The Sue Mackay Report on the AC Inter-County Championship
Nottinghamshire won the 102nd AC Inter County Championships for the seventh time in twelve years, regaining the trophy they last held in 2013. Their team of Richard White (c), Keith Aiton, Paddy Chapman, James Hopgood, Patrick Hort and Richard Huxley had to work hard for their victory, however, and the result was not decided until the last turn of virtually the last game on court.
Yorkshire won the Second Division, thereby ensuring that there will once again be a War of the Roses match in the First Division next season. Their team was John Davis (c), Rod Ashwell, Robert Essler, Peter Thompson, Paul Watson and Robert Wilkinson, with John Davis's son Alastair standing in for Peter Thompson on Saturday afternoon so that he could go and support Hull City in their play-off final. Sadly Yorkshire played their final matches at Compton and so could not collect their trophy along with Nottinghamshire, but a Lancashire player was heard to observe that the Yorkshire team were more upset by the fact that they had won nine out of their ten matches and so were always having to pay for drinks!
Also promoted were Gloucestershire and Berkshire. Dorset had had a great start to the tournament and almost gained promotion, but were unable to maintain their early momentum and were without David Trimmer on the last two days. They won the same number of matches as Berkshire but lost the third promotion place on games won. Kent won the wooden spoon and may have to enter a play-off next season should another county wish to enter. Wiltshire and Warwickshire had both been in contention for the wooden spoon, and had found it difficult to win a game on the first two days, so, when word came through to Compton on Monday lunch time that both counties had achieved 3-0 wins, manager Chris Williams actually asked for someone to check that the scores had not been reported the wrong way round!
The Channel Islands sadly failed to win a match in the First Division and were relegated. Glamorgan also had a disastrous first three days, their only win coming against the Channel Islands, which they only won by the skin of their teeth, so that their fate had been sealed by the final day. On the last day, however, the rain came down in torrents for the morning matches, and Glamorgan were obviously more used to the conditions as they beat a strong Essex side. Indeed they spoiled the party for Chris Clarke, over from New Zealand this year to boost the Essex team, whose only loss was to Glamorgan - in his other nine games he achieved seven triples, a quintuple and a quadruple peel on the opponent. Sussex were the third team to be relegated.
The title race this year was one of the closest in recent times. At the start of the final day, six teams were still in the hunt; Cheshire, Essex, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire on 6 wins each, with Hertfordshire and Surrey on 5 wins also having a mathematical chance. Cheshire had a bye on Tuesday morning, however, and realistically the race seemed to be between Essex, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire, the only teams capable of achieving 8 match wins. Essex, without Jack Wicks on the last day, still rather unexpectedly lost to Glamorgan. Lancashire and Nottinghamshire won their morning matches, putting both on 7 wins, but Nottinghamshire had more 3-0 victories and so Lancashire needed to win their final game against Essex and see Nottinghamshire lose to Somerset in order to lift the trophy.
Somerset had been having a much worse tournament than usual, even getting perilously close to the relegation zone at one point. All three games against Nottinghamshire were in the balance right up to the end, but then Marcus Evans completed a triple and Kristian Chambers shortly afterwards ensured the win for Somerset. David Goacher made it 3-0 after time, and suddenly all eyes were on the Lancashire-Essex match on lawns 8,9 and 11. James Hawkins had broken down at 3-back and allowed Chris Clarke to do a qpo, giving first blood to Essex. David Openshaw and Paul Rigge then equalised for Lancashire, and the title race boiled down to whether Ailsa Lines and Annabel McDiarmid could prevail against Debbie Lines and Nick Steiner. As time approached the game was evenly poised, but eventually Debbie pegged out just as the bell went for time. This meant that four teams, Essex, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Surrey, finished the tournament on 7 match wins, with Nottinghamshire ahead on game wins.
It was most unfortunate that the European Golf Croquet Championships had been scheduled to clash with the first two days of the Counties, as some teams found themselves short of key players. Middlesex's fortunes certainly improved on Monday with the return of Jose Riva, the newly crowned European GC Champion, and Stephen Mulliner played the last two days for Surrey. These counties did at least have replacements, but Oxfordshire were unable to field more than five players for the first two days as Chris Roberts was playing in the European Championships and Stephen Wright had a family bereavement. This did not seem to deter them on the first day, as Dayal Gunasekera played on his own for the first two games, narrowly losing the first -1 and winning the second +8 on time. Team mate Harry Fisher then played on his own against Suffolk and completed 12 peels to peg out and win +14.
Kevin Garrad also had to play a game on his own for the Channel Islands because Gavin Carter's flight from Jersey had been delayed. Stormy weather certainly played its part on the first day. At about 11:30 it started to rain heavily and by mid-day all eleven courts were unplayable. Fortunately the thunderstorm then abated, lunch was taken early, and the Southwick army set to work with the Bowdry roller. Amazingly by 13:15 the uncompleted games were able to go ahead as lawns became available, and manager Chris Williams did not have to shorten time limits. No rain at all fell at Compton! Praise at this point must go to Ben the groundsman (no-one could tell me his surname!) and Southwick member Mike Kavanagh for the vastly improved lawns; not only was the playing surface much better but the drainage following the thunderstorm was also improved. All eleven lawns remained playable throughout the steady rain on Tuesday morning. John Crisford should also be thanked for achieving a great improvement in the lawns at Compton.
Saturday afternoon saw bright sunshine after the thunderstorm, which pleased two- year-old Ollie Chapman, who could be seen happily playing in the deep puddles next to the Southwick car park wearing bathers and sun hat. Sadly the sunshine was not so evident for the rest of the tournament, but worse were the fierce northerly winds, gale force at times, that caused problems for casters and even occasionally moved balls. During the heavy rain on Tuesday morning most players were shivering in the clubhouse between turns; at one point someone was heard to say "Oh no, he hasn't broken down, has he?". He was referring to his opponent!
Sunday saw a family affair at Compton. Chris Clarke and Debbie Lines were playing for Essex against Cheshire's Jenny Clarke and Ian Lines. Lancashire, promoted last season, may have been disappointed not to win in the end, but were chiefly glad that they had finished higher than Cheshire in the table, having lost to them 1-2. As usual the tournament was played in great spirit and a good time was had by all despite the "Counties Weather". Thanks must of course go to the army of volunteers at both Southwick and Compton, including the hard-working catering and bar staff at both venues.