might not have the chance to do so. Yet Whiteley had already begun to bat against most of the memories his muscles and temperament had acquired over seasons of short-form cricket. He waited until his 43rd ball before hitting his first four and his six over midwicket off Ethan Bamber seemed an eccentric highlight from a different match.
D’Oliveira, dropped by Miles Hammond at second slip off Ryan Higgins when only 3, joined him in a sixth-wicket partnership of 146 characterised by rigorous self-discipline. Whiteley hit three sixes but had earned the right to do so rather than brusquely asserting it in a manner likely to get him into trouble. Four years to the day since he made his last century, against Yorkshire at Scarborough, he was only 12 runs short of three figures when Matt Taylor got a ball that was 75 overs old to fly from just short of a length, take the edge of the bat and fly via James Bracey’s gloves to Benny Howell at slip.
But our day ended with D’Oliveira unbeaten on 66 albeit Gloucestershire’s bowlers will be encouraged by the prospect of using a nearly new ball in the morning. A game which both sides need to win is far better balanced than appeared likely in mid-afternoon and we have two fine days ahead of us. “There are great spiritual advantages to be had in that town,” Nicholas Bulstrode informs his wife when describing Cheltenham in Middlemarch.
Yet advantages of any sort were the home side’s monopoly earlier in a day when Worcestershire’s top-order batsmen seemed as ripe for the picking as pears in late September. When their first dig dwindled from 24 without loss to 68 for 5 the statisticians pointed out it was the fifth successive innings in which they had lost those wickets for less than 85 runs and the sixth time in seven matches when Worcestershire’s top five first-innings wickets had fallen for less than a hundred.
Gloucestershire’s bowlers fed on such insecurity and their own Puritan disciplines offered Joe Leach’s batsmen no repose. A hesitant Riki Wessels edged Bamber to Benny Howell in his side’s sixth over; Callum Ferguson was pinioned in his crease by David Payne and nicked a catch to Hammond. After lunch Gloucestershire’s can-do approach was epitomised by Bracey who took an outstanding leg-side catch off Ryan Higgins to remove Ed Barnard and then took an even better one standing up to dismiss Daryl Mitchell off the same bowler.
For all that he is having a poor season Mitchell remains the batsman Worcestershire’s opponents would most like to remove but Bracey’s positioning was a shrewd attempt to counteract his tendency to come down the wicket. That, though, was almost the end of Gloucestershire’s absolute dominance. The rest of the day saw Whiteley and D’Oliveira give their team some hope they might yet achieve a victory they sorely need. And their resistance recalled a first session in which one of Worcestershire’s most loyal servants had achieved a fine career landmark.
Indeed the morning has begun in an atmosphere of multi-faceted incipience and general enticement. Cleeve Hill was dark green beneath benevolent cloud and the old paths towards Winchcombe were beguiling in the gentlest haze. Tom Smith was on 79, five runs short of his career-best score, Gloucestershire were 11 runs shy of a fourth batting bonus point and Leach needed two wickets to reach 300 in first-class cricket for Worcestershire. The third of these landmarks was the first to be reached when Leach, bowling as tightly as ever, knocked back Payne’s off stump in the sixth over of the day and had Bamber caught by a diving Ben Cox in the tenth. The bowler greeted this wicket with a guttural roar of triumph. Smith was left unbeaten on 83 but he will not give a monkey’s if his side have 23 points in the bag on Wednesday evening.
Neither will any other home supporters. There must, one imagines, be better things in life than watching cricket at Cheltenham. Yet on a warm, dream-laden evening at the College Ground, with the Glorious Glosters slightly in the ascendant, and the air scented with possibility it was awfully difficult to think what those things might be. So we ate oranges on the pavilion balcony and watched the evening light on distant, tree-ringed fields.