By Ian Gillespie

Hastings Priory finished the truncated 2020 season with a resounding 135-run defeat by local rivals and group winners Eastbourne at Horntye Park in their final August Cup fixture on 29th August. The result sent Hastings to the bottom of their group on run rate, having only managed one victory in five matches, a narrow 9-run success in their opening fixture against Haywards Heath.

With the club returning to the Premier Division of the Sussex Cricket League next summer, when a full season of cricket will, we hope, be resumed, there will need to be some soul searching and hard work if the club is not to make an immediate return to Division One, having been promoted as champions just last year.

PICTURE: Dave Young

A trait of Priory’s cricket in recent seasons has been playing well for periods of the game but having a poor hour or session which has undone much of the good work. In the opening games  – a warm-up friendly victory over Mayfield and the narrow defeat of Haywards Heath – there was reason to think this had been corrected: the team bowled with purpose and backed it up with intensity in the field. Opening bowlers Adam Barton and Adam Pye attacked with aggression and were complemented by the strength of the team, spinners Jed O’Brien, Elliott Hooper and Adam Page, while captain Tom Gillespie demonstrated his growing maturity and tactical awareness. And the bowling unit continued its excellent form against a strong East Grinstead team, restricting them to 201: Hooper and O’Brien excelled with the ball, and the fielding again demonstrated resilience and intensity. At the heart of the fielding unit was the outstanding wicket-keeping of Joe Billings, a former Sussex Academy player, who was exemplary throughout the season.

However, the batting frailties were beginning to show, and whilst the team did just enough to see off the Heath, they fell short against the more experienced Grinstead. Too many players failed to adapt to the conditions and showed technical failings or tactical naivety in pressure situations. The exception to this was Joe Billings, who scored successive 50s.

These failings were exacerbated at Cuckfield where Priory were asked to bat on a wet wicket and slumped to 42-6 before the evergreen John Morgan demonstrated his experience, making an invaluable 77 not out off 77 balls to give the Priory innings a sense of respectability. But the West Sussex side overhauled the eventual total of 172 with the loss of only two wickets.

The loss at Mayfield was especially disappointing after the same side had been beaten a month earlier in pre-season. Again, it was a poor batting display which doomed the visitors to a crushing 55-run defeat. Only Hooper (64) and Greg Devlin (43) got to grips with the situation. Indeed, Devlin made several useful middle order contributions, which is encouraging for next season.

Eastbourne, one of the favourites for the Cup, demonstrated the gulf in class between the top of the Premier League and their newly promoted hosts, which Priory will need to address over the winter if next season is to be successful.  Against a score of 254-6 in 40 overs, the home team were bowled out for only 119. 

Horntye cricket in 2020: a pavilion with exterior dressing room
PICTURE: Dave Young

Whilst the season was a disappointment overall, there were some mitigating factors, and also some significant signs of promise to build on. In terms of mitigation, pre-season preparation had been rendered very difficult by the late decision to allow competitive matches. The Horntye ground was underprepared, a consequence of the combination of staff absent on furlough and a particularly dry summer. The batsmen suffered more than most from inadequate practice wickets. Lack of quality preparation can lead to errors at the crease and a subsequent loss of confidence, apparent in a number of batsmen as the short season progressed.

By way of encouragement, the bowling and fielding were good and sometimes excellent. The spin bowling is a real strength, with Hooper and O’Brien leading the way and Page demonstrating his progress. It was also great to welcome experienced off-spinner Josh Beeslee back in action. Perhaps the only issue was a lack of penetration with the new ball, but Barton, Pye and Morgan all have the potential to trouble the best batters on their day. As previously stated, in Billings the club has an outstanding keeper.

The batting is problematic, and too often this season was unable to rise to the challenge. Too often batsmen sold their wickets cheaply, and seemed to crumble when under pressure or fall to technical deficiencies; those who did get a good start failed to go on and capitalise with big match-winning contributions. The club doesn’t enjoy the depth of batting to compete for places as it has in the spin bowling department. It will need to address this with shrewd recruitment for next season, especially of an experienced overseas batsman. The existing players must also step up. There is no reason why they cannot do it – all of them can point to high quality personal performances at Premier League level in the past. Hard work should bring consistency and confidence.

Here’s to next year being as hot, dry and sunny as 2020, but without the Covid-19 threat – and a rejuvenated Priory tackling the challenges of Premier League cricket in what could be the club’s final season at Horntye.

Ian Gillespie is first team coach at Hastings Priory.

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