Saturday, October 26, 2019

Return to St Lawrence

Kent v Hampshire, County Championship, St Lawrence Ground, 23 September 2019

Our first visit to the UK in three years coincided with the end of the cricket season, so I looked forward to two or three days at Canterbury for the County Championship game against Hampshire. The weather determined otherwise.

Because of family commitments I was not intending to go on the first day, but the weather forecast for the later three days came straight out of the Book of Genesis, so I thought that I’d better take my chance, and got there at lunchtime. My arrival coincided with a shower, so I hung about outside, unwilling to part with twenty quid with no cricket guaranteed. One of the problems with returning to somewhere that was once home is that my perception of financial value has remained locked in at 1997 values, so that seemed a lot a pay for a possibly curtailed afternoon. (I also have problems with coins; the one-pound variety now look like threepenny bits, while the two-pounds take me by surprise every time. I stare at them in my hand long enough for shop assistants to start looking over my shoulder to see if my carer is here yet).

Having recently had a significant birthday, I asked the man on the gate if there was a reduction for the over-60s, only to be told that those had been done away with seven or eight years ago. Of course. Why would you schedule the great bulk of the County Championship in the working week during the school term then think of giving the only demographic free to watch at that time any incentive to do so?

The last time I was here the northern side of the ground was a building site. The flats have now been completed and are not unsightly. However, the number of seats available on that side has been reduced by more than half. Much as we of Kent like to hark back to the seventies it is regrettable that the seating remains a legacy of that happy decade. The outside seats are barely tiered at all, and the framework is quite rusty. I spent some of the afternoon in the Frank Woolley Stand, which has bits falling off it. The stand is 92 years old, a year more than Woolley himself was when he died, but it is questionable whether it will last much longer than he did. Without some attention soon, there will hardly be anywhere for spectators to sit, which may be the contemporary cricket administrator’s dream.

The answer could be to build a simple stand for around a thousand at the Nackington Road End, similar to that at the Cathedral End at Worcester, but ideally with a roof. It would have the advantage of getting the sun all day, though it would mean that the Band of Brothers and the Old Stagers would have to find another home during Canterbury Week.

The game was to decide third place in the County Championship, Hampshire starting just two points ahead of Kent. Of itself, that showed that things had gone better for the old county than many feared at the start of the season, the reservations chiefly being about the fast bowling. As it turned out, two recruits, neither of them household names at their own address, performed well beyond expectations. Harry Podmore, formerly of Middlesex, but also Derbyshire, Durham and Glamorgan (his first-class debut was for them at St Lawrence in 2016), and Matt Milnes from Nottinghamshire both took more than 50 wickets at under 27 each. What’s more, both remained fit enough to play in all 14 Championship games. Whether they could name all their teammates is questionable; no fewer than 22 players represented the white horse in the Championship, four more than in 1968, when the Championship was last played over double the number of matches it is now.

There was disappointment in the shorter formats. The first win in the 50-over group stage came only in the sixth of eight games, hope of a last Lord’s final appearance already gone.

Things started so well in the T20, with five wins on the trot and six out of seven in the first half of the group stage; progress to the knockout stages appeared certain. In the second half, two rained-off games were the only source of reward, qualification missed by a point. I watched several of these short-form games on television at home in New Zealand, so experienced some of the ecstasy and agony (but mostly the latter) of other Kent supporters.

Though the match was over-shadowed by that between the top two at Taunton, it was disappointing—and a sign of the times—that the press box in the Underwood–Knott Stand was almost empty for this third-place decider. Scorers were there, but the only written account I saw was on CricInfo, an anonymous piece from the ECB Reporters Network. Way back when, the big-name correspondents—even Swanton—would have been wedged into the cramped pressbox at Taunton, but the second rank—DJ Rutnagur, Richard Streeton and the like—would have had seven or eight hundred words at their disposal to describe events at St Lawrence. Of course, these days we have streaming video and the BBC audio commentary, both wonderful accoutrements, but in-the-moment, not a historical record that encapsulates a day at the cricket.

Play resumed after the shower with Kent 78 for six, but Darren Stevens was at the crease, so all would be well. It had been announced that Stevens’ association with Kent was to end, but, in the manner of a faithful Labrador who on his final trip to the vet leaps out of his tearful owner’s arms and kills a cat to demonstrate that his time is not yet up, had earned a year’s reprieve with an astonishing performance at Headingley the previous week. Coming in at 39 for five, he made 237 at more than a run a ball with 28 fours and nine sixes, an innings even more improbable than the match-winning double century against Lancashire that I had the good fortune to see six years ago. He followed with five for 20 as Yorkshire were beaten by 433 runs. That noise you hear is Lord Hawke, spinning in his grave.

One year? I don’t know when I will next return to St Lawrence, but when I do, a pound to a penny, Darren Stevens will still be rescuing Kent from situations so dire that Superman would put them in his too-hard basket. Not this day, however. Stevens was soon lbw to a full-length ball from left-armer Keith Barker.

Barker—who finished with five for 48—is part of a formidable trio of Hampshire fast bowlers, with Kyle Abbott, fresh from taking 17 to finish Somerset’s Championship hopes, and Fidel Edwards, who considers himself sufficiently renowned to have just his first name on his shirt.

What resistance remained was offered chiefly by Ollie Rayner, on loan from Middlesex. Odd that a player who can’t get into a second division team has something to offer one in the top half of the first, but good luck to him.

Mitch Claydon, off to Sussex next year, was warmly welcomed to the crease on his final appearance. He responded with two cover drives of which Woolley would have been proud. Kent were all out for 147.
During the afternoon the England touring parties to New Zealand were announced, including Zak Crawley’s selection for the test squad. This seems to be on the basis of promise rather than form; 916 Championship runs at 35 is no more than respectable. He celebrated with a diving catch at third slip to dismiss Ian Holland for a duck off Podmore.

Incidentally, pleasant though it will be for us to welcome England, it is an oddly conceived tour. For a start, we had England here only last year; the series is not part of the new World Championship; and November is far from the best time to play cricket in New Zealand. In the hope of avoiding hypothermia, the two tests are to be played in the upper half of the North Island in Hamilton and Mt Maunganui, an hour or so’s drive from each other, rather like staging an early-season tour to the UK and playing the tests in Southampton and Hove. Despite successive World Cup final appearances, and a current second-place test ranking, we in New Zealand are left to gather up the scraps that fall from the table when it comes to scheduling. England won’t be back for tests again until at least 2023.

Opening the bowling at the other end was, of course, Stevens. Was it my imagination or has he lengthened his run (I use the term generically, not descriptively; at peak acceleration it remains no more than a saunter)? He was as nagging and mean as ever, more so when he switched to the Nackington Road End. Those that nipped in provoked a series of appeals of which Gina Miller would be proud; those that went the other way flirted with the outside edge like Mae West with a ship’s crew. Organ and Alsop both succumbed lbw.

James Vince cut a somewhat diminished figure as he came in at No 5, the touring party announcement having sent him some way down the test pecking order (though we will see him in the T20s). He and Sam Northeast (courteously greeted I am pleased to report) were there when play was ended by bad light, at the point when the artificial light had become stronger than the natural light. Surely, that is all one hopes for from artificial light, which has no purpose until that point is reached. The PA announcer adopted his solemn voice to tell us that conditions had become dangerous, which was nonsense, the only threat to well-being resting in the sudden increase in the blood pressure of the older spectator.

So it was that my only experience of cricket in Kent this time was all over in the fashionable timespan of a little under three hours. Such was the rain that there was no question of cricket for the next two days. They could probably have got out there on the fourth day, but with Hampshire rightly unwilling to sacrifice their third place in a declaration game, there was no point and it was called off early.

Next time I’m back, it will all be different as The Hundred elbows its way to centre stage of high summer. Kent have a share of the Oval Invincibles, but given that only two Kent players (Billings and Blake) are in the squad it looks more like Surrey with the Fringe on Top.

That was not the end of the cricket watching on this trip…

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