Sunday, October 30, 2016

Billy divines the rain: Wellington v Northern Districts, Basin Reserve, day one, 29 October 2016

Last weekend in Wellington was the New Zealand spring at its best. The sun shone from blue skies and the wind took a rare weekend off. What’s more, Monday was a public holiday. Wellington were at home to Auckland in the opening game of the Plunket Shield. How perfect to spend three days in the sun at the Basin.

A pity then, that the game was played in Mt Maunganui, 500 kms away from the capital. Why is unclear. The RA Vance Stand is shrouded in scaffolding, though the dressing rooms are open, and with a modicum of planning could have been last week, one might think.

Surely there is a venue somewhere in Wellington’s many parks and reserves that would be an acceptable local venue. The English equivalent would be Surrey being unable to play at the Oval and finding no alternative closer than Scarborough.

Admission to Plunket Shield games is free, which absolves the authorities from any responsibility towards spectators. Any coalescence between the fixture list and times when the working fan might get to the game are entirely coincidental. Wellington’s three remaining Plunket Shield games feature just a single day of weekend play.

It is good that the first half of next year’s (shortened) County Championship will be played from Friday to Monday, but the feeling remains that those in charge, mesmerised by T20, can’t be trusted with its well-being. New Zealand’s tale is cautionary.

Inevitably, this weekend it is cold and wet in Wellington. Nevertheless My Life in Cricket Scorecards braved wind-chill temperatures of six degrees and made its way to the Basin to for the first cricket of the season.

Two well-known Hamishes will play for Wellington this year. Gloucestershire’s Hamish Marshall has returned to New Zealand and today is in opposition to his old team Northern Districts for the first time. Marshall was playing the last time I had a day at the cricket, at Canterbury at the end of July. His appearance in the Wellington line-up does nothing to diffuse the air of superannuation about it. Not until Pollard at No 5 do we reach somebody who is under 33 years of age. When I covered domestic cricket for CricInfo 15 years or so ago there were hardly any players over 30 outside the international squad, because it didn’t pay enough. Now players can make a decent living they have no reason to move on. I’m not calling for a cricketing Logan’s Run; the presence of a couple old heads in a team is obviously of benefit, but there has to be space to try out promising young players in first-class cricket, as has traditionally been the practice in New Zealand.

Northern Districts have a much younger profile with only the openers, sometime test players Dean Brownlie and Daniel Flynn, over 30. ND have seven players with the Black Caps in India, evidence of their ability to bring on young players.

Hamish Bennett has moved to Wellington too. For a brief time four or five years ago he was the great hope of New Zealand fast bowling, but the strain of windmilling it down at 140 kph was too much for his body, as it so often is for New Zealand fast bowlers. He began well today, once Wellington had won the toss and put ND in. In the first over he produced a beauty that came back in to take Brownlie’s off stump.

Brent Arnel opened from the RA Vance Stand End, and trapped Flynn lbw with his first ball, which swung into the left-hander. Early indications were that this was a typical Basin first-day greentop. For new readers, Basin pitches have the life cycle of a domestic cat, offering playful excitement, unpredictability and regular danger in their youth before settling down to sleep through most of the last 75% of their existence.

Billy Bowden is standing in this game. Once the biggest act of all, Billy is now reduced to walk-on parts, cricket’s Norma Desmond. But what a pro. Even though there were only five of us spectators, we were privileged to be treated to the unexpurgated version of his rain-divination act. A brief shower sent the players from the field in the seventh over. It was gone almost as soon as it began. With the light improving, a lesser man would have restarted play, but Billy patrolled the middle using every human sense to divine moisture, wherever it might be. In a less sensitive age, a pig would have been taken to the middle and sacrificed so that Billy could read the entrails. He is to rain what Joe McCarthy was to communism—he sees its threat everywhere.

It should be said that he was quite right on this occasion. Some minutes later the rain came down more heavily and that was it for the day. But nobody else would have done it with such pathos and flair.

It’s great that he is prepared to go back to domestic cricket after losing his place on the international panel. He is still a star. It was the pitches that got small. Billy is always ready for his close up.

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