Willow necking

view from carOn 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.


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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

6 responses to “Willow necking”

  1. ged says :

    Most Saturdays in the late 70s would be spent in the centre of Newcastle. .shopping with mum or, if unaccompanied by parents, hanging around in record shops. To get there in pre-Metro days would be the 521 bus. ..preferable to the 505, being a double decker. The top deck lifted you above the high fence of NEI Reyrolle…a very large engineering complex back in the days when Hebburn still had a shipyard and neighbouring Jarrow still (I seem to remember) had a Colliery.

    Reyrolle was one of several ‘works’ institutions that had sports grounds in the same way as Oxford colleges do…ridiculously over provided and maintained given the customer base. Swan Hunters, Ellison also had facilities..bowling greens, football grounds, social clubs…part of the fabric of tyneside life before Margaret Thatcher and glue sniffing shaped the 80s.

    From the top deck of the bus, depending on the traffic, you could usually catch 3 or perhaps 4 deliveries of the Saturday league fixture. This was the men playing cricket – a daunting and exhilarating prospect. ..would i ever be good enough?

    6 or 7 years later I opened the batting for the 2nd team and scored a hatful of runs for the u17s. The forbidding pavilion became a place for banter and under age drinking and the tattooing of memories onto the brain. The learning of cricketing and life lessons which shape character still.

    I still can’t pass a cricket ground without thinking of that 521 bus and wondering if i would be good enough…

    • chrisps says :

      Ged, that’s marvellous – all the way from defining what shaped the 80s to the significance of cricket seen from the bus. Hope you score a hatful this summer. Chris

  2. Dave says :

    When driving along New Road in Worcester you pass the King’s School cricket ground on the left. When a match is on, it is a scientifically verifiable fact (verified by me) that the bowler will always be walking back to his mark and you will not see a ball bowled. 25 years of living in Worcester have shown this to be true.
    I long for the King’s to pick a bowler like Bomber Wells who bowls off two paces and whose overs take less than a minute. Typically they have some 16 year old bowling off Michael Holding’s long run and even if the lights are at red the inevitable formula means that at best you only see him start his run up. Attempts to follow play in the rear view mirror have led to minor damage to the front bumper and difficulties with the no claims bonus.

    • chrisps says :

      Dave, one day you will finally see the bowler deliver and the batsman receive the ball at King’s. It will be so underwhelming, that you will abandon any interest in the sport. Please can you find a different route home so this doesn’t happen. Best wishes for the season. Chris

  3. backwatersman says :

    A lovely piece, Chris. My equivalent, as a non-driver, is spotting cricket grounds from trains. On my journey into work there’s one definite sighting (Radlett – where Middlesex sometimes play), one probable one near Flitwick (a very basic pavilion but some signs that a square has been cut) a possible in the outskirts of Bedford (grand half-timbered construction that might be a pavilion but no obvious square) and some signs of park cricket being played in Luton.

    The tricky one is Kettering. The ground (where Northants used to play) is directly behind the station but invisible from it because it’s hidden by a line of trees. These were planted by the club in the 1920s (my Grandad helped do it). The reason is that before they were there it was possible for a lofted straight drive to end up in a railway carriage and be carried off to Sheffield or brain some unfortunate old lady waiting on the platform. I suspect this helps explain why you rarely have an unobscured view of a ground from road or railway.

    Ged makes an important point about the decline of works cricket (it’s one of those pieces I keep meaning to write but never get round to.) In the ’50s Kettering (which is a fairly small place) had two leagues (Kettering Town and Kettering & District) mainly composed of teams from the various shoe factories, though the chapels and churches all ran sides too. J.L Carr edited their handbook.

    The biggest of the lot (and in a different league completely) were British Timken in Northampton. At the time Freddie Brown worked there as a Welfare Officer and he captained their team (when he wasn’t captaining Northants or England). A vanished world (and one that’s worth remembering when worrying about why cricket is – supposedly – becoming an exclusively middle-class sport).


    • chrisps says :

      Nick, thanks so much. I think you may have hit upon a publishing idea: cricket grounds visible from the UK’s major rail routes.
      Cricket clubs do have a ‘risk management’ motivation for screening their grounds from the world. With no Lord Denning around to take their side in the courts, I suppose they have to ‘take all reasonable steps’ to prevent old ladies getting brained. At Sale a couple of years ago, the Aussie import launched a ball out of the ground and onto the roof of a car parked in a neighbouring drive. He went over to the fence to apologise, but the couple left in a huff. He was still batting around an hour later and landed another six in their drive, just as they were returning home.
      With the decline of works cricket, presumably, has declined a particular route into employment: being very good at the game. In its place is the cluster of low paid roles in sports management and sports development.

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