Sprowston living up to promise in cup competitions
It promises to be a notable few days for Sprowston Cricket Club as they continue their assault on three cup competitions.
On Friday evening they face Vauxhall Mallards in the Norfolk Twenty20 Cup final at Manor Park, then after their Norfolk Alliance Premier Division visit to the mecca of cricket, Acle, on Saturday, they travel to North Runcton in the semi-finals of the NACO Cup on Sunday.
Sprowston have already won comprehensively at North Runcton in the quarter-finals of the Carter Cup, so they will fancy their chances of going through to another final.
And as if that is not enough, they also have a Carter Cup semi-final against Garboldisham to look forward to on Sunday week.
We visited Sprowston in the Alliance fixture early in the season and at the time I said to one or two players that when they came across them later in the season they would find they were a decent side.
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I remember saying in this column before the Twenty20 Cup started that they were well suited to that form of the game because of having a fairly young side, the pace they play the game at and the fact they are very full-on in their attitude, which I like.
I know the captain, Simon Chipperfield, has said they would swap cup success for a higher position than they currently occupy in the Premier Division, where they finished as runners-up last year, and when the dust settles on this season I'm sure they will still look at it that way.
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But I don't see Sprowston having anything to worry about in terms of relegation and they should be in a position to enjoy their cup adventures.
Everyone can turn it on for one game against the bigger sides but they have kept their cup runs going all season and after beating Horsford at the Twenty20group stage, they had a thrilling one-run win over Great Witchingham in last week's semi-final.
Andy Hanby, who took three Witchingham wickets, including one off the final ball of the match, has a lot of what I look for in a fast bowler and his success against Horsford in the Carter Cup helped earn him his Norfolk Development XI call-up.
It should be a good final with some keen rivalry between Sprowston's Rob Purton and Mallards captain Paul Bradshaw, who are good mates from their time at the Brundall club.
Mallards haven't won the trophy since their victory in the first event in 2005, and will be keen to win one of the Manor Park showpiece finals after relinquishing the Carter Cup this year.
In the Carter Cup, the neutrals will be delighted to see that at least one Alliance team will be in the final thanks to the Sprowston-Garboldisham pairing in the last four.
Garboldisham are a progressive club with a lot going for them – a good youth and ladies' set-up, good facilities and a good wicket. Only their location is a slight disadvantage in attracting bigger players.
They beat Mattishall, two divisions higher in the Alliance, to reach the Carter Cup semi-final, but I would expect Sprowston to have a little too much for them, as the gap of three divisions between Premier and Division Three is much greater than, say, that between the EAPL and the Alliance Premier.
But with this year's cup competitions full of surprises, you just never know.
• NORFOLK HAVE THE PLAYERS TO BREAK DUCK IN EASTERN DIVISION
Norfolk have become accustomed over the years to playing catch-up when their Minor Counties festival gets under way because of the way their fixtures are loaded towards the latter part of the season, but this year it hardly makes any difference.
There have been only three positive results so far in the Eastern Division in the entire season, which has reached the halfway stage, so the fact that Staffordshire – first visitors to Manor Park for the game that starts on Sunday – arrive as leaders does not mean a great deal. Just 11 points separate the top six counties and Norfolk, in ninth, are just 22 behind their first festival opponents with a game in hand.
Since we shared the championship with Herefordshire in 2002, Norfolk have not won the Eastern Division, but they certainly have players capable of ending that run, subject to who is available, who hits form and how much play is possible in what has been a dreadful summer.
There is a good balance in the attack with a choice of right-arm and left-arm opening bowlers, providing a mixture of pace, seam and swing, as well as off-spin, leg-spin and slow left-arm options and there are plenty of batsmen capable of making big runs.
I know my old county, Staffordshire, always provide tough opposition and the fact that it is a festival and Norwich is an attractive place to visit sometimes means visiting teams are stronger than they might be if games were dotted around in the back of beyond.
Cambridgeshire, currently bottom of the division, and Hertfordshire complete the opposition over the three weeks. Cambs, traditionally the draw specialists in their meetings with Norfolk, were beaten at Manor Park on their last championship visit three years ago, while Norfolk's home record against Herts is generally a good one. But in this league, bottom can beat top and vice-versa.
It is good that the Norfolk festival has survived the various changes to the fixture programme over the years and, although it is not quite the same as when four or five two-day matches were condensed into a fortnight at Lakenham, it still has a special feel to it, but it's certainly not so tough on the bowlers as it was in former times.
I will be making my annual pilgrimage to Manor Park to watch a couple of days' play. It has been a radically difficult season because of the poor weather and, if it continues, the cricket could be just as unpredictable.
• ENGLAND MUST BE UP FOR THE BATTLE AGAINST SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa played four Tests on their last visit to England in 2008 and on both their previous tours, in 1998 and 2003, they played a five-Test series, so it is a shame there are only three matches in the series that gets under way at The Oval tomorrow.
Despite the fact that a whole new generation has grown up with a proliferation of limited-overs internationals and especially Twenty20 matches, for me Test cricket remains the ultimate challenge.
Speaking as a coach, you still teach the correct skills and techniques required to play the game that are best exemplified in Test cricket, and even those players who go on to become one-day stars need that basic grounding.
With the first and third-ranked sides in the world meeting in such a short series, there is no margin for error and neither side can afford to get off to a bad start.
It's a 100-metre sprint rather than a 400-metre race and whoever gets out of the blocks first gets a crucial advantage.
England may benefit from the fact that South Africa are slightly under-cooked and have not had too much meaningful practice, whereas England are fresh from comprehensive Test and one-day victories over West Indies and Australia on home territory. But it's going to be a battle.
I spent a lot of time in South Africa in my professional days and they are every bit as hard-nosed as the Australians, and with a battle-hardened leader in Graeme Smith, there will be no quarter given. They are also doubtless irked by England's number one ranking and will be out to take them down a peg or two.
Wicket-keeper Mark Boucher's serious eye injury, prompting his retirement, is desperately bad luck and has robbed South Africa of a great competitor and motivator but with AB de Villiers keeping wicket, it means they can play another specialist batsman and that may even work to their advantage.
Fast bowler Marchant de Lange's back injury is a blow to the tourists because he could have given them something a little bit different, but there is no guarantee he would have played in the Tests.
Despite picking five fast bowlers in a squad of 13, England are unlikely to change the tried and trusted format of six batsmen, a wicket-keeper and four bowlers, which has served them so well.
I still have reservations about Ravi Bopara's ability at the highest level but there is no question he has performed well in the one-day series and has earned his chance as the sixth batsman – and as an Englishman I fervently hope he keeps up the good work.
And, assuming Tim Bresnan has fully recovered from his elbow injury, I think he will keep his place ahead of Steven Finn or Graham Onions.