Crichard signs off in style in light blue triumph

The University Match, 4th day

 Cambridge University 225 & 417-7dec beat Oxford University 212 & 214 (Gnodde 54, Crichard 6-68) by 216 runs

 There are some bowlers who are hard to define: the type who defy the established science and the biomechanics of cricket. Sometimes they’re off, disjointed and sporadic. Sometimes they’re on, and wicket-taking becomes a game of when and how many.

These bowlers are talked about in “rhythm”, an intangible quality that cannot be purchased nor discovered. Rhythm dictates that these bowlers are very rarely an intermediary of the extremes. Many fast bowlers have been led around the globe; undergone intensive analysis in talent labs; remodelled their actions; all in search. But rhythm is nothing if not natural. The run-up, the delivery stride, the seam position, the grip, the angle of the wrist at release: there are so many variants to refine about a skill so fundamental to the game of cricket. But sometimes it can be best to just bowl, and to bowl fast. Only then does bowling breathe an air of rhythm.

In the twenty20 fixture, Ruari Crichard produced figures of four overs, two wickets for eight runs. The breakneck pace, rampant home crowd and unrelenting attack married viciously to strip away the Oxford-middle order; desperate for bat on ball in a fixture where the leave is scarcely a club in the bag.

In the time it took for the ball to rasp the outside edge and carry through to the willing gloves of Patrick Tice, the lighter shade of blue could be confidently engraved as the victor. The shortest format can be like that, defined by an inorganic tempo. But the 4-day game is unique, and rhythm isn’t simply a by-product of loud boundary music, Mexican waves, and beer-guzzling western terraces.

Across the four days at Fenner’s, no player slotted into the rhythm of play as naturally as Ruari Crichard. In 2015, the last Varsity 4-day fixture to take place at Fenner’s, Crichard took an influential 5-62 in the first innings to consign Oxford to a deficit of almost three hundred runs. But in the second innings, Matt Hughes plundered 116, and the Cambridge fast bowler was unable to reproduce in going wicket-less. Even a paltry stimulus then; a drinks break; a sightscreen alteration; can evaporate the finest flow.

Here, Crichard bowled 50.4 overs across eight spells, claiming two individual 5-wicket-hauls, 11 wickets in total, and a first match 10 wicket-haul in the University Match since 2006 to boot. He bowled spring-loaded early morning spells, tough late spells, ravenous overcast spells, and day four lactic acid-defined spells. More crucially, every delivery of every spell was bowled from the pavilion end: the opposite end to where Jonny Marsden had visibly extracted steep and unpredictable bounce on day one. Ask those in possession, and rhythm in the longest format has an indispensability.

On day four, Crichard was every bit as good as the bowler who reduced Oxford to 22-4 in the moody skies of Tuesday evening. Relentless in line, and draconian in swinging the ball back into the Oxford top order, Crichard provided no relief throughout a difficult day. Where other members of the Cambridge attack looked one-dimensional at times (Tim Moses’ length became almost exclusively short, and Nick Winder struggled to use the foot-holes effectively), Crichard became a necessity with his unremitting ability to break any meaningful stronghold.

Each wicket, one early, one immediately before lunch, one immediately after lunch, and three in a final devastating bout, tipped the Varsity scales further irrevocably towards Cambridge. Of the right-handers in the Oxford side (of which there are nine), Crichard failed only to dismiss Alex Rackow – the standout batsman of the affair. There is an element of serendipity that on the last day of his final Varsity appearance, Crichard should seal the light blue victory, crowning one of the finest modern bowling performances seen in the illustrious fixture.

Oxford were utterly admirable all day, and for a large chunk of play batted positively and intelligently towards the epic total. Matt Hughes and Dan Escott started in the same vein as they had finished a counter-punching evening session; the second over of the morning session yielding sixteen runs and exquisite timing from Hughes’ blade.

Then in the space of nine balls, the embryonic run chase grinded to a halt. The pitch proved a willing ally for Crichard’s first dismissal of the day (the sole wicket that can be attributed in that manner), spitting up a back-of-a-length delivery that Escott could only fend straight back, and Tim Moses from the other end removed the walking highlight reel Hughes.

Statistically, the most prolific partnership in the Varsity series is between Jamie Gnodde and Matthew Naylor. The pairing complement excellently, scoring wildly contrasting fifties at Lord’s, and entering the fray just minutes apart here, both looked eminently comfortable from the offset. Whilst Gnodde was keen to make use of his wooden sweet-spot early, unleashing leant drives and a ridiculous flat pull for six off James Poulson, Naylor remained neat, working the ball of his legs dexterously and cutting any width ruthlessly. A fifty-partnership brought up off eighty-seven deliveries blunted light blue ambition, and even persuaded Tice to at times to withdraw troops from the multitude of close catching positions around the bat.

So, who better to re-ignite the challenge than Crichard. Ten minutes before lunch. A jaffa that seamed away and rasped the outside edge of Naylor. Game on. Then another, twelve balls into the afternoon session now: Nick Taylor bumped out by Crichard, gloved up straight to gully.

In a nod to the confidence retained in his fast bowler to do his best work with the new ball in hand, and the existing hole he had punched in the dark blue middle-order, Tice did not call upon Crichard again for a period of twenty-seven overs. Perhaps the situation may have charted an alternative course without the calamitous run-out of Gnodde.

After bringing up his half-century off ninety-three deliveries, Gnodde remained glued on 54 for five overs. After punching into the off-side off Tim Moses, Gnodde set off immediately for a quick single that would move himself off the score, but was sent back by Alex Rackow. The game seemed to run in slow motion momentarily as Alistair Dewhurst collected cleanly and rifled at the stumps: skipping abruptly back into normal time as Gnodde dived into frame in desperation for his crease only for the throw to clip finely the very top of the off-stump bail. The ensuing carnage of light blue fist pumps and roars was the first time on the day that Cambridge had become unshackled and wild in their celebrations: a prelude of what was to come.

As a fluent 23 from Rackow came to an end, the dismissal of Gnodde still heavy on the mind, the dark blue positivity transitioned to resistance: a bastion in the form of Jack Harrison was erected. In the run-up to tea, Harrison and Toby Pettman absorbed 139 largely chanceless (Pettman was dropped by Tice diving across first slip) deliveries for the addition of just 17 runs. As Nick Winder hopped, skipped, and twirled his way through twenty attritional overs, an array of slips and helmet-clad short-leg, leg gully, and silly point lay in wait. Still Harrison remained inert, offering little but fortitude and a straight bat.

By a quirk of the over rate, there were still fifteen minutes stretching out endlessly before the impending tea break when the scoreboard ticked to eighty, and Ruari Crichard stood atop his mark with a new ball in hand. With an action that transmits so much power into the delivery, so stark against the ambled stride of Tim Moses, a fourth relentless burst on the day seemed fanciful. But now, Crichard would get two goes. One before tea. One after tea. Both fresh.

This is an Oxford team containing seven first-class debutants: the highest figure this millennium. A side undoubtedly greener than the Fenner’s pitch; there is a feeling that most would have struggled against this final incarnation of Crichard, a bowler utterly unwilling to end on anything less than a victory. Just six balls after tea and both Pettman and Marsden were back in the now-empty shed; the final wicket on the pitch. Ten more deliveries was all it took, and Harrison could only glove the 108th delivery of his rear-guard straight to silly mid-on.

It will be greatly surprising if anyone is to bowl this well at Fenner’s again anytime soon