PORT Talbot Town notched up another first at the weekend when they went to the top of the South Wales Premier League for the first time since the league’s inception in 2010, following a hard-fought winning draw with a determined Ammanford at The New Mansel.
Two whirlwind half centuries from the two Thomas’s, Ian and Anthony, and another impressive display from young speedster Richard Edwards gave Port Talbot the greater share of the spoils, although Ammanford were still in with a chance until the final over when they opted to settle for the draw.
In stark contrast to last weekend, match day dawned blustery and overcast. Port Talbot were without captain Dan Cherry and leading spin bowler Stuart Phelps, which meant a major rejig of the line-up. Wicketkeeper Dean Cox again took over as skipper, with Dean Morris recalled for the first time since the last match of the 2010 season. There was also a debut for 18-year-old off spin bowler Jake Watts, whose father Kevin made two appearances for the first team in the late 1990s and is now captain of the third XI. Cox won the toss and decided to bat first.
The Ammanford opening bowlers found movement early on and beat the bat several times, with Sean Griffiths and Ian Thomas having to show good judgement and due diligence in testing conditions. Griffiths, who had made 50s on his previous two first team outings, again looked in good touch but was beaten by a superb delivery from Matthew Donoghue that nipped back to hit off stump when he had reached 11, with the score 35 for one in the ninth over.
Thomas had begun in his typical domineering form, striking the ball well and with authority. Whenever Donoghue erred in length or direction, Thomas took full advantage with three early boundaries. Meanwhile, Alun Evans, bowling from the Westlands End, was having precious little luck for his efforts having had Griffiths put down from a difficult chance and troubling Thomas with a probing spell on or just outside off stump.
Glamorgan’s Alex Jones was sent in at number three, playing purely as a batsman with the county opting to rest him from any bowling duties because of a slight back strain. An early mix-up with Thomas saw him stranded yards short of his ground at the non-striker’s end, but the throw was wayward and Jones survived. It took him 22 balls and almost half an hour to get off the mark as Ammanford kept a tight rein on him both with the ball and in the field. Eventually, however, runs began to flow as Jones and Thomas built a solid platform.
Thomas again exhibited the power and discipline that have been the hallmarks off his excellent form this season. Content to keep the scoreboard ticking over, Thomas was also quick to capitalise onto any scoring opportunities with 10 boundaries in his 50, which took only 67 balls. Jones was also now into his stride, with a pair of boundaries and a six in quick succession, as the pair put spinners Matthew Fisher and Andrew Salter under pressure.
The partnership ended at 75 when Jones advanced down the wicket only for Salter to spot him and spear in the delivery wider past the batsman for Slade to complete the stumping. Jones went for a well compiled 26, but at 110 for two in the 26th over, Ammanford were now confronted with an ominously set Ian Thomas and an in-form Anthony Thomas coming out to join him.
Ian Thomas struck Salter for a big six into the car park, but was then bowled behind his legs for 65 attempting a sweep off the same bowler, leaving the total at 130 for three. The visitors were understandably jubilant to see the back of a man who had taken the Sully attack to the cleaners a fortnight earlier from a similar position. Thomas, although disappointed, could still be pleased with another valuable contribution, with 10 fours and a pair of sixes coming from his 81-ball stay.
With his senior partner now gone, Anthony Thomas took on the role of aggressor as Port Talbot looked to build on their good foundations. After playing himself in cautiously, Thomas exploded into life in a thrilling display of hitting that cheered a packed crowd and threatened to take the game irretrievably away from the visitors.
Thomas had scored 18 from his first 37 deliveries and was timing the ball beautifully, although Fisher, in particular, was doing a good containing job. He had struck one enormous blow already with a towering six out of the ground over the children’s play area but at 150 for three after 39 overs, Ammanford could have been forgiven for feeling they might restrict the hosts to a score of no more than 220.
Thomas, however, soon dispelled any such notion as he took 20 off the next over from Salter, including two enormous sixes both straight back over the sightscreen
Mark Cox, who had had the best seat in the house as Thomas blazed away, went lbw to the consistent Fisher for six out of a partnership of 47 at 170 for four. Thomas reached his second consecutive 50 of the season from only 56 balls as Evans brought himself and Donoghue back on to complete their respective spells and try to stifle Thomas, who had survived a chance to long on just after he had passed the half-century mark.
However, they were now on a hiding to nothing and Thomas hammered Donoghue over the trees at long on before another huge blow off the same bowler, over the hospitality box, took him to the landmark of 50 league sixes for the first team, an impressive achievement in only his 71st innings.
Ryan Evans had kept things moving at the other end with a sprightly 10 at just over a run a ball before mistiming a drive off Donoghue and giving Alun Evans a simple catch at extra cover. The 200 came up in the 46th over, and Thomas was now eyeing up a maiden league century as well as a score of 240 to 250 for his side. However, at 221 he rocked back to pull the returning Salter over the deep mid wicket boundary and picked out Rhydian Harries just inside the rope.
Thomas left to well-earned applause after equalling his best league score of 79 from just 73 balls with four fours and six sixes. Dean Morris and Dean Cox kept the momentum going with an entertaining late partnership of 25 from 17 balls as the Pirates secured maximum batting points.
Some miscalculations with the overs meant the four front-line bowlers had all bowled out their allocations with two overs still to go. Rhydian Harries and Hedd-Wyn Jones were called upon for one over each, with Jones picking up Morris from the last ball of the innings for eight when Evans held a good low catch running in from long on.
Cox had struck three boundaries in his unbeaten 17 from only 12 balls as Port Talbot closed on 246 for seven, with 96 of those coming from the last 11 overs. Salter had picked up three important scalps – but at price, as figures of three for 86 from 12 overs indicate while Donoghue finished with two for 66. Fisher took one for 32 in an accurate and consistent spell from the Motorway End, while Evans could count himself unlucky not to take a wicket in his 12 overs, which cost 36.
Fisher struck an early boundary off Ian Thomas in the reply, but then snicked a catch behind to Dean Cox with the score at 15 in the fourth over, Richard Edwards with the wicket to confirm his growing reputation. This brought Evans to the wicket, and he announced his intentions with a dismissive pull shot for four first ball off Edwards.
Ammanford had broken up their longstanding opening pair of Harries and Fisher this season, with the former now occupying a place in the middle order and left hander Rhys Davies promoted to open. It was tough going for him early on as Thomas and Edwards put him under pressure with some testing deliveries. Evans, meanwhile, was looking dangerous with some excellent timing and placement. He had reached 21 of a score of 43 when Dean Cox summoned the debutant Watts into the attack.
Few introductions could have been more dramatic. Watts spun his first ball sharply back into Evans before a delivery that went straight on took the edge of the former Glamorgan man’s bat and Dean Cox held the catch low down. Port Talbot were understandably ecstatic to see the back of one of the league’s pre-eminent batsmen, while for Watts it was an extraordinary story as he took a wicket with only his second ball in first team cricket. Just a year ago he was still playing third team cricket and until two years ago had been playing as a wicketkeeper!
However, Ammanford’s traditionally strong batting line-up now came to the fore as Salter joined Davies with the match in the balance. Salter rotated the strike intelligently to keep the run rate in check, while Davies, after a quiet start,started to find good touch with some superb boundaries. Watts continued to cause problems with his unorthodox bowling style in his first three overs before the batsmen became more accustomed to him, with Salter hitting him back over the top for six in what turned out to be his final over.
Lewis Jones, who had bowled impressively in a game-changing spell at Bridgend last weekend, came on at the Westlands End. However, both batsmen were now well set with Davies enjoying the extra pace on the ball and picking off some early boundaries as well as a straight six.
The 100 came up for Ammanford in the 22nd over as the runs continued apace. Davies cut the returning Ian Thomas for four to bring up his half century from 75 balls, and Mark Cox wasn’t able to stem the run flow in his spell either, with Salter striking him for two fours in an over to reach his 50 from only 49 balls and raise the 100 partnership between himself and Davies. Not only had the pair now put their side in a position of strength, the pace at which they scored their runs meant that going into the last 20 overs, Ammanford needed less than five runs an over.
Port Talbot desperately needed to find a way back into the match, and it was Edwards, returning from the Westlands End, who provided it when Salter played on for 55 with the score at 152 for three, the partnership having realised 109.
Cox now sensed an opportunity and Sean Griffiths’s introduction from the Westlands End provided more dividends when Davies’s long innings was ended by a slash outside off stump that went through to the Port Talbot wicketkeeper for his third catch of the match. Davies had played well for his 68, after an uncomfortable start, but the balance of power in the match was now shifting with Ammanford 164 for four in the 35th over.
Edwards and Griffiths continued to bowl incisively as the required rate began to rise for the visitors. Some 27 had come from nine overs since Salter’s dismissal, but with Rhydian Harries at the wicket, a proven match winner on more than one occasion, Ammanford still had hope of pulling off a win. Harries looked in good nick, but his side then suffered a critical blow as Dean Morris took a marvellous reaction catch above his head at square leg to dismiss him. The visitors were now 179 for five, with 68 required from 11 overs.
Cox now went for broke, and kept his quickest bowler, Edwards, on to finish his spell. His efforts were rewarded when he trapped George Harvey leg before with the score at 184. Edwards would finish with career-best figures of three for 46 from his 12 overs, and gave further proof that here is a young man of immense promise who continues to show improvement every time he plays.
The match was by no means over as far as Ammanford were concerned, with 63 required from the last 10 overs. However, Slade and Hedd-Wyn Jones elected to play with caution and ensure their side would not be put under a late victory charge by the Pirates. Griffiths finished an eight-over spell to finish with figures of two for 29, and it was left to Ian Thomas and Lewis Jones to try to put a few tremors in the Ammanford camp late in the piece.
Slade and Jones kept them at bay with a determined stand of 30 before the former mistimed a drive on the up in the 47th over, and Griffiths took a relatively comfortable catch running towards the boundary at extra cover. The match was now all but safe, but there were still some valuable bonus and draw points to play for.
Ammanford needed 24 from the final over, but more realistically two more runs for an extra batting point, three more for one extra draw point and 13 more for two extra draw points. The first two targets were knocked off, but from the last ball, Hedd-Wyn Jones went for the big hit with three required to get to 236 and was bowled by Ian Thomas for 24. The eighth wicket gave the Pirates an extra bowling point and a total of 18 for the day, while the visitors had to settle for 11 with their final score of 233 for eight. It had been an entertaining and hard-fought match, but the draw was probably the fairest result with neither side deserving to lose.
With Sully and Mumbles both losing, this result took Port Talbot to the top of the Premier League by a two-point margin. Next Saturday they travel to Ynysygerwn before two crucial home matches against Newport and defending champions Cardiff take the league campaign to the halfway point.