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County grounds

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.

Hat-trick ball

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. 

Short pitch: top of the order

IMG_0306“I’ll be batting top of the order,” my Dad, 84 this year, said ahead of his school reunion. He meant that there would be no one senior to him at the event.

Afterwards, he was more cheerful. He had a great ‘find’ to report. A film shot in 1950 at his school had been discovered. It featured my Dad, in his final school year, playing cricket.

Stories of my Dad’s cricket exploits have featured on Declaration Game: his ’10 for’ denied by a failed all-run four; him netting with Surrey’s 1st XI while at school. But I’ve only had words with which to conjure an impression of my Dad as a cricketer at his peak. He had stopped playing club cricket 20 years before the only, memorable match we played together.

IMG_0300But now I have images. Two close-ups of my Dad playing a sweep shot. One sequence of him bowling, which was shot from the mid-wicket boundary. And with that a nugget he’d never mentioned: his run up and action modeled on Alec Bedser.

IMG_0302The film can be found here. The cricket sequences are brief, running from 6:50 to 7:30.

The very top of the order; no doubt.

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.

If the past is a foreign country, cricket’s history is an overseas tour

Lords with G&DadOn Saturday I went to Lord’s with my older son for the first time. There, we met my Dad and, three generations together, spent a day watching England play India. It’s 36 years since my Dad first took me to Lord’s – to see England play Pakistan. I can, through first-hand, personal experience, account for one-sixth of the duration of the Home of Cricket, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. My Dad, although a Surrey man, spans nearly one-third of the great ground’s existence since his first visit. This sport, conventionally seen as so ancient, can easily have large chunks of its familiar chronology bitten off by two generations of one family.

I recently joined the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians (ACS). Inadvertently, my first contribution to the Association’s on-line discussion site prompted a very reflective response by a Committee member, which included consideration of the question of what the Association should consider as ‘history’.

I don’t think we’ve ever defined when “history” stops for ACS purposes. The end of WW2 has been suggested but I feel that is too long ago. I think we’ve reached the stage where the Packer Affair, for instance, or the shenanigans around sanctions-busting tours to apartheid South Africa, are definitely “history” rather than “current affairs”. As a rule of thumb (I reiterate this is a personal view) I’d suggest that anything is “history” if it is far enough back not to involve the careers of any current players.

Where does history stop for cricket? The Committee member provided an answer for an Association that serves people who have a keen interest in the sport’s past. I wanted to see if I could formulate a definition that could be applied more broadly.

One approach would be to set an absolute date, probably based upon an event that is seen as marking a significant change in the sport or in its context. The end of World War Two is an example. Or, a date that has a feel about it, even if it doesn’t hold as the boundary between eras. This is how I can explain my undergraduate modern history course (1986-89) topping out in 1964. Somewhere between the beginning of sexual intercourse and the summer of love; inclusive of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union, but not the Prague Spring; historicising JFK but not LBJ.

The end of history could be seen as a relative point in time. The point at which none of the major protagonists is still living (or in cricket terms, playing) is one such criterion. History would hold still for years and then with the passing of Michael Foot, Emperor Hirohito or retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, it would jump forward. The 1992 World Cup became history in November last year when Tendulkar retired. It will be joined by the 1996 tournament when Chanderpaul steps aside (assuming he outlasts Jacques Kallis).

I favour another method of distinguishing between that which is history and that which is too recent to be considered so. It depends upon an understanding of history as a discipline. Crudely, history is the creation of a narrative. Narratives are of course constructed continually in, and about, the present. The feature of the historical narrative is that it applies an interpretative layer, without which its subject could not be understood by the non-expert reader of the present day. History, therefore, applies when the events described cannot readily be made sense of; or, the interpretation of those events through the lense of contemporary assumptions would create serious misunderstandings. We rely, therefore, on experts – historians – to tell us the story of a time that isn’t easily grasped. That’s not to say that historians don’t mislead, just that their aim is to help the reader with an imaginative leap. The past is a foreign country. Cricket’s past is an overseas tour.

This line of thinking leads to cricket’s history being seen in different strata. Starting with the unembellished action on the field: a cricket match viewed from 20, 50, even 100 years ago would be followed and absorbed without great difficulty. The essence of the contest, the range of skills displayed and tactics employed show variety around a strong core of consistency. Extremes around, say, the coping with uncovered wickets after a soaking may startle the modern viewer – but they’re not a great distance from cricket’s current grassroots game. If we go back to the Golden Age, the modern viewer may be perplexed by the sight of the chap with the big beard stooping to pick up and replace the bail before taking guard again, but we may be straying into myth, not history.

If the cricket played on the field is cut loose from its context, I would argue that the results and the action from the past 100-130 years are clear enough to the modern viewer so as to not require the intervention of an historian. The argument is artificial, though, as the modern follower does not have access to footage of the game that would allow him or her to gain an appreciation of what “was goin’ off out there”. Having tried to show my younger son the wonder of Dennis Lillee, he would contend that the material available from 30 years ago is inadequate. Match reports would be the source material. Sampling extracts of Wisden from the last 120 years, I think the language with which the game is described would be accessible, without an interpretative gloss.

The game on the field is never loosed from the context of the sport it represents: who the teams are, why they are playing each other, what’s at stake, who gets selected. This is the second stratum of cricket for which I’ll seek an historical end point.

Cricket’s culture and structures can dominate discussion on non-playing and playing days. But how far back would a lay reader be liable to misunderstand this ever-present context of the game? In English domestic cricket, a couple of junctures stand out. There’s the abolition of the professional and amateur statuses in 1962. Later, the introduction of the mixed economy of cricket competitions, 3-day, limited overs league and knockout, starting in 1963, but only really re-shaping the season from 1972.

The third stratum that may have an historical endpoint is where cricket is seen fully in its social context. When cricket was a sport of popular working class interest, attracting thousands to its domestic matches, the spectators were watching men like themselves, brought up in rural and industrial landscapes. As great a paradox as the amateurs making more from the sport than the professionals, is that once the game became wholly professional it became a more middle-class sport to play and to follow. Cricket, as an activity for millions of men in post-war austerity England, is a leap from its early 21st Century appearance.

I am favouring a date in the late 1950s to early 1960s as the end-point of history for English cricket, taking account of the sporting and social context. Other countries – and indeed the international game – may, using my method, settle on different, probably more recent, dates. The acceleration of the Indian economy over the last twenty years may, for example, mean that the years that preceded it need to be treated as history. The international game, increasingly shaped by Indian money, may need to consider as historical all the eras where other countries held sway.

Cricket in England, a sport that often seems uncomfortable in the present, has less history than we commonly imagine. The game on the field has altered, but not fundamentally. The more malleable sporting and social context, is still recognisable a couple of generations ago.

By pushing back history, I do not deny there are great and complex stories that we understand better when an expert writes. Merely, that the expertise is in economics, finance, politics, the law, international relations, sports science, mass communications or simply the ability to sift evidence to present a coherent narrative. These play a part in helping us to understand cricket’s present and recent past. But they are not the distinctive skill of the historian: to bring clarity to the actions of people from a past who had different values, assumptions and constraints to our own.


Glorified babysitting

Club cricketers in Britain are gathering for their first nets or practice matches of the 2012 season. These get-togethers will, for the vast majority, be reunions of cricketers who played alongside each other last season and maybe seasons before that. New faces – acquisitions from other clubs, students and others new to town and even overseas professionals – will be a small minority.

Club cricket, as part of a conservative sport, finds its place firmly on the right-wing. Its continuity is a strength. Bonds are strong, which is seen in the hours of free time given to every club’s running. Here are two examples of the dynastic core of club cricket that are local to me. My Over 40s league season ended with a match against opponents whose opening pair are father and son. Amongst my team, the Silverbacks, we have sired the following active members of our junior section: two under nines, one under ten, three under elevens, one under twelve, one under thirteen and one under fifteen. It is not inconceivable that some will play veterans cricket for the club. I expect most to play senior cricket within five years. And if we, the Dads, can’t hold a place in the team alongside them, we’ll be circling the boundary and boosting bar profits. It’s not to be knocked: repeat custom is a sound business model.

There are, of course, dangers. The blogger Silly mid off wrote recently in Pom Africans and posh lads about¬† the background of the current England Test team. Public school boys (including Stuart Broad, pictured above with father and sister) and South Africans accounted for nine of the eleven who played the final test of the 2011 English summer. Anderson and Swann were the state school products and both of these benefited from strong links to local clubs. If cricket isn’t to be a pursuit exclusively of those brought up in warmer climes, the privately educated and the club dynasties, it must penetrate our non-cricketing families.

However, there is an attitude in club cricket and amongst its junior coaches that blunts efforts to penetrate those families. I have heard it at my own club’s AGM (and I will trumpet our excellence in junior cricket development shortly) and from the county association’s coaches delivering a training course to budding volunteer coaches.

The attitude is encapsulated in this phrase “glorified babysitting”. The criticism levelled at parents who drop their kids off at cricket practice or matches and then disappear until the session or game is due to end is that they are taking advantage of the club. These parents, it is argued, see the club’s services as nothing more than “glorified babysitting”.

Cricket doesn’t need every player’s parents to love the game. It needs more players.

Cricket’s charms are oblique, exclusive and won’t be to everybody’s taste. Hours watching an activity poorly understood will be weighed against other things a parent could do: supermarket shopping, spending time with another child, having coffee with a friend. As long as they pay the subs and pick up their child on time, this preference shouldn’t be viewed with disdain. In fact, here is an opportunity.

Cricket clubs that can embrace the function of babysitting will thrive. They will draw more broadly from their local community, expanding their gene pool and ultimately create more ‘cricketing families’. My local club understands this and is a Chance to Shine award winner for its project to bring cricket to local primary schools. But as well as running games lessons in school hours, the club’s development officer holds after-school clubs and school holiday sports clubs, both of which give relief to working parents or Mums and Dads with other stuff to attend to. Club members make use of this glorified babysitting, and so do parents with no connection to the club, but who might be drawn in when their child raves about the great time they have had. And the development officer has his eye open for the child with a natural swing, a good eye or a strong shoulder.

Any large club can achieve the same. What else could be done to continue the renewal of our cricketing stock? Is a cricket Free School, the Government’s policy for new community-based schools, out of reach?