There are very few certainties in the wildly unpredictable cut and thrust of Twenty20 cricket – even the number of deliveries in the game is another soon to be lost (cc: ECB) – but The Parks remaining a fizzy Dark Blue fortress for another year is surely one of them.
Oxford regained their T20 Varsity crown in emphatic style on Friday afternoon, The Blues extending an unbeaten home record against Cambridge’s lighter shade that now stretches back nine years and ten fixtures. There have been last-gasp triumphs and epic encounters, but this crushing victory will live long in the memory; the day that Oxford cracked the code.
Records fell early, continued to tumble like rows of jägerbombs at the Fever bar, and had been scorched sensationally by the end of an intoxicating first hour of play as Oxford found red hot form and an express route to the boundary rope.
Captain Dan Escott won the toss and showed no hesitation in batting first on a pristine deck, although he himself dropped to batting at three in the order, allowing Pembrokian left-hander Jamie Gnodde to open up – nullifying the key threat of Cambridge’s opening slow left-armer Tom Balderson.
Gnodde and Matty Hughes settled themselves with two watchful overs yielding just two runs, before exploding into a clinic of controlled, aggressive stroke-play. A first boundary off the blade of Hughes sparked a second, then a third from Gnodde; in the blink of an eye and a flash of willow the duo had scored nine boundaries in the space of ten balls and raced to 51 for no loss off five overs.
Gnodde progressed through the gears, seeing it like a pink cricket ball initially but evidently more a beach ball by the time the powerplay overs had concluded – the analogy reinforced by the prolonged periods the ball seemed to spend in the sky as it arced off the bat and evaded Cambridge fielders: the placement perfect even when the timing was miscued.
When Gnodde eventually fell for a magnificently crafted 76 off just 35 balls, he and Hughes had eviscerated the complete collection of Cambridge bowlers and seared past the first-ever century opening stand (126 in total) in the fixture.
Hughes, who had set the chaos whirring into motion, was sensational at the other end and repeatedly dipped onto one-knee to dish out punishment of the highest order: cross-batting for six in the eyeline with hand-speed matched only by dexterous paddles and scoops. It was a third consecutive half-century in the T20 fixture for last year’s captain and his quickest yet – a phenomenal achievement in the context no man has ever even registered a second.
Such was the gulf in class between the two sides, there may have even been room for a personal battle between the two openers as Gnodde nudged himself to 76 and onto the leading individual score in the fixture. Cambridge learnt the hard way that a man who has struck 82 against a touring Afghanistan side (cricket’s newest global power) should not be serve as an invitation to shuffle a pack of medium-paced options.
A series of late cameos, and some punishing strokes from Alex Rackow, pushed the Dark Blues beyond 200 and to yet another record: a mammoth total of 214-6.
By the time opening bowler Kartikh Suresh returned to deceive the Oxford middle order to take a flurry of late wickets with an array of slower balls, the damage had been done and Oxford had been handed a first glimpse of the strategy to negate the lethally fast outfield.
To say Cambridge were never in the chase would be a slight distortion of the truth, but from the moment Hughes castled captain Darshan Chohan’s stumps with the very first ball, Cambridge were, more or less, for better or worse, out of the chase. The Parks erupted into a cauldron of noise and the Dark Blues were not in the mood for mercy, tightening the screw willingly.
Alistair Dewhurst showed stout resistance for the visitors with some fine ingenuity behind square of the wicket. As time passed still he stood, a scaffold upon which no actual building work was taking place; partners coming and going; no batsman lower in the order emerging into double figures to tell the tale.
Eventually Cambridge reached the halfway point. The problem was that it was it came in the 17th over.
A full scorecard, and a report of the Women’s Blues 106-run win will follow in Friday 25th May’s paper.