Irfan Puda-inspired Astley Bridge secured a top-12 place in next season’s Anthony Axford North West Cricket League by the skin of their teeth following a remarkable Saturday win at Salesbury.

This was not quite a winner-takes-all game as Salesbury still beat the cut and will be playing top-division cricket in 2024 courtesy of claiming seven points from a final-round game which saw them bowl Astley Bridge out for 92 but fail to chase the low target.

But both teams started the day knowing they could miss out.

Ultimately, this game was decided by Puda’s heroics. He firstly hit a vital 20 off 47 balls from number nine before taking a brilliant 5-16 from eight overs as Bridge claimed their 11th win from 23 matches, finishing ninth.

One of his wickets was Salesbury sub-professional James Bracey, caught at long-on for an innings-high 27.

Bracey, batting at number three, played two Tests for England against New Zealand as recently as 2021 and hit a double century for Gloucestershire in last month’s Metro Bank One-Day Cup.

“He got off to a good start, but it did almost feel like every single run was on him,” said Astley Bridge captain Matthew Hargraves. “No disrespect to Salesbury, but I felt they were relying on the pro a bit.

“It’s always a bit daunting coming up against someone like that with the record he’s got.

“But we felt we had a real chance if we got him early, which we did. He came down the track and tried to smash Irfan for six and was caught at long-on. It was a good catch (by Millen Patel).”

Opener Krishnan Patel top-scored for visitors Bridge with 21, while Elliott Simpson claimed 4-32 from 12 overs for Salesbury, who finished 11th, added to Ollie Wetton’s three wickets.

In reply, Salesbury reached 34-1, only for Bracey’s departure to spark a collapse to 60-8. A recovery followed to 83-8, only for Puda to strike again and Haaris Akhtar to take the winning wicket.

“Before the game, there were a few nerves - in both camps, to be honest,” continued Hargraves. “It was a bit of a crunch match.

“We were a bit nervous going into the second innings as well!

“But as soon as we got a few early wickets, we settled down and felt we had a real chance.

“Irfan was absolutely brilliant with the ball and bat. With the bat, I said, ‘Go and play your natural game, build a partnership’. That’s exactly what he did. I couldn’t ask for much more.”

So, once the dust settles on this close shave, how does Hargraves mastermind progression in 2024?

“We need to improve,” he said. “We were slightly unlucky with a few of the rained off games. We had a couple where we were in decent positions.

“A few new signings need to be made. We’re looking for a new pro (to replace Lesiba Ngoepe). We want a definite batter who can contribute a bit with the ball. That’s been a decent fit for us over the last couple of years.

“We’re re-signing Ulli (Bronkhorst, South Africa) as overseas amateur. He’s a great player and a great lad around the club, helping with junior training and things like that.

“A few of the senior players didn’t have the best season they’ve ever had. We need to step up next year.

“If we do, we can hopefully push for the top half of the top division.”

And on the first year of the NWCL, Hargraves added: “It’s been a great year.

“It’s been good to play at some new grounds against new faces. The lads have really enjoyed it, and it’s been fantastic for both leagues coming together like we have.”