The now-traditional mid-season break in the County Championship does offer an opportunity to widen my range by watching some minor counties cricket. The game I chose (or which chose me, as I can reach it by train) was Bedfordshire against Suffolk at Luton.
I don’t know a great deal about the minor counties. The sides seem to be a mixture of young players on their way up (M. Panesar, G. Swann and A. Cook all began their careers with Bedfordshire), a few ex-county players winding down (Udal at Berkshire), a few who are “between contracts” (James Benning at Buckinghamshire), some stalwarts (Captain Oliver Clayson at Bedfordshire) and a shifting cast of club players. I also discovered, from listening to TMS the other day, that experimental cook Heston Blumenthal used to turn out for Buckinghamshire. So, a varied cast.
Hoping to find out more, I picked up a copy of the Luton News on my way to the ground. On the sports pages, there seemed to be a lot of coverage of kickboxing (“10 year old Rhys ‘The Beast’ Brown” sounds like a name to keep an eye on for the future). The cricketing headline was “Ziggy makes a return for Beds” – this being local boy Ziggy Arshad, who normally plays for Luton and Indians. Four of the usual team (including Ollie Swann – presumably some relation) would be away playing for County second XIs.
Elsewhere in the paper there were various allusions to Luton in Harmony (a campaign to promote good relations between the various communities) : the lead letter was from a dissentient EDL sympathiser (“Luton in Harmony? Do me a favour!”).
Luton and Indians (the two merged in 2002) are the usual occupants of the Wardown Park ground. Their most famous son is Monty Panesar (there was an advertising hoarding at the ground saying simply “Mr. Monty Panesar – Sussex and England International“), and seem to be a thriving club (predominantly, I think, of Indian ancestry).
The ground is set in the attractive Wardown Park, and attached to what used to be Wardown House itself and is now the town’s museum (an excellent place to buy a boater, if you feel so inclined). I had visited before and assumed that they would be playing on the more visible ground –
dating, I suspect, from the days when it was a private house. It has the unusual feature of tiers of stone seating, rather like an ancient Greek Theatre –
But, as I discovered, having spent a disconcerting few minutes wondering if I’d misread the fixture list, this was not so. They have another, lusher, ground hidden behind trees. One might almost be in Tunbridge Wells, or at Fenners, if it weren’t for the aeroplanes which periodically loom hugely behind the pavilion, having taken off from Luton Airport, and the constant roar of traffic.
The game, I suppose, had a whiff of what I imagine county cricket would have been like before the first war. No squad numbers or names on the shirts, played over three days, the mostly amateur players (having taken time off work to play) having every incentive to enjoy themselves and play for a result.
The first day had been washed out. Over the course of the Monday Suffolk reached 195, the damage being done mostly by a balding, high-stepping seamer who approached the wicket like a horse doing dressage, the situation rescued slightly by a tall, clean-striking lower middle order man (there were no scorecards, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you their names). On the Tuesday – somehow – Ziggy and another tailender had to dig in to save Bedfordshire from defeat.
The spectators were a mix of the genus Bufferus Stalwartiensis in Bedfordshire blazers and ties and Luton Indians (perhaps there to see Ziggy Arshad in action). Whether they were in complete harmony, I couldn’t say. Nor do I know whether the EDL (had they been present) would regard this as a legitimate part of the Englishness that they claim to be defending – although it surely is.