Nottinghamshire won the 105th AC Inter County Championships for the 9th time over the Whitsun weekend. Their team of Richard White (c), Keith Aiton, Paddy Chapman, Miranda Chapman, James Death, James Hopgood and Patrick Hort had secured the trophy by the end of the third day, having won all their matches, and so only had the clean sweep to play for on the final day. In this they succeeded, and over the entire event they only lost four games, ironically all to teams in the relegation zone. Richard and Keith were undefeated. Nottinghamshire effectively won the trophy on the second day when they beat the runners-up, Surrey, 3-0.
The Second Division was a much more nail-biting affair. Glamorgan, relegated last season, lost their first match to Shropshire. Their team of Chris Williams (c), John Bowcott, Kevin Ham, Tudor Jenkins, Garry McElwain, Sarah Melvin and David Walters then won their next eight matches in a row, including a crucial win against Essex, at that point equal on 7 wins, on the final morning. With 8 wins going in to the final match they would win the division unless they lost 0-3 and Essex won 3-0, but Gloucestershire's David Kibble pegged out early against Essex to secure the shield for Glamorgan. It did look, however, as if Glamorgan were going down in all three games against Yorkshire, but Chris Williams and Sarah Melvin were able to scrape a win +2 on time to maintain their unbeaten record as a pairing, winning seven games as second pairing and three as first pairing. They had occasion to be grateful to Dave Kibble of Gloucestershire yet again at Compton on the third day. They had been sent in as a sacrificial first pairing against Kibble and Suter in order to strengthen the other two pairings. Dave played an immaculate break to 1-back and was seemingly about to set up a perfect sextuple leave for Mark Suter when he inexplicably missed an easy shot before setting up the cross wire, leaving Sarah all the balls at Hoop 1.
Amazingly five teams finished on 7 match wins in the Second Division. Shropshire had started off really well, and were unbeaten for their first five matches, but then had a run of three losses and finished on 7 wins. Berkshire also finished on 7 wins, as did Essex, Gloucestershire and Yorkshire. Gloucestershire had the best game tally and were runners-up, gaining promotion to the top flight next season. In the battle for third place, Essex and Yorkshire had an identical game tally, but Essex won the promotion spot by virtue of having beaten Yorkshire. Yorkshire's captain John Davis was jubilant, as his team didn't really want promotion, so he reckoned that losing out by having an identical score to a promoted team was a perfect result, and more than made up for losing -2 on time in the last game against Glamorgan!
Warwickshire were awarded the wooden spoon and sadly were the only team without any match wins, although they did win a game in the majority of their matches. The relegation battle was not decided until the final matches had finished. Dorset, promoted last season, were without their captain, Jonathan Powe, after the first day, as he had to return home for family reasons. They only had one win going in to the last round of matches, and so were definitely relegated, but they went out in a blaze of glory with a win against Somerset. Somerset were without Marcus Evans this year, but still had an impressively strong team on paper, and so everyone was amazed when they failed to win a match on the first two days. In the afternoon at Compton on the Bank Holiday Monday they decided to opt for alternate stroke doubles in some of their games, and this seemed to work, because they won two matches, and games involving David Goacher went more quickly! They lost to Oxfordshire and Dorset on the last day, however, and were relegated to the Second Division for the first time in their history. Four wins were possibly not going to be enough to avoid the third relegation place, and so Hertfordshire and Suffolk were frantically counting games won, but in the end Sussex only managed three match wins and returned to the Second Division.
There was an interesting match at Compton on the Sunday. Cheshire's captain, Colin Irwin, had been taken ill before the tournament, but they still had a squad of six. However, Chris Coull was unable to play on the Sunday and so a desperate plea had gone out for a replacement. David Mooney was able to play, but only till about two o'clock. In the morning, with six players, Cheshire went down 0-3 to Oxfordshire. For the second game, against Hertfordshire, David Mooney was able to partner Ian Lines for forty minutes before having to leave, but managed to depart with his clip on 4-back, leaving Ian with a standard TP to win, and Cheshire won the match 2-1. In the final match against Lancashire Ian was totally on his own, and was up against Chris Clarke and James Hawkins. James stopped at 1-back and Chris embarked on a sextuple, succeeding with the first four peels, but he just clipped a ball that he wanted to rush after the 4-back peel and was forced to do a long take-off to 3-back, which landed inches short. Nevertheless Lancashire won the first game easily. The other two games were double banked on Lawn 2, with lots of spectators watching from the warmth of the clubhouse. David Maugham did a TPO on Lee Hartley's ball, leaving Lancashire's Paul Rigge on Hoop 2, and proceeded to shepherd John Dawson round in dribs and drabs. Paul eventually got a decent break going after John failed rover, only to fail rover himself, and after much cat and mouse Cheshire won. Meanwhile Jenny Clarke had done a TPO on Ailsa Lines' ball that had gone almost unnoticed in the excitement of the double banked game. Ailsa's partner Annabel McDiarmid was on 4-back, whereas Cheshire's Nick Harvey had yet to get started. Jenny guided him round one hoop at a time, largely laying up hidden from Annabel, but time was getting short. Annabel had managed to run 4-back and penult in the meantime, but as time was called Nick had a long attempt at rover, which he made, and so Cheshire won the match with five players.
Suffolk were still marvelling on the final day at how they had managed to beat Somerset 3-0 the day before at Compton. Once again it was the double banked games on Lawn 2 that provided the most entertainment, and probably set a record for the number of failed peg-outs. Somerset's Ed Duckworth did the three peels of a triple but then rushed his partner against the upright of rover, leaving himself a long and difficult peg-out attempt. He failed with the front ball and pegged himself out, leaving Jim Field on peg. Mark Avery shepherded A.R.K. Miller around one hoop at a time, with tactics to the fore, leaving Jim with numerous long shots at the peg. Meanwhile Suffolk's Chris Farthing also completed three peels of a triple but only pegged out one ball. Kristian Chambers hit in and started a break, but sent a ball off the lawn, and Phil Eardley finally hit in and took off to the peg. Meanwhile A.R.K. had gradually got round, but also missed the peg! Suffolk eventually won all three games, and lunch could finally take priority. Even then there was still one game unfinished, as in the match between Glamorgan and Hampshire Sarah Melvin dug the balls out of four corners to run four hoops from 2-back in the turn after time, which left all four clips on rover. Chris Williams scored the golden hoop.
Of course the Counties had its usual non-croquet moments. Simon "Big Dog" Hathrell turned up on the first morning wearing a grey fluffy dog onesie. No sooner had he taken it off to commence play than a real dog ran onto Lawn 9 and started trying to play with the balls! An unholy racket was later heard on Lawn 10 as three crows tried to attack a fledgling magpie which couldn't get off the ground, so the players were standing guard with their mallets to protect it.
The lawns at both venues were looking superb and thanks are due to both groundsmen. Southwick had also taken delivery of brand new Aldridge hoops, which were being used for the first time. Compton have remodelled their bar and gents' changing area, and the facilities are now really good. Catering at both venues was wonderful as usual, with Hilary and Tim Smith at Compton celebrating their twentieth year of providing lunches. Also celebrating his twentieth anniversary was tournament director Bill Arliss, the oldest competitor, and he has decided to retire as director and hand over to Mike Town. He was given a huge round of applause at the closing ceremony, where the players also thanked the manager, Chris Williams, and all those involved in making the tournament such a success.