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.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

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