Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cricket grounds in winter: the Recreation Ground, Bath

As well as my expedition to the Crabble Ground in Dover (http://mylifeincricketscorecards.blogspot.com/2011/11/in-search-of-crabble.html) I returned to three other old haunts during my recent trip to the old country. This post and two to follow will record these visits, and the memories that I took with me.

You would not think it on a drizzly November day like that on which I was there, but the Rec in Bath is one of the five most attractive grounds on which I have watched cricket. Seeing as you ask, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth tops the list without question. Bath would certainly be on it. The other three might be subject to change according to mood, but today they are the Crabble; New Road, Worcester (before they knocked the old pavilion down); and Mote Park, Maidstone (Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is filling his pen with green ink having read that, but the rhododendrons are not out all summer).

The Bath Festival – consisting of two three-day matches and a Sunday League game or two when I first attended in the eighties – was usually held in mid-June, with the sun shining from a cloudless sky, the hills that surround the city collecting the heat in a bowl, marquees around the boundary, the Abbey looking on over mid-wicket and the sound of the Avon gushing over Pulteney Weir. On such a day all these grounds share a timeless quality, regardless of whatever modern-day commercial ephemera are on view. Catherine Morland could pass through the Rec on her way to the Pump Rooms without looking at all out of place.

In those conditions it is unsurprising that big scores are at the forefront of the memory rather than match-winning bowling performances, or that IVA Richards features prominently, particularly when Kent were the visitors. In 1986, on a day just like that described above, his forceful, fluent 128 set up Somerset to score 433 for six declared in just 98 overs, this against a Kent attack that, on paper at least, was as good as the county has fielded: Dilley, Alderman, Ellison and Underwood. Brian Rose and Vic Marks (who could be an entertaining batsman in an anarchic sort of way) put on 167 for the sixth wicket to set up an innings victory, Joel Garner taking nine wickets.

There is often poignancy in a scorecard. We could not have known as we enjoyed the spectacle that this would be the last time when the West Indian duo would combine to win a match for the county; the great Somerset schism took place later that summer, and then they were gone.

It also occurs to me that early that sparkling Saturday morning Graham Dilley would have bowled to Peter Roebuck. Both have died these past few weeks. As I write, I am watching Australia taking on India in the Boxing Day Test, and missing Roebuck's judgment and wit, on the radio and in print. Bath was his home town.

Things did not always go Richards' way against Kent at the Rec. In a Sunday League match in 1981 the Antiguan all-rounder Eldine Baptiste, making his competitive county debut, found himself bowling at his legendary compatriot. And he got his man, lbw for a duck. I never saw a bowler happier to take a wicket. Somerset were shot out for 136. Laurie Potter (one of many whose talents were squandered by Kent in the eighties), also on debut, took four for 27, while Derek Underwood, a Scrooge on Sundays, conceded only eight runs from eight overs.

The finest innings I saw at Bath was not by Viv Richards, or any other Somerset player. It was Mike Gatting's 196 in 1987. Gatting was one of the best players I have seen at county level. That day his runs came from only 269 balls (though the report in Wisden is more excited by Martin Crowe's final-day 102 from 109 balls on a drying pitch, which unfortunately I did not see).

The Rec was also the place where I came as close to death as I ever have at a cricket ground. It was in 1985, Gloucestershire were the visitors and had made 300 for nine when Courtney Walsh took a fancy to Vic Marks' off spin, hitting him high, long and often into the very seats at long on where I was in residence. It was like being under Howitzer fire down there. Twice I had to take last-second avoiding action (What's that? Why did I not try to catch it? You clearly have no idea who you are talking to).

The last Championship match at the Rec was played five years ago. Last season it staged only a measly T20 fixture, which is like hiring an opera house for a shove ha'penny contest. The fact that Bath RFC (which shares the ground, the rugby pitch taking up the area next to the river, while the cricket field is on the eastern side of the field) has risen above its proper station to become one of the country's leading teams does not help. What used to be a temporary stand on the cricket side of the rugby pitch has now become a grander, permanent structure, which precludes the use of the rugby pitch as a car park (the use for which we Bristol supporters think it best suited). The pavilion is obviously in need of attention; perhaps they use the rugby facilities these days.

So blissful, lazy Championship days in the sun belong in the past as much as the Roman Baths and the Jane Austen Museum, which is a shame. The next two posts will feature visits to grounds where the real thing can still be seen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wellington v Otago, 50 overs (reduced to 40), Basin Reserve, 4 December 2011


New Wellington coach Jamie Siddons has all the qualifications you would want for the job. The scorer of most runs in the Sheffield Shield until overtaken by Darren Lehman and Jamie Cox, he made an appearance in Australia's one day side before embarking on a coaching career that has taken him from South Australia and the national set-up under John Buchanan to being head coach of Bangladesh for four years.

But his most important attribute is that he has no hair. This means that there is no danger of him being injured in attempting to pull it out as he watched Wellington once more pick defeat from the pocket of victory with the expertise of a Victorian scallywag, as occurred on Sunday at the Basin. Several times his team was within a couple of proficient overs of taking the game away from Otago, only to go down by six runs in the evening gloom.

For most of a rainy morning it appeared unlikely that there would be any cricket, but play began with sufficient time for a 40-over game on a Sunday afternoon, just like the old days. It was thoroughly pleasant, warm despite the heavy cloud cover and – here's a word used to describe the Basin no more than once a decade – still. The pohutukawas could barely restrain themselves from bursting into a cascade of scarlet.

I arrived in time to see Otago succumb to the waft-aimlessly-outside-the-off-stump epidemic that is ravaging cricket here; New Zealand's finest had gone down to a particularly virulent strain in Brisbane an hour or so before. Aaron Redmond was first, followed by Craig Cumming and Nathan McCullum. Neil Broom, with 38 from 44 balls, played well before skying Woodcock to Rhodes, coming in from the cover boundary.

There was also a Bracewell, as there is in most New Zealand teams; the name is now as common as Jones in the valleys. An understanding of the Bracewell family tree is as essential as is that of the Tudors to a student of sixteenth century England. This was Michael, nephew of John and Brendon and cousin of Doug. By the time I had worked that out he was gone, lbw to Jeetan Patel for a duck.

When Wells swept Woodcock to deep square leg Otago were 97 for six with more than half their overs gone. That they accrued a final total of 219 was largely due to an intelligent and determined 55 from Jimmy Neesham, a 21-year-old Aucklander in his first season with Otago. He was well-supported in seventh and eighth-wicket partnerships by Derek de Boorder and Neil Wagner. The Otago dressing room applauded every run as if each were the product of a Jack Hobbs cover drive, a surfeit of enthusiasm filling the gap left by the departure of discrimination.

But they were helped by some poor cricket from Wellington. There were too many loose deliveries. Two chances were missed in Woodcock's seventh over: a difficult catch to Pollard in the covers and as simple a stumping chance as debutant wicket-keeper Craig Cachopa could have wished for. Barry Rhodes spilled a straightforward boundary catch two overs later.

Wellington skipper Grant Elliott had impressed earlier in the innings, maintaining close catchers longer than is usual, but later he changed the bowling as often as a super model changes her shoes. There is merit in allowing bowlers (especially spinners) to build up pressure. Bringing himself on late in the innings did not work either: Neesham hit him over the scoreboard.

Even so, in good batting conditions 220 in 40 overs was eminently attainable.

Michael Papps dominated in the first part of Wellington's reply with a robust fifty, full of trademark pulls and cuts. Papps has moved north after ten seasons with Canterbury. He will be an asset, but whether keeping in the game a 32-year-old whose international days are several years behind him is in the wider interests of New Zealand cricket is open to question. Ten years ago, when there was less cash around, he would have retired, leaving a space for a young player.

Meanwhile, Neesham was proving as potent with the ball as he had been with the bat. He accounted for Boam and Elliott with slower deliveries. When Woodcock was bowled by Ian Butler in the 28th over Wellington needed 94 to win, having let the rate required drift over the previous half dozen overs. Nick Beard bowled a tight spell of slow left arm from the northern end.

Everything now depended on James Franklin, who batted with assurance and some style throughout. He was well supported by Cachopa, until the little keeper attempted a dilscoop, and ended up flat on his back, stumps spreadeagled. The Otago bowlers did their bit: both Neesham and Wagner bowled wides that went to the boundary (I was looking forward to seeing Wagner, the great hope of New Zealand bowling when he finally qualifies next year, but today he had a bad day, as anyone can).

We waited for Franklin to produce the big over that would swing the game. Perhaps T20, in which Franklin has been very successful as a batsman, has created a false sense of empowerment, the feeling that the the big hit can be rolled out at will. Here, thanks in part to more good bowling from Beard, the moment never came, and Wellington began the final over needing 12.

Neesham was brought on to replace Beard, which I still think was a mistake, so well was the spinner bowling. The outcome vindicated Redmond's choice, but it was a close run thing. Scott Kuggeleijn (son of Chris, who used to coach Northern Districts and gave short answers to long questions from CricInfo's man) pulled the first ball, a long hop, to the boundary. A leg bye gave Franklin the strike. He sent the ball high in the direction of long off. It seemed at first that it would clear the boundary by some way, but Nathan McCullum had his eagle eye on it, and knew that it was heading straight into his hands. An ounce more power and the game would have been won. Kuggeleijn was also caught at long off, this time some way in from the rope, and that was that.

A fine start to my season of spectating, and it was free. As with four-day games, it seems that the money taken at the gate would not have paid those who collect it. There was no food on sale, and the game was not advertised. The weather meant that the game was not expected to start, so it is unfair to draw too many conclusions from the sparse crowd. But there is something of the self-fullfilling prophesy about this approach, and that domestic cricket appears to bestaking everything on T20, which has the prime holiday period to itself, worries me.

But I was not as downcast as Jamie Siddons, who stormed into the rooms leaving the air blue behind him.

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 ...