On the road between Wrexham and Chester last week, I shot a look across the carriageway, above a hedge, to register a shape that had caught the corner of my eye. I snapped my head back to the road I was driving along. It hadn’t been a positive sighting.
Rubber necking is the practice of slowing a car to gaze at the aftermath of a road crash. It causes traffic congestion and probably a few prangs, and is widely condemned, although I think the curiosity is less ghoulish and more instinctive than its critics allow.
Willow necking has as the object of its flash of attention, cricket grounds or more valuable still, cricket matches in progress. Anybody who has driven to an unfamiliar club, perhaps on tour or for a Sunday friendly, will know that most cricket clubs are set back from the road, fences or hedges shielding them from passing traffic. Rare is the uninterrupted view of an entire playing area. Therefore, sighting a ground from a moving car requires specific pattern recognition.
The strongest indicator of the presence of a cricket ground is something white projecting above the obstructions: possibly, the sight screens. The scent is stronger if combined with the inferred presence of open ground – that is, the absence of other objects (except perhaps mesh fencing) visible above or through the foreground barrier. A sight of an expanse of green can be the clincher, but football and rugby pitches can mislead. A simple, symmetrical building standing facing, not a road or other building, but apparently open land, is another clue that there’s a cricket club close by.
The mind of the willow necker processes this information in milliseconds, eyes returning to their principal role of guiding the car along the route. The sighting on the Wrexham-Chester route was discarded as my brain recognised the tall objects as both too thin and too patterned to be sight screens. Maybe rugby posts or a carpark barrier in the raised position.
The purpose of this behaviour could just be to enliven a journey. It could be to spot grounds where I have played – there is a club locally I like to pass by to glimpse the trees on the far boundary to where I hit the ball to win a match with a six. Or, as The Old Batsman described, to conjure with memories of matches one may have played.
But I find a pleasure in spotting grounds in areas where I’ve never played. Very occasionally, the setting inspires images of playing there (do read this piece by Third Man on the serendipitous delight of finding a beautiful cricket ground). More generally, though, I rationalise it as a desire to stay connected with the game; to feel its presence wherever I find myself. It’s an accumulation of shallow experience, not dissimilar to the very contemporary activity of chancing upon cricket fans on twitter and following them in the hope they might say something noteworthy.
If it’s a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and I see not just the arena, but the contest, my feelings are more complex. The amateur game is alive, which naturally pleases me. But I am struck that there are people managing to play a game of cricket on a day when I am not; managing to play in a season when I might get a few afternoons in my whites; probably playing for the umpteenth consecutive season when I have hardly played regularly for two decades. It seems so easy for others to play cricket when it is so much easier for me not to and at a time of life when it is becoming increasingly hard.
Willow necking, on those occasions, is like glancing from a cold, wet street through a window into the warmth of a family’s living room. It’s heavy with regret and yet cannot be resisted.
Many years ago, when cricket was still all promise and potential, my junior school appointed a new head teacher. He lacked the charisma of his predecessor and parents were wary. But I approved of his innovations: he insisted the school have a cricket team, which meant I had a short season of matches before secondary school and he inserted into the school calendar a trip to a cricket match.
One day in May 1980, around 40 kids boarded a coach chartered to take us across the county boundary into Northamptonshire to see a Bensons and Hedges zonal fixture – the identity of the opposition eludes me. The weather had been wet and it rained on our journey. On arrival, with the game in doubt, we stayed on the coach. I remember having my Playfair annual and seeking out players (for example, Viv Richards) who had been to grammar school – the form of secondary school to which I had recently been allotted. The game was abandoned before lunch and we left without entering the ground.
Back in Buckinghamshire, a few miles short of our village, the coach passed a green. Despite all the rain in the vicinity, there was a cricket match in play. From the passing coach we saw one delivery. A batsman swung, missed and a stump was knocked over. We cheered. Willow necking had brought us some consolation on an otherwise cricket-less day.