There were rumours that something unusual was afoot, that perhaps the Oxford team were not going to have such an easy time of it at this year's Varsity Match. Not only did Cambridge still have two Oxford renegades they had acquired as postgraduates, but also one of the latest intake of Cambridge undergraduates had won the AC All England Handicap Championship as a youngster a few years earlier. Some members of the Cambridge team had been spotted practising on proper croquet courts; for a change nearly all of the Cambridge team actually had official handicaps; and - to the unease of Oxford supporters - on paper Cambridge were actually stronger than Oxford. Furthermore there was even a rumour that some of the Cambridge team had recently received special coaching by Cambridge alumnus and current AC World Champion Stephen Mulliner. It transpires that there was substance to this rumour!
Could we be facing a revolution with the first Cambridge win since 2002? Suspicions were further aroused when your match reporter arrived at the pristine courts of Hurlingham well before the scheduled start of play to find that one Cambridge player was already there on court in his whites, busy practising in the light drizzle that had been around all morning. The rest of the Cambridge team arrived soon afterwards. Cambridge were evidently taking this seriously, and for quite a while there was only one solitary Oxford player to keep them company.
The delayed Oxford battle-bus with the rest of their team eventually found its way to Hurlingham through the London traffic, and play commenced rather late at about 10:45, so with lunch scheduled for 1pm the morning doubles session was curtailed to a time-limit of about 2hrs 15mins.
On the top court Will Gee and Louis McBride of Cambridge were up against Jordan Waters and Leif Bersweden. Jordan, fresh from winning the UK Student Championships the day before, got the first break and took it to 4-back with a good diagonal spread. This seemed like a questionable tactic since his partner Leif was only an 18-handicapper, but this question was answered when Leif demonstrated an unerring ability to hit straight, run long hoops and hold a break together. In a contrast of tactics, Will held back until eventually his partner Louis - the only player in either team without an official handicap - also managed to get a good break to 3-back.
As two hours approached Oxford were still well ahead with Jordan and Leif respectively on 4-back and penult, while Will and Louis were on 1 and 3-back, but with Cambridge having the innings joined up near hoop 2. Will then decided to try and make some progress, starting with a spectacular long pass-roll to hoop 1 which sent his striker's ball straight towards the hoop, dribbled most of the way through it backwards, and stopped in the jaws a few millimetres too short to run the hoop the right way! Too bad. However, he was able to make the hoop on his next turn, picked up a break, but broke down after another attempt at a huge roll went haywire sending his own ball off. Jordan then hit from distance and made another couple of hoops to take Oxford to rover and penult. Will took the lift and hit, and this time there was no breakdown. He peeled partner through 3-back on his way round but did not attempt any more peels, preferring instead just to peg out his own ball out for a net +1 advantage shortly after time was called. Unfortunately however he lost a bit of control running rover and had to settle for a less than ideal leave, with only a 10-yarder from A-baulk for Jordan.
With partner still on penult and the other Cambridge ball only on 4-back, Jordan just needed to make rover and peg himself out to win +1 on time. Jordan hit from his lift and was able to engineer a 7-yard roll-up to rover off the other ball. But luck was not on his side and he failed to run a long hoop. So +1 on time to Cambridge, and a foretaste of more close finishes to follow.
In the second doubles game Oxford's Mark van Loon gained the initial advantage with a break to 4-back when Cesar Miranda-Reyes broke down after running hoop 3. In due course Cesar also made his way to 4-back, but with Mark's partner Harry Williams making better progress than Cesar's partner Craig Winfield, Oxford hung onto their advantage to finish 3 up when time was called.
In the third doubles game breaks proved elusive, with both sides making errors. At one point Oxford forgot their lift which would have given them an easy roquet near B-baulk for an easy hoop 3. As time was reached both Oxford's Alex Bishop and Cambridge's Adam Swinton had made it to rover, but with their partners still back on hoops 5 and 2 respectively the result was another win to Oxford by 3 on time.
So 2-1 to a resilient Oxford team at lunchtime, with everything still to play for in the singles.
In the afternoon an occasional patch of sunshine and an occasional heavier shower added variety to the cloud and drizzle. With an excellent Hurlingham lunch inside them lubricated with alcohol, and with the prospect of a keenly contested afternoon session, spirits remained high on both sides.
Will (-1) was the obvious favourite to win the top singles game against Jordan (6). On turn 1 Will took the risky shot at hoop 1, ran it and then tried to hide behind the hoop, but left his ball open. Jordan hit, put Will's ball in the middle and his own to the east boundary. Will hit on turn 3, and approached hoop 1 to leave himself a long angled shot which he then failed with such ferocity off the wire that his ball ended up safe in corner IV. Shortly afterwards Will picked up the first break and took it to 4-back with good control and a NSL. Jordan then hit with his lift shot and also took his ball to 4-back, though with a poor leave which gave Will an easy pick-up.
Will duly embarked on his second break, organising for a standard TP. The 4-back peel stuck in the jaws after 3, so the peeling was delayed and the penult peel was eventually attempted on the way to 4-back. This peel too only just dribbled through. After making 4-back Will attempted to rush peelee back north through penult, but again it stuck in the jaws, leaving Will no option but to make penult off peelee with a roll to rover, which went wide. He was then unable to get peelee into position for rover, so had to settle for a posthumous rover peel and a bombard on the peelee towards the peg before pegging striker's ball out, leaving himself for peg and box vs. Jordan's 1 and 4-back, and an 8-yarder for Jordan's lift shot. Jordan hit, and some long-range shooting by Will followed during which Jordan made hoop 1 and laid up with partner near corner II. Will's next rather impatient shot missed peg to the west boundary level with hoop 2, enabling Jordan to pick up a 3-ball break which he took to peg under good control, leaving Will's ball near corner I and his own two in the middle of the east boundary. Will shot at Jordan's ball and missed, Jordan picked up another 3-ball break, made his last three hoops and pegged out to win +1. A fine performance, and a 3-1 lead for Oxford. Things were not going according to plan for Cambridge.
Meanwhile in the other game double-banked on the same court, Adam Swinton had made good progress against James Scoon, and not long afterwards secured a more comfortable +15 win for Cambridge. 3-2 to Oxford.
As it turned out, Adam's win was the only game of the nine all day that didn't have a close finish. On the bottom court Francis Wragg of Cambridge had managed to peg out one of Leif's balls, leaving a 3-ball game with Francis for 3 and peg against Leif on 6. Francis eventually made it to peg with his other ball before Leif picked up a 3-ball break, which he proceeded to take round running long hoops with great accuracy for another +1 win for Oxford and despondency for Cambridge. Now 4-2 to Oxford, with only 3 games still in play.
In the game between the two captains, Mark van Loon of Oxford had made the first break to 4-back with a diagonal spread and Cesar missed the long lift into corner IV, but Mark was unable to capitalise and in due course Cesar clawed his way back to an eventual win +4 on time. On an adjacent court Luke Valori of Cambridge had also managed to hang onto a small lead, and that too went to a +4 win on time to Cambridge. Now 4-4!
In the remaining game between James Brind of Cambridge and Alex Bishop, Alex had made his first break to rover while his other ball was on 2, conceding contact. In the closely fought tussle that followed James eventually made it to rover and peg while Alex reached peg and peg, but as the time-limit passed Alex was only able to peg out one of his balls. With Alex's other ball by now on the north boundary behind 2, James was able to make rover with a long roll-up off partner, but could then only roll partner to within about 5 yards of peg before pegging out his own ball to draw level. So we had a sudden death 2-ball peg vs. peg finish for not only the game but also the whole match! With the tension huge and the longer shot to play, Alex missed and ended up several yards away from the peg; then James shot ... and hit the peg to seal yet another +1 win for the day and a 5-4 margin for Cambridge, their first win since 2002.
A great competition, thanks to Hurlingham for hosting it, and a credit to all the players on both sides.
The Oxford team
The players and referee
The Cambridge team
|Scores (Cambridge names first)|