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.

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