Monday, January 16, 2012

Cricket grounds in winter: St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury

Unlike my visits to Bath and Bristol, this was not a return after a long absence. I have had a wander around the St Lawrence Ground on almost every occasion on which I have been back to the UK, and have watched cricket there several times, most recently in April 2010:

This time, I was looking forward, not back. My purpose was to inspect the redevelopment, which, after some delay, has got under way in the 18 months since I was last here. We are promised that it is Kent's financial salvation, but at what other cost? On a glorious November afternoon, quite nice enough for there to be play, I went to find out.
Continuity is what I was looking for. That it would remain recognisably the same ground as that on which I first watched cricket on in the sixties, or that on which Les Ames and Frank Woolley batted and Tich Freeman bowled, come to that. It is pleasing to report that, so far at least, impressions are favourable.

The old practice area, an attractive part of the ground backed by a converted oast house, has disappeared under housing. Alec Stewart will be pleased. In a recent edition of The Cricketer, he blamed the St Lawrence practice pitches for England's early exit from the 1999 World Cup. It was not clear where they have been relocated. Nor did I work out how the new owners get to and from their homes. Will they have to pay admission on matchdays?
There is more building going on off the main driveway, consisting of a new administration block and other facilities including, it was announced this week, a small Sainsbury's. This is very good, though they had better lay in extra supplies of Scotch eggs next time I'm there. Every ground should have a supermarket close by. Folkestone had one right outside, one of the reasons why it was such a great place to watch cricket. Here in New Zealand, Seddon Park in Hamilton has a shopping centre just across the road. I once had a haircut and a sit-down lunch and was still back in my seat by the time the first ball of the afternoon session was bowled. More building, including a hotel on the Old Dover Road side of the ground, is to follow.
Five floodlight towers have been installed (all telescopic so as not offend to the sensibilities of the residents in this well-heeled part of town): next to the Leslie Ames Stand, beside the indoor school, next to the Frank Woolley Stand, behind where the white scoreboard used to be and near the site of the old lime tree. I disapprove of course, but not on aesthetic grounds. Floodlights, lit or not, add a certain grandeur to sports grounds. It is simply that conditions in England are not suited to floodlit cricket. I have long thought that English cricket should make more use of long summer evenings with matches in June and July starting later and finishing at 8 or 8.30 pm. It would be perfectly possible to begin T20 games at 6 pm, or even 6.30 pm in the north. Outside the height of summer, conditions are rarely conducive to after-dark viewing, spectacular though it can be.

The good news is this: far from being ruined as some of us feared, the stands that define the playing arena have been entrenched and enhanced. I worried that they might do away with the wooden stand, or pavilion annexe as it was officially known. But it has been given a proper name at last, and what a good one: the Underwood and Knott Stand. The very place from which I used to watch the two great heroes of my youth now named after them. Splendid.

Best of all, the regretable late-sixties brick dressing rooms have been extended and transformed so as to fit in perfectly with the wooden, red-tiled buildings on either side. They look as though they might have been there since 1906, when the Underwood and Knott Stand was built.
The shop was open and I was sufficiently relieved and impressed by what I had seen to buy a club polo shirt, so the white horse will be seen at the Basin this summer. The redevelopment seems to be having the desired financial benefits too; the club has just announced a six-figure profit for the past year. Too late to keep Joe Denly on the premises, but a sign that things will soon be on the up, we hope.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wellington v Northern Districts, T20, Basin Reserve, 11 January 2012

The pohutukawas are out so the Basin is wrapped in cardinal's scarlet, even if more fitting attire for today's match – a bottom-of-the-table affair with neither side having a realistic chance of qualifying for the final – might be the rough-hewn vestments of a country priest.

The shorter format has the cricket world in its grip as the year begins. Two games from the West Indies T20 competition were on offer on the telly earlier in the day. The first was Sussex v the Netherlands in Antigua. Only a decade ago such a contest in such a place would have seemed the stuff of fantasy. Later, there was a game from the Big Bash competition. Who knew that the Australians could do onomatopoeia?

Before the game began the teams lined up for a minute's silence in memory of the eleven victims of the ballooning accident that took place last weekend 40 miles or so from Wellington. The home players wore black armbands. With our small population, tragedies of this kind are more deeply felt in New Zealand than they are in more populous countries. But these memorial moments at sports fixtures now happen so often that they are in danger of becoming mere tokenism (“who is it today then?” I have heard people say as we rise to make solemn observance). The Australians, it sometimes appears, rarely take the field these days without their armbands. It cannot be long before the marketing people bring their characteristic soullessness to this, mark my words: “Granny dead?The Woolongong Wombats have a space on their armband for her and, in return for a large sum, will stand around looking non-specifically sad for several seconds before play (unless it rains in which case Duckworth-Lewis applies)”.

Northern Districts won the toss and chose to bat. Kane Williamson opened and anchored the innings with 53 from 41 balls. He continues to look a class above almost everybody else at this level. When he was out the innings lost momentum. Scott Styris scored 23 without looking convincing. He was dropped off a towering top edge, wicket keeper Brendon Taylor waiting under it for an age before the Wellington wind made a fool of him, as it will. He barely touched it. Andy McKay was outstanding with one for 16.

The last over started with Northern Districts on 138. Wellington appeared to have every chance of restricting the total to below 150, which would leave the home team in the box seat. Vettori (hirsuiteness update: short hair, big beard, a look of the ayatollah about him) took a single from the first ball leaving Peter McGlashan to face Mark Gillespie. My mind went back to a 50-over game three years ago when the same combination faced each other at the climax. McGlashan then needed nine from the last two balls for a one-wicket win. He dealt with the matter straightforwardly by twice hitting Gillespie past the scoreboard and out of the ground for wind-assisted sixes. Today it seemed that McGlashan had remembered those events while Gillespie had forgotten. The second ball of the over was lifted onto the roof of the JR Reid Gate, the third clearing the boundary squarer. A third successive six enabled McGlashan to demonstrate that he is New Zealand's most proficient reverse hitter, as he pulled the ball over the cover boundary. A four in the same manner with a single to finish took Northern Districts to a formidable 162.

Three wickets fell in the first four overs of the reply, and that was more or less it. One of T20's main weaknesses is that there is no coming back from a bad start. Rory Hamilton-Brown, the Surrey captain brought in for the second half of the T20 competition in the manner of a pilot coming on board the Titanic just as it hits the iceberg, hung around for seven overs as opener, but scored only seven runs, a Boycottian rate of progress in this context.

The whole Northern Districts attack was proficient, with Vettori applying a mid-innings strangle as Derek Underwood used to do of a Sunday afternoon, and Tim Southee outstanding. The wonder is how a side so full of talent could find itself superior to Wellington only on run rate at the start of the game. Another of T20's issues is that it is too great a leveller.

It will be a month before I can watch more live cricket, but then it will be the South Africans, in town in all three forms, so it will be worth the wait.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Cricket grounds in winter: the County Ground, Bristol

Not even its best friends would call the County Ground attractive. On one side there is the grey stone and narrow windows of what used to be the orphanage. Jack Fingleton noted the sad faces of the orphans peering over the fence when the Australians visited in 1948. Opposite is a back view of the terraced houses of Kennington Avenue. The pavilion is an asymetrical arrangement, again in trademark grey, that still looks a bit of a hotchpotch despite the redevelopment of the mid-nineties. There are no views of note. The fathers of Gloucestershire cricket might have had more foresight and located their headquarters in Clifton, or on the Downs, rather than in artisan Horfield.

Yet, if I had to to nominate the place from which I would watch cricket for the rest of eternity the roof of the Hammond Room at the County Ground would be in serious contention.

I lived in Bristol for 19 years, from 1978, when I went to Bristol University, to 1997, when I left for New Zealand. I must have watched more cricket at the County Ground than anywhere else, apart of course from the St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury.

Though I have been back to Bristol several times over the past 15 years, I had not returned to the County Ground until last November. I found it largely unchanged, apart from the pleasing addition of the Jessop Stand on the site of the old Jessop Tavern. This might be thought surprising, given that the ground is now a regular international venue, with an ODI or a T20 international most summers, but on those occasions the majority of spectators are accommodated in temporary stands.

Watching international games on television being played before a full house, it has sometimes occurred to me that there were more spectators present than there had been in whole seasons, possibly several added together, in my time at the ground.

Alone of the county headquarters, Bristol has always been something of a poor relation. The season would begin there (it was a dank, drizzly day when I visited, but up on the Hammond Room roof it was warmer than was usually the case in April or early May) but when summer got into its stride the county would decamp north, first to Gloucester and then to Cheltenham for the festival. It was common for there to be little of no cricket for six weeks or more at the height of the season. Then, with autumn's chill in the air, it was back to Bristol (this pattern has been reinforced by the modern obsession with T20: in 2011 there was no Championship cricket at Bristol between 2 June and 30 August).

So why, when the evidence presented so far would suggest otherwise, do I nominate the Hammond Room roof as a likely location for eternal spectating?

Good humour and conviviality have much to do with it. The Bristol faithful went to the cricket to enjoy themselves, whereas too many in Kent seemed to prefer any opportunity to disapprove of something. The roof was an open-necked sort of place, whereas ties – many attached to stuffed shirts – predominated on the top of the pavilion at Canterbury.

In part, the different attitudes were the result of recent history. The seventies was Kent's great era: nine trophies in as many years. Success was expected and there was disgruntlement when it did not arrive. Gloucestershire had won the Gillette Cup in 1973 and the B&H Cup in 1977 (beating Kent in the final), but winning was neither habit nor addiction. During my period in Bristol, Kent won only one trophy – the Sunday League in 1995 – and Gloucestershire nothing (though a golden period followed my departure, with seven one-day trophies in six seasons from 1999). In Kent the apoplexy increased with each year, but in Bristol it was accepted as the natural state of things, and we roof dwellers continued to enjoy the cricket whatever the result.

A look at a Gloucestershire line-up in the mid-eighties suggests that expectations might have been a bit higher. For a start, there was Courtney Walsh, with 869 wickets at an average of 20 over as distinguished and dedicated a career as any overseas player has had in county cricket. Gloucestershire chose their overseas players wisely; Walsh followed the equally committed Mike Procter, and Zaheer Abbas and Sadiq Mohammad are remembered fondly too. The classy Bill Athey, who might have won many more England caps, led the batting, supported by some good county players, such as Andy Stovold, Phil Bainbridge, Jeremy Lloyds and Paul “Human” Romaines. The peerless Jack Russell chattered away behind the stumps, while David “Syd” Lawrence joined Walsh in county cricket's most fearsome attack. David Graveney led intelligently, bowled good left-arm spin and rolled over in the gully just too late to stop the ball several hundred times a season (this was not a great fielding side). There was a third place in 1985, and a second the following year (but well behind Essex, the champions) and that was as close as the team came to winning something in my time.

Incidentally, Syd Lawrence's career was cut short in 1992 at the Basin Reserve of all places, when his kneecap split. He made a forlorn comeback five years later, by which time his second career as a bar/restaurant owner had contributed to his growing to the size of a small bus. In his first game back, against Hampshire at the County Ground, he set out off to the boundary in pursuit of the ball but was slow to get steam up and was overtaken by one of the young guns, who collected the ball and turned ready to throw it to the keeper, only to find Syd, whose stopping distance now crossed postcodes, bearing down on him. Player and ball were wiped out as Syd passed through, and all parties ended in a heap over the boundary. It was several minutes before play resumed, not because anybody was hurt, but because it took that long for everybody on the ground to stop laughing.

There was also the day when the sightscreen blew over, sending the bike that was tethered to it flying through the air. This sort of thing was always happening at Bristol, which was why it was fun to watch cricket there.

It was also the scene of the zenith of my own playing career, one Sunday afternoon in August 1988. I got a call-up from a friend inviting me to play for a team representing whichever insurance company owned the ground at that time. It was the holiday season and they were clearly desperate. I did not enquire how many people they had been turned down by, but suspect that a figure in the low eighties would be adjacent. The team was of a standard well above my usual village-green level, and was playing a Welsh side at least a couple of grades above them. I batted at ten, making three with a couple of late cuts so subtle that they were mistaken by the undiscriminating for edges.

It was in the field that the difference between recreation or school field cricket and that on a first-class ground became clear. Several times I turned from mid on to chase a ball on its way to the boundary. I found that the bumps and hollows that would slow the ball down more than I slowed down were absent, so I stayed two or three yards behind it all the way to the rope.

Towards the end of the game my moment of glory came. The ball was top edged and it soon became clear that it was coming down straight at me, I did not have to move. What disappointed me was not that I failed to catch it, but that I failed to touch it. I was never asked again.

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 ...