Andrew Radd - Bewitching tale of Ashby’s rise and rise up the league

THE perils of idle gossip have never been better illustrated.

In the summer of 1785, the talk around Mears Ashby centred on whether Sarah Bradshaw was a witch or not.

The upshot was a ‘trial’ by ducking in the village pond – and the poor woman’s innocence was only proved at the cost of her life, on the basis that she sank to the bottom and therefore (according to some bizarre reasoning) hadn’t been dabbling in the dark arts.

Sarah’s supposed offence wasn’t mentioned in the contemporary newspaper report.

Putting the tea in before the milk? Failing to bring her jam to a rolling boil?

Or maybe speculating that one day the cricketers of the village would compete with teams drawn from some of the grandest clubs in the county?

If the latter, she was far-sighted indeed. Spookily so.

Five successive promotions have propelled Mears Ashby into the Northamptonshire League’s Division Seven this season – and their 2012 opponents include, amongst others, sides representing Old Northamptonians and Wellingborough Town.

“We didn’t come into the league until 2005 and before that we were basically just playing Sunday friendlies,” says secretary and Second XI captain Steve Micklewright.

“Obviously we had some pretty decent players at the time – people like Graham Kinnear – so, although we were getting a bit old, we had a good side!

“It took us a while to really get into it, and we weren’t promoted until 2007.

“But it seems to have been a steady progression since.”

He’s not kidding. Three titles, a runners-up spot and third place in Division Eight last summer have marked them out as one of the NCL’s most upwardly-mobile clubs.

And much of that early success was down to the aforementioned Kinnear, who has scored nearly 4,000 runs and claimed over 160 wickets in their seven league campaigns to date.

“He certainly dominated in the early years,” continues Micklewright.

“Graham doesn’t play that regularly now (10 matches last season), but he still manages runs and wickets so he’s a useful chap to have around.”

The present organisation started up in 1971, growing from the football club in the village, and developed a programme of Sunday and midweek fixtures.

A couple of stalwarts survive from early-1980s – chairman Kevin Gardner and Jamie Chamberlain, whose brother Tim now adds his experience of local cricket’s higher echelons to the Mears Ashby mix.

“Graham and Tim have both played at the top end of the league in the past,” Micklewright explains.

“And we also have Mike Pennington, who I think came up through the Lancashire junior ranks with Andrew Flintoff.

“He married a girl from here and has been with us for five or six years. He’s brought a bit of professionalism with him.”

But there’s also a home-grown cricketer of some repute in the Mears Ashby annals.

Born at the Hall – the ‘big house’ in the village – Herbert Edward Stockdale settled on a military career and rose to the rank of Brigadier-General in the Royal Artillery, serving in the Boer War and the First World War.

He also played a lot of cricket.

As far back as 1891 he had a few games for Northamptonshire and not long afterwards, following a posting to India, turned out for Bombay against Lord Hawke’s XI on the Gymkhana ground in what’s now regarded as a first-class match.

Stockdale bagged a pair, sadly – but did have the satisfaction of picking up a couple of wickets, including that of Hawke himself.

A regular for MCC, Lord Lilford’s XI and Northamptonshire Club and Ground, he looked the part by all accounts: ‘Many will remember his stance at the wicket with bat lifted, reminiscent of the well-known picture of WG Grace,’ recorded the County yearbook at the time of his death in 1953.

You can’t help thinking the old soldier would have been very proud to see his native village prospering on the cricket front, with two league teams now taking the field each weekend.

“The club had too many people for one side but not quite enough for two,” recalls Micklewright.

“We took the plunge (the Second XI joining the league in 2008) and for the first couple of years we had deals with ONs and then Wollaston to dual-register some of their younger players.

“They then formed extra teams to bring their youth team cricketers through themselves – so we decided to go it alone.

“It was difficult at the start, but it seems to be coming together now.”

A new innovation this season is a ladies’ side – a forward-looking development which may conceivably have prompted a quiet splutter from Brigadier-General Stockdale.

They had their first-ever fixture last Sunday and beat Thrapston by five wickets, thanks largely to an unbeaten 68 from former Northamptonshire player Angela Bartlett – who also features for Mears Ashby in the NCL along with another County representative, Danielle Houlden.

The pleasantly open Earls Barton Road ground is another obvious plus-point for the club.

“It’s small and can be a bit bleak sometimes when it’s windy,” says the secretary.

“But when the weather’s good it’s a different story.

“We played Overstone last weekend, and when the sun shone in the evening one of their lads commented it was just a lovely place to play cricket – which it is.”

Former Northampton Town League maestros Caribbean United will sample its delights this afternoon – and a win for the villagers could kick-start their season after a low-key opening.

But – realistically – how much further up the league ladder could they (or would they want to) climb?

Micklewright adds: “We’ve retained a bit of the Sunday ethos in that we’re a very sociable club.

“And we wouldn’t want to get to the stage where we were bringing in ringers and things like that.

“We’ve obviously done a lot better than we’d anticipated over the past few years – but if we got to somewhere around Division Five and were able to hold our own there I think we’d be happy with that.

“This season a lot of us old fogeys have gone down into the seconds, and we’re trying to get some of the younger players into the first team with a captain – Jack Gardner – who’s only 20.

“So it might not be a great summer for us this year – but we think it’s the right way to go.”

And who knows? Continued cricketing success might even persuade the ghost of sad Sarah (which is said to walk on the anniversary of her demise) to haunt the descendants of her tormentors no more.

Or maybe not.