Gloucestershire 201 (Price 59, van Buuren 58*; Dawson 4-44) and 191 for 4 (Hammond 109*; Barker 3-34) trail Hampshire 457 (Organ 118, Vince 95, Barker 50) by 65 runs

“We’ll be all right when we get to Cheltenham.” For generations of Gloucestershire cricketers these words have come as a comfort and a reassurance. However grim their season had been, a fortnight in the south Cotswolds would always improve matters. Some of the former players attending the PCA reunion at the College Ground today will have travelled to this élite outground with their confidence battered by defeats, only to leave it with fresh hope.

Well, surely not this year, or not this week at any rate. Graeme van Buuren’s team have yet to win a first-class game in 2022 and, barring a miracle that would strain the powers of Ben Stokes, Merlin and the Blessed Virgin combined, they are not going to win this one.

But somehow, Cheltenham never quite lets Gloucestershire’s cricketers down, nor indeed the spectators for whom this fortnight includes eight days of obligation. So much was plain just before five past seven when Miles Hammond edged Keith Barker to third man and thus reached his first century in 38 first-class matches, a sequence that stretches back to September 2018.

Earlier in that distant summer, the stylish left-hander had made his maiden century on the College Ground, against Sussex, on an afternoon when inevitable comparisons were made with his namesake. Since then, Hammond has batted well at times but never properly realised his rich promise. Today, though, the majority of his 16 fours, especially the cover-drives, were cleanly struck and his two sixes off Dawson were calculated blows.

Yet it will require a colossal effort for Gloucestershire to save this game. Earlier in the afternoon they had been bowled out for 201 and there seemed every chance they would suffer an innings defeat when they followed on. This was a little more likely on a day when 109.2 overs were bowled as the umpires sought to compensate for excessive heat on the first day and rain on the second. However, after seeming in danger of losing 18 wickets in three session when they were 111 for four in their second innings, Gloucestershire ended another long evening session just 65 behind and with six wickets in hand. It must seem like riches and when Hampshire’s coach, Giles White gathered his players on the outfield after close of play, he was probably reminding them they were still winning the match. Hammond’s achievement was to make such a meeting necessary.

The first hour or so of this extraordinary day had also gone dreamily well for Gloucestershire. Instead of seeing wickets falling in an unseemly clatter, as some had predicted, we watched Hammond hit five boundaries and Ollie Price play a fine supporting role. When Kyle Abbott overpitched, Hammond drove him through the covers three times in two overs. “Shot!” exclaimed someone in The Pig and Pallett who had started early. It should be noted that the P&P is a gazebo’d affair that serves as the Festival’s pub. There are certainly plenty of pallets under the beige canvas but the porcine presence is thankfully less evident.

Anyway, Hammond was looking secure, illusorily so, as it turned out. James Vince brought on Dawson from the Chapel End and the left-hander at once whipped him to the midwicket boundary. Three balls later he came down the pitch to repeat the trick and was smartly stumped by Ben Brown for 38. At that point in the day’s cricket, Hammond had made five fifties this season yet his top score was 75 not out. Dismissals when well set had scaffolded his recent summers

Almost at once, things got worse for Gloucestershire. James Bracey completely misread Dawson’s niggardly flight and drove his second ball back to the bowler. Now the home side were 93 for four and some gloomy fears were being realised. So the crowd’s applause for Price’s fifty, which he reached with successive fours off Abbott, might have been thought a little excessive had one not understood the local warmth that always informs this precious Festival.

But Hampshire were not to be resisted. They are finding ways to win games and ways to take wickets this summer. Having made a career-best 59, Price looked to work Felix Organ behind square on the leg side. It was a decent option and would have brought him a couple of runs had not Nick Gubbins anticipated the shot and dived to his right to take a brilliant one-handed catch. Twenty-one-year old Price stayed at the crease awhile as if unable to believe how his green world had mistreated him. Ryan Higgins came out and made 11 in 14 balls before losing his off pole on the stroke of lunch when playing a quite horrendous swipe across the line to a good length ball from James Fuller. Van Buuren, the Gloucestershire skipper, watched this dismissal from the other end and one doubts Higgins sat near him during the break in play. Abergavenny might not have been far enough away.

Undaunted, though, van Buuren went on to reach his own half-century after the break. His unbeaten 58 was full of the small man’s stock-in-trade: pulls, sweeps, cuts and wristy punches. At the other end, Gloucestershire lost their last four wickets in 11 overs to concede a 256-run deficit. No one fainted when Vince enforced the follow-on. Dawson finished with 4 for 44 but he was merely the best of a very good and varied bunch of bowlers.

In their first innings Marcus Harris and Chris Dent had survived 5.4 overs; they managed to face five balls fewer in the second dig. In the third over Harris drove a little far from his body at a ball from Barker and nicked a catch to Brown. Two overs later the same bowler sent Dent’s off stick flipping towards the dressing rooms. 17 for 2 and 14 for 2, the ball still very new in both innings; a side does pretty well if it can cope with starts like that.

And by now, of course, the game had rewound to 11.00 this morning when Price and Hammond were reconstructing their side’s first innings. They managed well enough some five hours later, too, adding a stand of 63 to their previous 76 before Price pulled the first ball of a new spell from Barker straight to Vince at midwicket. Bracey then batted uneasily for 45 minutes before edging Abbott to Dawson at second slip but van Buuren offered Hammond reassuringly steadfast company in light that remained remarkably playable. On the adjoining College Lawn, somehow inflated a hot-air balloon with a Glos. Cricket logo on its side. Meanwhile, on the cricket ground, more or less everyone applauded Hammond home. And to think that some of us had doubted Cheltenham.

Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications