Sunday, August 15, 2010

At home at The Oval with Allen Hunt

Kent played a home T20 game against Essex at The Oval last month. They lost, as they usually have this season, but it was a decent contest, Essex passing Kent’s 171 for six with two balls to spare.

Playing a home game away like this has caused a good deal of grumbling among the faithful, and may not have been a success, with a crowd of only 7,000 attracted when many more were hoped for, though this is twice the average T20 crowd at Canterbury this season, apparently.

No doubt when the game was scheduled it was anticipated that Kent would be heading for the final stages of the competition for the fourth year in a row; instead, they began the match all but eliminated.

Playing a home game at The Oval is not a new idea. I recall it being mooted in the eighties. It made good sense then, and still does. With the disappearance from the county circuit of Blackheath, Dartford and Gravesend, a game a season near home for the county’s many London fringe supporters redresses the balance, and most train lines in Kent point to south London.

Anyway (and this will come as a surprise to most) Kent played a home game at The Oval in 1981, and I was there.

It was the Benson and Hedges quarter-final against Warwickshire, scheduled for Canterbury, but moved to the Oval on the morning of the scheduled third day after a deluge had prevented play on the first two days set aside for what was, in theory, a one-day game.

At 133 for two, Warwickshire appeared comfortable chasing Kent’s modest 193 from 50 overs. Then collapse, the remaining eight wickets falling for just 46 runs. My firmest memory of the play is of a splendid catch by Alan Ealham to dismiss “Yogi” Ferreira. I must write about Ealham, one of my favourite players.

As might be imagined in these circumstances, the crowd was sparse. Of the few present, only two were sufficiently intrepid, dedicated and lacking in perspective to watch from the top deck of the pavilion, a fine view, but grievously cold in the face of a scathing northerly. So it was that I made the acquaintance of Allen Hunt.

I was to spend a lot of time at the cricket with Allen over the years that followed, around Kent and, particularly, at away games. He cut a distinguished figure, slightly raffish even, with swept-back white hair and goatee beard; Allen would often sport a cravat, which made him stand out like a Zandra Rhodes model when compared with the sober suits favoured in the top deck of the pavilion at Canterbury. He would have been about seventy then, but could have passed for a man fifteen years younger. That remained the case for most of the time that I knew him.

Allen passed the CLR James test (“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?”) easily. A civil servant in the Ministry of Education, he had acquired an MA from the London School of Economics in middle age, and continued to teach adult education classes at City University into his eighties. It was just that he thought cricket more interesting and rewarding than anything else.

In 1968 he won a Kent Messenger competition to pick a greatest-ever Kent XI. The prize–very exotic for those days–was a trip to South Africa to watch part of the Test series between South Africa and England. When the tour was cancelled as a result of the South African Government’s shameful refusal to accept the Cape Coloured Basil d’Oliveira as part of the touring party, Allen handed the holiday on to his niece. “No use to me with no cricket to watch”, was his view.

He divided his time between his flat in Leyton, east London and his house in Halling, north of Maidstone. I never went to either, but those that had described a somewhat chaotic existence, particularly when it came to meal times, which would consist of a fusion of whatever tinned food was available. Corned beef would share a plate with rice pudding, to save washing up.

Allen was a wonderful person to watch cricket with, drawing upon seven decades of cricket watching to analyse the game with intelligence and wit. He was my window on to cricket’s past, describing, among many other things, watching Les Ames score a century in the first Test played by New Zealand in England at Lord’s in 1931, Frank Woolley batting, and Tich Freeman bowling.

An entourage collected around him. There was “Budgie” Burgess, Brian Cheal, exiled like me in Bristol, the two Rays, and his most regular associate, George Murrell. George was a little younger than Allen, and also retired. Slim, dapper (readers of a certain age should think of the keyboard player from Sparks) and possessed of a tinderbox wit, George was also excellent company. I was sitting next to him at the Oval in 1985 when Graham Dilley took a hat-trick. He claimed, somewhat improbably, never to have seen a hat-trick before and said, rather wistfully, “I had intended to have the words ‘He never saw a hat-trick’ on my gravestone”.

Winter days were always brighter for the appearance of a letter from Allen. They would never contain small talk, but would arrow straight in on the main point. Had I heard that a particular player was thinking of leaving, or that we had signed a talented young player? Occasionally he would stray on to the subject of the fortunes of Gillingham FC (he rarely missed a home game, unless it clashed with the cricket, obviously).

I last saw Allen at the Kent v the Australians game in 1997, the week before I left for New Zealand. His health had started to go downhill, and he couldn’t manage the train any more, but had got a lift from a neighbour. So much to talk about, so little time.

The letters continued to arrive over the next couple of years, with increasingly unsteady handwriting. They became irregular, and stopped coming as the century approached its end. For me, it is still a sign that a day’s play has been interesting if I think, as I leave the ground, that I’d like to write to Allen to tell him about it.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...