By Richard Edwards
3 February 2021
All eyes were on the southern hemisphere recently, with Australia and India completing perhaps the most remarkable Test series of the modern era Down Under, while England celebrated a nail-biting triumph over Sri Lanka in Galle.
In Banbury, Chingford and Sidmouth and Taunton Deane, though, there was also cause for celebration and, in the case of the Australian captain, commiseration.
It’s safe to say that Tim Paine has enjoyed better weeks, with the Australian captain coming in for fierce criticism following Australia’s series defeat to India. Ill-judged comments caught on the stump-mic during the Sydney Test hardly helped his cause. In this corner of Oxfordshire, though, there are plenty willing to speak up for a man who had a huge impact on the club when he arrived with his wife and young family back in 2015.
Back then, Paine’s Test ambitions looked dead in the water. The odds of him captaining his country in the Ashes four years later, astronomical. No matter what happens next, Paine’s experience in the Home Counties Premier League will always have a special place in the wicketkeeper’s fairytale comeback.
“He’s a really, really nice guy and everywhere he went that season, the opposition got on really well with him,” says Jimmy Phillips, who captained the side that season. “I particularly recall one game we played away at Slough. He scored 120 or something like that, and at the end of the game, all the opposition players came and stood round and chatted to him in the bar. He had ground their noses into the dirt on the field but he did it in a nice way. There was nothing showy about him at all. He’s the sort of person that people naturally gravitate towards.”
The affection for the Australian captain in Oxfordshire is mirrored in Devon and Somerset's club circuit, where the England spinners who dismantled Sri Lanka’s batting line-up in the opening Test of the winter are still a regular sights at the grounds on which they began their cricket careers.
Indeed, within a month of helping England to a win against Ireland at Lords – scoring 92 as nightwatchman – Leach was back playing in the West of England Premier League for his boyhood club against North Perrott. He was in the runs again too, scoring 56 in the home side’s innings of 182 for 9.
He then saw his 9.2 overs go for just eight runs as Taunton won by 52 runs. Leach then stayed true to his roots and did a quick stint behind the bar – a role dutifully carried out by club cricketers up and down the country.
It’s a similar story for his spin twin, Bess, who may have left the west country for Yorkshire but is still inextricably linked with Devon at large, and Sidmouth in particular.
It’s very much a family affair, with his three cousins also playing for the Devon Cricket League Premier Division side. When Bess was struggling to get a game at Somerset back in the summer of 2019, he played for Sidmouth against a North Devon side which also included Jamie Overton. The latter took three wickets but ultimately finished on the losing side as Zak Bess took 5 for 32.
That remains Bess’s most recent game for his club side but the role played by Sidmouth in his development from club cricketer to England regular demonstrates the critical role by the grassroots game.
A fact that Dan Lawrence and his father, Mark, would be quick to acknowledge.
Since Lawrence’s call-up to the England squad – and his performance in the opening Test suggests that neither Chingford nor Essex will see too much of him in the near future – the focus has very much been on his upbringing at the club’s Forest Side ground. His father still works there as groundsman and his interview with Test Match Special during the opening Test was every bit as captivating as his son’s precocious innings of 73.
“I am so pleased for him but not being out there is a bit upsetting,” he said. “I’ve love to out there but it is what it is.”
He went onto describe the role that the club’s nets – which effectively doubled up as Lawerence’s back garden – played in his development.
“He used to take the bat and gloves to bed with him,” he said. “He used to run home, get out of his school uniform and bat. I was only a club player. I haven’t got the right to tell a professional, whether he’s my son or not, how to play.”
While Essex, Somerset and Tasmania can all rightfully lay claim to their role in the progress of Lawrence, Bess, Leach and Paine, their club upbringing can’t be overlooked.
After an extraordinary week of cricket, that should be an extra cause for celebration.