I’ve played on a few county grounds, by which I mean grounds where county cricket is played. Broad squares and unvarying outfields to chase a ball across. Empty seating, tiered in and around the grander than usual pavilion, and in long, white single lines, like the teeth of a vast mouth, curving around the boundary. The dimensions don’t quite seem to take account of the greater power and speed of the players who appear on days that the seating isn’t left vacant. But, I suppose tennis courts are the same size at Wimbledon as at my local club, despite the gulf that separates their users’ physical abilities.
My county ground experiences came during a couple of seasons as a marginal second XI pick playing in the Kent League in the early 1990s. Not once did the environs inspire me to raise my game. At Maidstone’s Mote Park, my only memory is of standing at slip being taught Gujarati expressions by the wicketkeeper to shout at our opening bowler. (What was I doing at slip in my twenties? Was I considered a specialist close catcher, or a liability in the ring?) At Dartford, I think it must have rained, although we were lucky to get there as the skipper’s mini metro vanden plas had sudden engine failure climbing a hill on the A2 with a juggernaut on our tail.
Both years, I was in line to play at THE county ground, Canterbury, but had to make myself unavailable because of friends’ weddings. Then there was Cheriton Road, Folkestone, which finished me off as a regular club cricketer in my twenties.
My home ground in those days, Blackheath, had until twenty years before my membership hosted the county team once or twice each season. In 1956 Tony Lock took all ten wickets in an innings there for Surrey and 16 in the match, three weeks before he more famously managed just the one in an Ashes Test at Old Trafford. But by the 1990s, our ground-share cousins, Blackheath RFC, were in the ascendancy. The toll their play took on our outfield meant we referred to the Rectory Field by an anatomical name that shared the same first syllable of its official title.
I had one other near miss. On tour, my college old boys side were due to play at Basingstoke. Having talked up the opportunity to play on one of Hampshire’s out-grounds, we faced a little disappointment to find the club had two pitches and we were on the second of those. Pudsey St Lawrence, also on tour, deservedly played on the main square. That afternoon did provide a little brush with greatness as each our batsmen found themselves being sledged by the 12 year old grandson of a West Indian Test player, who kept wicket for the club’s Sunday seconds.
These experiences of sharing space – if not cotemporally – with professional cricketers came to mind again this week, when no.1 son let on that he would be playing for his school team in a competition at Old Trafford. ‘I’ll see you a county ground and raise you an international venue’, he might have taunted me. But my disappointments looked likely to settle on him as the forecast for Friday was late September, Manchester, grim.
The forecast proved accurate, but Lancashire were very accommodating and turned over the indoor school to the competition. At lunchtime, he sent me a text: “..we’re into the final. Do you want to come and watch?” Wrapping up work for the week in mid-afternoon, I arrived and picked out no.1 son through the netting at the far end of the hall, fielding at third man. I watched the innings unfold, amongst students and school masters, parents and LCCC staff. After 20 minutes, I realised I had no idea of the state of the game. “Nearing the end now,” I was told. The team batting were losing wickets regularly and presumably shedding runs in the way of indoor match scoring. Finally no.1 son came on to bowl. The batsmen were in reckless mode. Two catches taken off successive balls. The next ball, straight and on a length, met by an outrageous attempt at a ramp shot and so, a first hat-trick. He finished his over and the match was done – a comfortable victory.
Players and spectators were invited to the pavilion for food and presentations. Multiple apologies were made for not being able to allow play to take place on the ground. No.1 son received the man of the match award for the final (he’d also “batted ok”, he said) from Lancs Head Coach, Glen Chapple, and his school team collected the trophy.
By way of entertainment, Warren Hegg interviewed Glen Chapple about coaching, what makes a cricketer, toughest opponent (Darren Lehmann) and why he’d been so difficult to captain – the former seeming far more comfortable in his role. “Wonder if any of the lads know who these two are”, whispered Umpire Rob. Probably not, I concurred. And perhaps that ignorance of who and what were in his surrounds served no.1 son well on his first time playing at (if not on) a county ground.
The running of the (white) balls
7 July 2017 – festival in northern Spain
The annual running of the bulls in the city of Pamplona pits several dozen men and women against a dozen bulls. The latter are released into the narrow streets, where they find the bull runners between them and their destination, the municipal bullring. Nobody died on the opening day of the festival this year. Five people were hospitalised, with injuries including the goring of one man in the chest and another in the scrotum. A third man suffered serious head injuries after being lifted and tossed by a bull.
Medics line the streets in a 21st century nod to human welfare as a tradition, of hundreds of years standing, continues to attract thrill-seekers and those with a need (and audience) to prove their mettle. So refined is the medical attention that, it is boasted, a victim of a goring will be stabilised within ten minutes of the incident.
7 July 2017 – festival in south-western England
2,000 people gather at the sports ground of a 176 year old college, where they double as spectators and targets for the twenty-two cricketers. The five and a half ounce missiles, cork encased in dyed white leather, have a long heritage, although not in their current hue. Much more recent is the dual role of those who stand and sit at the perimeter of the field. For decades, cricket fans have simply appreciated the action in front of them. Now they play an active part in the drama.
The day’s first casualty finds a ball narrowing in on him as he sits on a plastic picnic chair one row back from the fence. Two people ahead of him jump out of the ball’s way. He rises from his seat parrying the ball from his chest and is knocked backwards over the back of his chair. He lands heavily on his back and is carried away, strapped to a scoop stretcher.
Minutes later a ball sails over the boundary fence, skips off an awning below which diners are recovering their appetite and smashes into the tray of empties being carried by a waitress. Shards of glass tear at her hand and wrist. The ball is dried from the dregs it landed in and tossed back onto the field.
The spectators are now alert. When the next missile heads their way, it is caught competently by a local club cricketer. His view of the ball was cleared by a large man, from the local rugby club, sidestepping its path and landing heavily on the foot of a lady in sundress and sandals. She is lifted away from the incident, visible swelling suggesting a metatarsal fracture.
New Zealand’s former captain plays a short innings. He applies his famed strength and timing to just one delivery. It travels low, hard and fast through a gap in the field, bounces once inside the boundary, clips the top of the boundary board, which diverts it upwards in a direction unanticipated by those braced for its arrival. It catches its victim below the chin, breaking his jaw an instant before his teeth clamp and sever the tip of his tongue.
A high, long hit claims the afternoon’s last casualty. It soars to the back of the temporary stand, where a beery group rise to greet it, but succeed only in deflecting it onto the forehead of their neighbour who is treated on site, before exiting for concussion tests.
This Cheltenham College bloodbath is, with the exception of the concussion case, a fiction, departing from reality at some point after the ball is described crossing the boundary. It is not a fiction that has required a lot of imagination. One of these five incidents happened. The other four very nearly did.
The injured bull-runners at Pamplona do not attract much sympathy. They have willingly entered into a dangerous activity and suffered painful, but predictable consequences.
We do feel sympathetic for anyone injured watching a cricket match. “Should’ve kept their eye on the ball,” some might quibble, flinching as they remember turning to talk to a friend, or looking down at their newspaper, as the crack of a middled slog-sweep is heard.
But with sixes hit at a rate of one per 25 deliveries in professional T20 games, haven’t we reached the point where the need to evade or gain protection from balls smote over the boundary has itself become predictable? And if a risk is predictable, where does responsibility for its mitigation, or liability for its occurrence lie?
A little internet research reveals opposing views to this question in the UK and USA. In the judicature that covers the city of Cheltenham, case law points to sports clubs having responsibility for taking steps to counter reasonably foreseeable risks to the safety of the public.
Across the Atlantic, courts have sided with sports organisations, concluding that spectators understand and accept the risks of attending baseball or ice hockey matches. To place the liability with the franchise would, it is argued, increase their insurance costs, and push the price of tickets beyond the reach of those sports’ core fans.
Gloucestershire County Cricket Club may envy the legal protection enjoyed by the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they operate under the less forgiving legal code. What then, should the county club be doing to fulfil its duty of care?
I have three proposals which relate primarily to cricket played at occasional or festival venues, such as Cheltenham College. Spectators at purpose built professional grounds are less at risk. The playing areas are larger and the rows of fixed seats facing the middle help to keep spectators’ attention on the action. The ECB, with its plan to move to an eight team T20 league in 2020 may have the ultimate solution. These proposals are for interim precautions.
The pitch at Cheltenham was located off-centre. The distance to the nearer square boundary probably only just exceeded the minimum distance required by ECB playing regulations: 50 metres. That short boundary, opposite the college buildings, is where the majority of spectators were sat or stood. Sixes hit over the longer square boundary were highly unlikely to cause harm as so few people were in the line of fire. I would recommend that pitches at grounds like Cheltenham are central and certainly not closer to the square boundary where most spectators are gathered.
Protect areas where spectators mill
One of the pleasures of festival cricket is the promenading, dining, or standing and chatting in sight of the action. People thus occupied are distracted from the game and so less likely to be able to evade a ball hit towards them. Preserving the traditional pleasures of festival cricket needs to be balanced with the modern artillery of limited overs cricket. Protective netting can allow the two to coexist. Occasional grounds lack stands with roofs or double tiers, which could be used as a frame for protective netting. But a temporary net could be raised between the playing area and the concentrated zones where spectators expect to have sight of the match, if not their eye permanently on the ball.
Pad hard surfaces
The really unnerving moment at Cheltenham was when McCullum’s pull shot ricocheted from the lip of the boundary boards. Its pace and sudden change of direction would have defeated anyone but the sharpest slip-fielder. Grounds should ensure that the fittings erected between the players and the spectators do not exacerbate the threat to spectators. Padding around the top of boundary boards and other hard surfaces would absorb the ball’s momentum.
Unlike Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the running of the (white) balls is unlikely to last into the next decade at grounds such as Cheltenham College. The event’s passing will happen whether or not the safety of spectators from flying balls is given a higher priority. In the meantime, do not turn those spectators into unwitting bull-runners; or the players into bulls. John Simpson of Middlesex launched the six that hit the head of the man at the top of the temporary stand. Simpson held up play and walked towards the boundary, concerned for the injured spectator. He only allowed the game to restart when he saw one of the teams’ medics run across the outfield and climb the steps of the stand. The very next ball, mind perhaps not fully returned to the game, Simpson judged a quick single poorly, and was run out.
Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell wore down the Indian bowling in a partnership lasting nearly 80 overs on days four and five of the final Test at Nagpur in December 2012. The Warwickshire pair’s efforts were instrumental in defending England’s 2-1 series lead, recognised at the time as a great achievement and one that has not diminished since. Not only was it the last time India have lost a home series, but the Nagpur Test was the last time India have failed to win a home Test (other than a match reduced to less than two days play).
Since England’s visit, India have won 12 of the 13 Tests they have hosted. During this time, India have:
- never conceded a first innings deficit. India’s average first innings lead has been 157.
- won five games in less than three days play. Matches have lasted an average of 316 overs.
- won four matches while losing ten or fewer wickets. On average India have lost 14 wickets per victory.
- dismissed the opposition for under 200 thirteen times. They have conceded 300 or more only twice.
- recorded 14 individual hundreds and conceded just one (Michael Clarke).
- taken 19 individual innings hauls of five or more wickets and been on the other end of seven.
Home advantage has rarely been as telling in Test cricket as in the 2010s. But none of the other highly ranked Test nations have a home record as compelling as India’s since 2013:
- Australia: won 12, drawn 4, lost 0
- England: won 16, drawn 5, lost 7
- South Africa: won 11, drawn 4, lost 4
- Pakistan (in UAE): won 9, drawn 3, lost 4
- Sri Lanka: won 10, drawn 2, lost 5
India’s record as a host is even stronger than those of the West Indies in the 1980s and Australia in the 2000s – albeit over a shorter period than the peaks of these two dominant sides of recent years.
The source of that supremacy is rapidly apparent from a tabulation of aggregate bowling figures. India’s spin bowlers have taken almost twice the wickets at less than half the average and more than one run per over more economically than their opposition. The home team’s pace bowlers are also more effective.
Five spinners have played for India in these series, but two players dominate: Ravi Ashwin (99 wickets at 16.56) and Ravindra Jadeja (61 wickets at 16.47).
Looked at from the perspective of the batting (top 7 in the order) this picture, of course, persists: almost twice the batting average at a scoring rate faster by 25%. Che Pujara (1124 at 62.44), Murali Vijay (895 at 42.61) and Virat Kohli (853 at 44.89) are the heaviest scorers. Ashwin and Jadeja have each contributed over 300 runs as well.
|Batting (top 7)||Runs||Average||Strike rate||100s||50s|
To understand the causes of this run of home dominance it needs first to be acknowledged that it has come at the expense of four countries for whom the sub-continent conditions are particularly challenging: West Indies, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It is seven years since India hosted any of its neighbouring Asian nations for a Test series – Sri Lanka in 2009/10. Pakistan last visited nine years ago and Bangladesh, of course, have not yet had the honour.
Yet, India is no longer an exotic final frontier for the cricketers of non-Asian countries. There is now an annual migration in April. The format (T20) is different, but the climate, the pitches and the players are all made familiar. It has not, though, carried through into Test performances in the country. AB de Villiers (258 at 36.85), David Warner (195 at 24.37), Kane Williamson (135 at 33.75), Shane Watson (99 at 16) and Chris Gayle (100 at 25) are some of the highest profile IPL contract-holders who have under-achieved at batsmen in Tests in India since 2012.
India’s method of success, more often than not in this period, has been to choke their visitors on dry, dusty pitches favourable to spin bowlers. Slow bowling, the country’s traditional strength, has brought it unprecedented home success recently. To appreciate the change that has occurred, it is helpful to revisit where this post began – at Nagpur in December 2012. There, on a slow, dead pitch that grew gradually more worn over the five days, England secured a draw and the series victory. Three years later, South Africa played on the same ground. The match was over on the third day; 33 of the 40 wickets to fall were to spinners. India bowled only 17 overs of pace, without picking up a wicket.
The majority of pitches prepared for Tests in the period under review have been amenable to spin from the first day. In the case of Nagpur, a hot and dry location, this has produced far more compelling Test cricket than the alternative, were the pitch allowed to develop its flat, unyielding and slow character that England batted on for longer than the 2015 South Africa Test lasted. (Note 1)
Looking ahead to the England series, the local climate can be expected to deliver arid conditions for the first, third and fourth Tests (although October was wetter than normal in Gujarat, the state hosting the first Test). The visitors may prefer the option of a dead pitch on which they can dig in and force a draw, particularly for the first Test. It would be understandable and preferable from the neutral’s standpoint if the pitch preparation led to Ashwin taking the new ball and igniting puffs of dust early in the game. Rajkot, Mohali and Mumbai all appear to have the dry and hot weather that readily creates pitches on which this Indian team has been impregnable.
|Average monthly rainfall|
|Test||City||Date||Oct rain||Oct days of rain||Nov rain||Nov days of rain||Dec rain||Dec days of rain|
|1||Rajkot||9-13 Nov||19 mm||1||6 mm||1|
|2||Visak’nam||17-21 Nov||258 mm||8||115 mm||3|
|4||Mumbai||8-12 Dec||56 mm||3||17 mm||1||5 mm||1|
|5||Chennai||16-20 Dec||279 mm||11||407 mm||12||191 mm||6|
But the Indian sub-continent encompasses a wide range of climatic types. Average monthly rainfall in Visakhapatnam (2nd Test) and Chennai (5th Test) in the build-up to, and during their matches, is significantly greater than the summer rainfall in the damp north-west of England. The pitches, barring sustained and significant effort from the ground staff, will inevitably be moister and more friendly to seam bowling at those grounds (assuming the weather is in line with norms). We will get a feel for the extent to which the groundsmen in the country are willing, or required, to bend nature to the demands of India’s continued impregnability when the series reaches these two centres.
Test cricket benefits from a strong and interested Indian Test team. The sport also gains from fast-moving, exciting matches. I hope, though, that the pitches played on in this and future series reflect the diversity of India’s environment. And, even if England cannot breach India’s impregnability, stiffer challenges may come in the next 15 months with planned visits from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Note 1: Thank you to Nakul Pande for this observation, via Twitter, about Nagpur 2012 v Nagpur 2015.
Short pitch: Radcliffe CC
Yesterday evening, I wandered around the boundary at Radcliffe CC, watching an under 16 cricket match. The play was of a good standard, but subdued. The two teams had played each other the night before in an exciting Cup Final and this match, despite having the potential to be a league decider, was passing calmly. The scene was peaceful, too. The ground, in bright evening sunshine, was still, belying its elevated situation to the north of Manchester, Pennine hills visible to the east. Family and players from both teams, sitting on the terraced benches rising up to the pavilion, chatted amicably.
The ground stands on the site of an old race course and was first used for cricket in the mid 1870s and has been in continuous use for the sport for 107 years. For an urban-sited ground it is unusually spacious having not experienced the incursions from land sold for housing or from clubhouse extensions to earn the club fees from function room, bar or multi-sports facilities. The boundary, when the full field is in use, is marked by a narrow gutter and whitewashed low brick wall. There’s a low picket fence around one stretch of the field and whitewashed walls mark the club’s curtilige. The playing area shows devoted care that promises batsmen will get the full value of their shots. The outfield may be Test, let alone first-class standard. The square extends two-thirds of a central band running east to west across the ground. The tracks to the east, within 15 metres of the full boundary, are well worn, suggesting their use, not for junior matches but square practice with a mobile cage.
In the break between innings I climbed the steps to the pavilion bar. Charmed as I was by the ground, the bar brought even more treats. On a beam, above the picture windows looking out on the ground, that runs the length of the bar, were photos of each of the club’s professional cricketers. Worrell, Amarnath, Pepper, Sobers, Ramadhin, Pilling, Moseley, of those with instantly recognisable names. In an unlit corner, marked for sponsors, there was a sculpture of Sir Frank Worrell who had pro’d there from 1948-53.
As we drove away from the ground, I told my son that he had been playing at the club where Gary Sobers had played. “Was he famous then?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. He played Test cricket at 17 and held the record for highest individual Test score when he played here.”
“Why did he play here?”
I explained that there was very little money in the game for players before the 1980s and a professional in the Lancashire Leagues would be well paid for one or two days work a week. The key detail I didn’t have to hand, was that until the late 1960s strict residency qualification periods were in force for county cricket. For example, Bill Alley, synonymous with Somerset, spent five years playing league cricket in Lancashire before becoming eligible to join Somerset in his late 30s.
If Sobers had been born 60 years later, he would still have been forced to migrate to make a good living from the game. But not to Lancashire (or Nottinghamshire), unless perhaps for a four week contract covering the final stages of the county T20 Cup, but to Bangalore, Brisbane, Melbourne or Mumbai.
Radcliffe is quieter and less vital than in the heyday of the Lancashire Leagues. The buildings and areas beyond the boundary are looking worn, but good attention seems to be paid to the bit of real estate that matters – the bit in the middle. The junior section thrives and, from my experience of watching three games, has depth and a good friendly spirit.
Next year, the club breaks a tradition of almost 80 years. Radcliffe leaves the Central Lancashire League to join the new Greater Manchester Cricket League. New clubs, fresh players and followers will have the pleasure of playing on and spectating at its excellent ground and pausing in the bar to take in its heritage.
Short pitch: behind the bowler’s arm
In the debates about over-rates in the professional game, there is one cause of delays to play that everyone seems to decry: movement behind the bowler’s arm. Television cameras pick out the culprits who have strayed into the (periphery) of the batsman’s eyesight while commentators give supercilious tuts. At matches held at Lord’s or the Oval, there’s an additional edge to criticism of those the umpires wave at to shoo off to the side. It’s the members, the supposed elite, pampered, yet too ignorant to know where they can sit to watch the match.
In club cricket there’s a similar annoyance expressed towards folk straying behind the bowler’s arm. This, though, is true only of club cricket of a certain level. Sightscreens have value and significance beyond their ostensible purpose of assisting the batsman (and wicketkeeper) sight ball from the bowlers’ hand. In club cricket they are status symbols. Clubs wishing to compete in county leagues are required to provide sightscreens. A large chunk of club cricket is played without screens.
But within those higher echelon clubs, the targets of the players’ and umpires annoyance are usually: tennis players making their way to and from the courts on the far side of the ground; kids having a kickabout; young lads taking a short-cut across the park or the vice-captain’s new girlfriend and her pals. Several decades of observing these rituals of chastisement and chasing away have led me to a conclusion. Only very rarely are the people being shouted at actually in front of the sightscreens. Most usually, they are making their way around the ground behind the sightscreens.
What harm is done to the game by people beside or behind the sightscreens?
I strongly suspect that the players are fulfilling a convention of what they believe cricketers should do, rather than responding to a real threat to the ball being clearly sighted or to the players’ concentration. Tennis players, kids kicking balls and girl friends (non-cricket playing) are all inferior beings to the men in whites. Telling those people where they can and cannot stand, walk or play is an authority that is assumed once per week and is damn well going to be exercised. The tone of their shouted admonishment – a sort of bored ire – is of a kind with that used by dog walkers instructing their hounds away from brambles, streams and other natural attractions.
My suggestion for players is to keep their eyes on the ball. The sightscreen will help; a few people wandering behind them will have negligible impact.
I have one other query about sightscreens – what happened to those coloured duck-egg blue?
Short pitch: sodden pitches
Cricketers in my adopted home in the north-west are no more at ease with the challenges of the English summer weather than anywhere else I have played. Up here, though, there’s a willingness, an imperative even, to get out on the ground, at any opportunity.
On Sunday, our team was thwarted. A wet, stormy night was followed, in the hours leading up to the match, by bright sun and brisk wind. The outfield was playable, but when the covers were rolled away, great damp stains revealed that the rain had blown through and under the covers. Match cancelled.
This evening a gale blew as eleven youngsters, including no.2 son making his hard ball debut, attempted a practice match. The wind caught a sightscreen and tugged it off the cricket field, up against the tennis court fence, behind which tennis players cowered, refusing to continue their match. Quick thinking by the junior coaches nullified the threat: by removing the slats that make up the screen and catch the wind. Both cricket and tennis matches continued.
There’s an advanced art of playing the weather in this region. I once turned up at a ground where the rain had been falling all morning. We waited in the car park for an easing of the downpour before dashing to the pavilion. There were puddles on the outfield and on the sheeting that covered, but probably wasn’t protecting the square. It was the clearest case of a cancellation to my eyes.
But our skipper had spotted something: the opposition were represented only by their captain. The rest were in the pub down the road, he claimed. We waited for two hours. Our captain realised that we just needed enough of a break in the weather for the toss to be held and the home team, numbering one, would have to concede. The stalemate was broken when the home captain started phoning his teammates (or, possibly, anyone he knew locally) to get them to turn up at the ground and force our captain into accepting a cancellation. As they arrived, we left, a glimpse of maximum points washed away.
Short pitch: Ferrybridge
The sight of Mount Parnassus rising above the National Cricket Stadium in Grenada has become familiar to those of us following the 2nd West Indies v England Test this week. The dark green wooded slopes are speckled with white houses, which might give the best view from a domestic property of an international ground apart from the flats around the Oval.
Despite Grenada’s backdrop, the most striking image I have seen this week of the environment of a cricket ground is reproduced here.
The ground belongs to Ferrybridge ‘C’ Power Station CC in West Yorkshire. My coaching colleague, Abi Bates, played a match there for Vernon Carus. During that match, Abi said she thought it had begun to rain. It turned out to be condensate from the cooling towers.
That reminded me of my first club cricket ground: Chalfont St Giles, in South Buckinghamshire. It was situated close to an abatoir. Late in the afternoon, if the ground was downwind, smoke from the slaughterhouse chimney would drift, noxiously across the ground. It wasn’t something you wasted photographic film recording.
Lord’s, day three (at the Test with a teen)
Embed from Getty Images
Father and son, a day trip from Manchester to the Lord’s Test. So long anticipated. I’m excited, but all too aware what a risky business it is inducting these modern kids into the sweet, deep, almost shameful habit of watching a day’s cricket. There’s the hope he might want to accompany me for years ahead; the fear he’ll be bored or repelled by the kind of people who do this. And this day is an event: it’s not just me and mine, but my Dad, who first brought me to Lord’s 36 years ago, will be sitting with us in the Grandstand. I bet he wears a jacket and tie.
Potentially tricky situations with children are best managed (I know, because I’ve got it wrong with three of them) with food. Just let the usual rules lapse, don’t insist on token fruit or the presence of a pure protein. Say ‘yes’, much more often than ‘no’. Duck the battles, sway away from the arguments like we hope to see Kohli later having to deal with Broad.
But no.1 son has started the day feeling nauseous. Stuffed with pizza and two bottles of coke from his friend’s 13th birthday party on Friday evening. He turns down breakfast, which means we’re away to Piccadilly promptly, but accepts a croissant, although nothing to drink, at the station. It’s wet as our early train leaves town and it stays wet for most of the journey.
“A coke. Can I have a coke?” gasps the boy as we arrive in Euston. I buy myself an apple. “Fancy one?” I check. But it’s the sugar and the fizz he needs and gulps in the taxi to the ground.
‘What will he think of Lord’s?’ I wonder of this place I cherish visiting. Will its atmosphere, its confidence sweep him away? We queue at the North Gate. Tickets, bag search, body frisk and into the bright light of Lord’s flashing off white awnings, stands and media centre. “Is that where the commentators sit?” he asks of its blank, arced rear.
I steer him to the nursery sightscreen, to make his first sight of the 200 year old ground, the iconic view of the Pavilion presiding over the wide open outfield. “It’s not at all as I imagined,” he offers inscrutably. And, just as he has done when I take him to see his side at the Eastlands/Etihad Stadium, “Can we go straight to our seats?” I concur, although I want to stride around, spot players, ex-players, maybe even old pals.
Into the Grandstand and no.1 son spots Grandad, standing guarding our seats. He’s wearing a suit and tie. There’s warm welcomes, as befits an event: “Your first visit to Lord’s. Lovely, fantastic.”
Play is only 15 minutes away, so I dip back under the Grandstand to get coffee, tea and, for no.1 son, a packet of ready salted crisps, while he recaps his season so far. His first season where he has shone more as batsman than bowler.
Back upstairs for the start of play and I realise it’s not just bright, it’s hot. Some men a row behind us are taking off their shirts, looking sweaty as though they’ve joined in the Indian team’s fielding warm-ups. It turns out some hospitality box dwellers had tapped their yellow and red sun shade, sending last night’s rain smacking onto the £90 per ticket hoi polloi below. That remains a threat to the lower Grandstand for the rest of the morning. Them upstairs also shoot champagne corks, but these clear us and reach the outfield, where they sit looking like objects, sometimes seen on cricket grounds in public parks, that should be picked up and disposed of in plastic bags.
At noon, Grandad hauls in the first beer of the day and sandwiches – cheese for no.1 son. “It’s got pickle all over it” he hisses at me at a volume just below his Grandfather’s sensory range, as though I have conspired to place preserves in the least acceptable locations. I offer to find a replacement, but the nausea of 7am, 200-odd miles north has returned.
By the afternoon, when weathermen warned of storms, the sky is wide and blue. I’m happily roasting under a straw hat, Grandad may be snoozing and no.1 son is getting bothered that the sweat may be showing on his back. He accepts the need for protection and wears my club cricket cap. His hunger is back and I take him to the Jamie Oliver food court for thick-cut chips. He holds the cardboard basket up and oscillates it while directing me to pump more and more ketchup on top. “Can I have some salt?” he knows to ask. “I’m not looking,” I know to answer on this day of dietary laxity.
Back in our seats and no.1 son is soon offering chips. That’s unusual. Maybe he isn’t feeling well, I wonder, until I see the skin of salt like the mucky froth along a harbour wall. He’s overdone the sodium chloride.
Into the evening session and although it’s late in the playing day it’s hours until I need to drive the car, so I resolve to have a third pint. A soft drink for my Dad and an order for hot chocolate for no.1 son. “Will it be too hot? How long will I need to wait?”
“After Anderson’s next over, give it a try.”
“No, Stokes is still bowling. You could try dipping your finger in.”
“Oww. Why didn’t you make me wait an over?”
Grandad has left and we make a trip to the Lord’s Shop. “Is it good?” he wants to know. I sway my head as I do with a high percentage of the closed questions my kids fire at me.
No.1 son ponders buying a ball with the Lord’s logo stamped on it, then we hear a sudden, sharp cheer, with many many voices layered on top. Looking up at the ‘live coverage’ on the TV screens in the shop and Plunkett is at the top of his run-up. But the wicket falls as we hear the crowd clap the Indian captain off the field. Kohli, the player no.1 son and I have discussed most, is taking his guard on the screen when there’s more abrupt roars. Those of us caught in the shop chuckle as we wait to see the moment of peak excitement that we’ve sacrificed for a bit of retail distraction. It’s a good one, as Kohli waves on a ball into the top corner of his off-stump. The hat-trick ball, umistakeably a dud from the lowing noises we hear, 30 seconds before we see a harmless ball sail wide of Kumar’s stumps.
Ten minutes before close of play, we stand and leave our seats. I, childlike, I suppose, try to watch a few more balls between the heads of the spectators sitting in the Compton Lower, as we follow the concourse around to the St John’s Wood Road. Gently, not wanting to provoke a pressured response, I ask no.1 son what he thinks of Lord’s. “There are too many gaps between the stands. It’s not like a stadium.” I nod. He’s right, it isn’t like a stadium.
At Euston, we head to Marks and Spencer, where we might find croissant. They’re sold out and wearily he explains we should go to one of the station pastry vendors. At some French sounding franchise, he makes a Kohli-like last second recalculation and orders a slice of pizza. Aboard the train, having removed grilled tomato and taking two bites, he declares it disgusting and sits ruing not selecting pastry’s forward-defensive: the croissant.
Two and a half hours later and we’re through the front door. No.1 son, keeps going straight through to the kitchen, bypassing his Mother calling out welcomes from the living room. He’s at the toaster, grabbing butter from the fridge, finding food that fits.
Although we spent 15 hours together, I can only really piece together what my son thought of the experience: good.. the bowling was fast.. a bit boring at times.. not like a stadium.
And I got to see somewhere I know well and hold dear through someone else’s eyes. And what I’ve learnt is that cricket grounds would be even better places if they served toast.