In Search Of The Spirits of Cricket : A Short “Film” Of The 2014 Cricket Season

Parturient montes et exit … well, something a bit different anyway (though I suspect that this is one of those that means a great deal to me but will be found puzzling, at best, by others).

It is, as you will see if you click on the link below, a slideshow of a selection of photographs taken during the 2014 English cricket season, beginning in March and ending in late September.  Some of the images will be familiar to regular readers, others not. This is cricket from a spectator’s point of view, as opposed to the television viewer’s; there are no close-ups, no replays, no video analysis.  The players are only seen close-to when they are leaving the field or near the boundary and they sometimes seem to be there merely to provide some foreground to a landscape. There are trains and buses and flowers and rainbows.  It didn’t occur to me to make use of the photographs in this way until very late in the season, and I have resisted the temptation to do any artistic re-shaping of the material, so any themes and motifs (and I think there are some) have emerged, at most, semi-consciously.

The grounds that feature most often are (as you might expect) Grace Road, the County Ground Northampton, Fairfield Road (home of Market Harborough CC) and Little Bowden Recreation Ground.  There are also visits to Kibworth, Trent Bridge, Finedon Dolben, Leicester Ivanhoe, Bedford Modern School, Radlett Hove and Lubenham.

Some well-known players feature: M.S. Dhoni, Alastair Cook (in the form of a Waitrose advert), Marcus Trescothick.  There are some perhaps less well-known, except to readers of this blog: Graeme White (who begins and ends the season wandering in the outfield stroking his beard), Ned Eckersley, Nathan Buck, David Wainwright, Luke Fletcher, Stan of Barrow Town.  Bowler of the season Mark Footitt is featured in action; batsmen of the season Lyth’n’Lees appear on a scoreboard.  There are glimpses of some stars of the future (Sam Hain, Zac Chappell) and guest appearances from Dickie Bird, Peter Willey, a dog and a horse.  Then there are those players who are known only unto God and their nearest and dearest, and if they sometimes blend in indistinguishably with their better-known counterparts then – without wishing to labour the point – that is largely the point of this “film”.

I had originally intended to accompany the images with music, but have been defeated by a combination of the laws of copyright and technical ignorance, however those who persist until the last four minutes will be rewarded by a brief piece by Delius.  I realise this is likely to be a vain plea, but, rather like the season itself, the “film” does take a while to get into its stride: it becomes a lot more interesting after the first ten minutes and only really makes sense if watched in its entirety.  It also helps to view it in full-screen mode on a reasonably large screen.  Ideally, of course,  it would be seen at an I-Max cinema accompanied by a live orchestra, but that might have to wait for next season’s production.

(Don’t let this put you off, by the way, but your correspondent makes a cameo appearance in a glass case in the gents round the back of the pavilion at Trent Bridge at 22.08. Immortality, at last!)


Any comments most welcome, of course.


“Tell Me If The Woodbines Blow” : Winter into Spring

No time for proper blogging today – alas! – but here is a snapshot of Winter passing into Spring (as I make other plans).  This is the view of Market Harborough cemetery from Northampton Road on my way back from the Rugby, last Saturday and this.  It will be Autumn before the sun is at this angle at that time again and the quality of the light will be quite different.

Northampton Road Cemetery March 2014

Northampton Road Cemetery March 2014

Northampton Road Cemetery March 2014

The inscription on the large headstone to the right of the picture is from Tennyson (Alfred, not Lionel) and reads

Then let wise Nature work her will,

And on my clay her darnels grow,

Come only when the days are still,

And at my head-stone whisper low,

And tell me if the woodbines blow.

I wonder how many passers-by have paused to read this over the years (and how many of them have been able to answer the question?).

January Wildlife Special (featuring the Harborough Otter)

What better to take our minds off the Ashes debacle than some cute pictures of animals (very popular on the Internet, I believe)?  So here are my New Year cuties.

First a pony, snapped on New Year’s Day in front of a huge mound of manure at Burrough-on-the-Hill, and looking pretty much how I felt at the time.  Thought by some to be local hero James Taylor’s battle charger.


Secondly, a quick brown fox, taken not, as you might think, in Leicestershire but in the City of London on 2nd January (Leicestershire foxes aren’t generally as blatant as this, though they are considerably more cunning).

Urban Fox

And lastly, the Harborough Otter in action.  This Otter (some think there are a pair of them) seems to be living somewhere near Sainsbury’s in Market Harborough and emerges about once a day to put on a show.  On Saturday he swam about for a bit, showed himself off on the near bank, then re-emerged on the far bank with a large fish which he proceeded to eat.  I can’t quite make out the species that he’s eating, but have a slight suspicion that the staff on the fish counter at Sainsbury’s are supplying him with a selection of their finest wet fish to keep the customers entertained.

Harborough Otter

No precise times available for his next appearance, I’m afraid,  but keep your eyes peeled.

In Next Year’s Exciting Episode … : My Season Ends At The Oval

Surrey v Yorkshire, County Championship, Oval, 27th September 2013

So, officially the end – the last day of the last first-class match of the season, though it proved to be less of a climax, or even an anti-climax, than a sort of coda, or like one of those novels where the publisher tries to interest you in a sequel by appending its first chapter to the end of the book in hand.

When I originally made plans to attend this game, it seemed highly likely that Yorkshire would be confirmed as Champions and Surrey relegated by the end of it.  Since then Yorkshire have been beaten by eventual winners Durham and failed to make up quite enough ground in their other games to overtake them.  Surrey, though, have indeed been relegated.  Both matters were decided by the penultimate round of games, so if I was hoping to witness any scenes of wild jubilation or bitter disappointment I was to be disappointed myself.

I would have enjoyed seeing Yorkshire celebrating a Championship.  I would not, though, have travelled to London specifically to see Surrey relegated, which would have been aa exercise in shadenfreude too far.  There is, though, no avoiding the fact that their demotion has been the occasion for a fair amount of hilarity and general rejoicing around the County circuit.  I suppose this unfortunate juxtaposition rather illustrates the general view of them:

Cash Machines

The current wave of hostility (not that they have ever been very popular) stems from their habit of using their supposedly vast wealth to asset-strip smaller clubs of players such as Tremlett (Hampshire), Davies, Solanki and Batty (Worcestershire), Maynard (Glamorgan), Lewis (Gloucestershire) and (if he can be called an asset at the age of 39) Keedy of Lancashire.  This season they have excelled themselves by acquiring galacticos Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting to add to the largely theoretical KP and descended into complete self parody by signing Hashim Amla on a short-term contract in a desperate bid to avoid relegation.  Their uncertainty over their future direction is hinted at by the timeline of Surrey history along one of the walls at the Oval, which peters ominously out with the appointment of Rory Hamilton-Brown as Captain in 2010, before disappearing into a gate:

Surrey timeline

All of which is a little unfair.  The old character of the Oval has just about survived the attempt to turn the ground into a kind of Australo-American megastadium: whereas Lord’s sometimes feels like an enchanted kingdom entire unto itself, the Oval, with its ambient music of traffic, aeroplanes and the babble of the playground from Tenison’s School stills tastes entirely of London life and, since I was last there, the view beyond the gasometer has gained a couple of significant additions:

Gasometer, Shard etc

The squad too has some young scions of Surrey – Burns, Dunn, Edwards and Harinath would all have had birth qualifications to satisfy Lord Harris, as does the 18-year-old Dominic Sibley (born in Epsom and educated at Whitgift), who created the main story of the match by becoming the youngest ever double centurion in First-Class Cricket (which, needless to say, I missed).  Whereas at Leicester the talk is all of the need to supplement our young home-grown players with some imported experience, the feeling at Surrey seems to be in the opposite direction, and I had the sense that Sibley’s exploits have sent the Surrey contingent away with more hope in their hearts for next season than regret for the season just passed.

Sibley was out shortly before I arrived on the Friday and Surrey declared soon after to leave Yorkshire 200 to avoid an innings defeat.  Lyth, Lees and Jacques were all out quickly to a mixture of some early September morning movement from Linley and Dunn and some last game absent-mindeness to leave Yorkshire on 21-3.  I thought, at this point, that I would be back at St. Pancras shortly after lunch, but some steady batting by Kane Williamson and a bold counter-attack by Bairstow took them to within sight of safety at 133-5, at which point Gary Ballance (who had already scored one century in the match) took over and steered Yorkshire through with a second and – as far as I can remember – chanceless hundred.  It is hard to know what to say about Ballance’s batting, which is in no way distinctive, except that he has no obvious weaknesses, played seam and – for most of the afternoon – the spin of Ansari and Batty with equal ease and appears to be a model of discipline and solidity, while having the ability to cut loose with a display of physical power when required (as he did with three boundaries in an over off Ansari to reach his century).

It was hard not to make a comparison with Bairstow’s flawed skittishness and, given that Bairstow must suspect that he is about to be supplanted at no. 6 in the England side by his team-mate, it was rather poignant that he was the first to embrace him as he left the field:

Ballance and Bairstow

Whether Geoff Boycott would have been quite so tactile if he had suspected – say – Brian Close was about to take his place in the England side I doubt.  And what “Ticker” Mitchell would have made of all this kissing and cuddling in the Yorkshire ranks doesn’t bear thinking about.

So, there we are.  Yorkshiremen can congratulate themselves on a fine season, and tell themselves that they would have won the Championship if they hadn’t had so many England calls.  Surrey members can retire to Guildford, down a few gins and dream of a new, Sibley-inspired, Golden Age.  England “fans” can look forward to hearing of robust resistance from the middle order in Australia in the small hours of December.  I hope to be back next year.  Winter well, one and all.

I realised, looking back at the photographs I’d taken of the match, that I’d inadvertently made a cameo appearance in one of them myself.  So here I am.  Looking forward or looking back? Hard to say.


Gregor MacGregor : The Daredevil Stumper

As the Six Nations ends and the cricket season peeps shyly over the horizon let us continue the theme of depictions of cricketers (and wicket-keepers in particular) by taking a look at this splendid specimen: Gregor MacGregor, who (uniquely, I think) represented England at cricket and Scotland at Rugby football.

This photograph was originally published by the News of the World as part of an 18 part series in 1895, when MacGregor was at the height of his fame (I imagine he found himself tacked up on not a few schoolboys’ bedroom walls and framed in snug bars).  From the fact that he appears to be ‘keeping on a shagpile carpet in front of  what looks like some kind of picturesque ruin I think we can deduce that this a posed studio portrait, but I think it preserves the essence of the man.

We usually think of the ‘Golden Age’ of amateur dominance as being primarily the heyday of the dashing strokemaker, but – although MacGregor was a reasonable bat – his fame was as another phenomenon of that period, the virtuoso, daredevil amateur wicket-keeper.

Gregor MacGregor

Gregor MacGregor

MacGregor originally came to prominence as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where he formed a celebrated partnership with the Australian international bowler Sammy Woods.  ‘A Country Vicar’, who was a contemporary of theirs, takes up the story:

“Gregor MacGregor and Sammy Woods were the outstanding figures in the Cambridge XI of 1891.  You might call them MacGregor and Woods, or Woods and MacGregor, whichever you pleased: they were always a pair, partners in business for the destruction of Oxford – indivisible, like Castor and Pollux, or David and Jonathan, and each equally great in his own special department of the game.  Woods was the best amateur fast bowler in England, MacGregor the best wicket-keeper.

My feelings, in 1891, as a humble Freshman, towards the fourth-year brothers-in-arms, may be described as absolute hero-worship.  To me, the great pair seemed almost super-human.  I viewed them as demigods.  I had seen them on the Rugby football field, each magnificent in his own position.  MacGregor, broad-shouldered, dark and saturnine, cool, collected and unruffled at full-back: “Sammy”‘s towering form leading the forwards.  They were equally splendid at Fenners!”

“It should be remembered that “Mac” never followed the modern fashion of standing back to fast bowling.  He stood close to the stumps even when Sammy was going all out.  And, when at his fastest, the great man was apt to be just a little erratic in pitch.  That did not trouble the wicket-keeper: he took the ball with the utmost ease and certainty, whatever its length might be.”

This style of bravura wicket-keeping (standing up to genuinely fast bowling) arose at a time when the role of the ‘keeper was changing, as Patrick Morrah explains in ‘The Golden Age of Cricket‘:

“The modern practice of standing back to bowling of anything above medium pace would have been looked on with scorn by such players [MacGregor and Martyn] … in earlier times it had been the custom to stand up to all bowling, but the wicket-keeper did not try to stop the more difficult balls; there was a long stop to look after them.  In the seventies and eighties Tom Lockyer and Alfred Lyttleton set a new standard, and long-stop became obsolete; it was now the wicket-keeper’s task to see that no byes were allowed, while at the same time watching every chance of stumping as well as catching.”

Though, according to ‘A Country Vicar’

“Lyttleton always said that the abolition of the long stop spoilt his wicket-keeping.  He had become a master of the art when that second line of defence was still considered a necessity – to save the byes; and one of the chief marks of skill then, in the man behind the stumps, was the knowledge as to which ball to take and which to allow to pass.

These exhibitions of dare-devilry (which were essentially the province of amateur players) reached their apogee in the Gentlemen v Players fixtures, for instance that of 1893, as Patrick Morrah relates:

“Pelham Warner considered a catch by MacGregor … to have been the best he ever saw.  Kortright was bowling at his fastest, and with MacGregor standing back Frank Sugg stood out of his ground.  So MacGregor came up to the wicket to force him to stay back; Kortright sent down one of his fastest deliveries, Sugg touched it, and MacGregor took the catch low down a few inches from the wicket.”

and 1906, when MacGregor’s rival and successor Harry Martyn of Oxford and Somerset stood up to Brearley and Knox, who Wisden described as having bowled ‘terrifyingly fast‘.  Martyn, too, had dared to stand up to ‘Korty’ when playing for the Gentlemen:

“Harry Martyn … is said to have taken up position at the stumps when he first kept to Kortright in a Gentleman v Players match.  The bowler did not like this and uttered words of warning: Martyn stood his ground, gathering the first of Kortright’s rockets right-handed outside the off stump, and tossed the ball back to the bowler so swiftly that it hit the poor unprepared fellow in the chest.”

The Players tended not to go in for such exhibitions, as David Frith reports in ‘The Fast Men‘:

“It was said that several of the leading wicket-keepers could have stood over the stumps to the Kortrights, Knoxes and Brearleys, but Lilley and Strudwick  – to consider only two – felt it more profitable to stand back and minimise the byes at the same time as having a better chance to hold snicks.

But presumably it was not only tactical considerations that led the professionals Strudwick and Lilley to err on the side of caution.  At worst, MacGregor and Martyn stood to lose their teeth (worth it for what the French term ‘La Gloire‘): a serious injury for a professional could have meant the loss of his livelihood and a one way trip to the Workhouse.  It was for much the same reason that the genuine speed merchants of the period were all amateurs.  There may have been professionals who could have bowled as fast as Knox or Brearley, but not if they were required to play every match in a season and hoped to extend their careers to an age where they might have managed to save enough to buy a small public house.

Strudwick may, for instance, have been mindful of the fate of a predecessor as Surrey wicket-keeper (Frith again):

“Such exhibitions as Martyn’s to the abovementioned three and MacGregor to Woods bring to mind the remark of the prizefighter Jem Mace, to Ted Pooley, Surrey’s wicket-keeper in the 1860s and 1870s: ‘I would rather stand up against any man in England for an hour than take your place behind the wicket for five minutes.  I heard that ball strike you as if it had hit a brick wall.’

On that occasion a ball had leapt from one of the wide cracks in the Lord’s pitch and removed three of Pooley’s teeth.  In taking a return from a fieldsmen at Brighton in 1871 Pooley had a finger broken.  He first noticed it when blood began to run down the sleeve of his flannel jacket, and upon removing his glove he saw that the broken bone was protruding from the flesh.  When ‘Old Ebor’ (A.W. Pullin) discovered Pooley in the Lambeth Workhouse in 1899 he described the old ‘keeper’s fists as ‘mere lumps of deformity’.

After leaving Cambridge MacGregor worked as a stock broker and played for Middlesex, retiring in 1907 with a total of  411 victims caught  and 148 stumped.  He died in 1919, aged 49.

Fires Were Started (Or Not) : A Display Of Fireworks

A little ahead of time, or a little behind it, given that most fireworks displays will have taken place over the weekend – I went to one at our local Rugby Club on Friday evening.  The major change here from previous years was that there was no bonfire – presumably because the club is a hundred yards or so from a main road and I can see that having thick clouds of smoke suddenly blinding motorists could cause problems.

There is a long and fascinating history of November 5th celebrations on Wikipedia, from which I learned that health and safety concerns are nothing new.  Fireworks were first banned on those grounds in the 1680s, ‘much mischief having been done by squibs’.  The custom of children collected Pennies for the Guy has been the subject of controversy since it first arose in the late 18th century (in 1790 the The Times first complained about children ‘begging for money for Guy Faux‘).  In 1802 a ‘set of idle fellows … with some horrid figure dressed up as Guy Faux‘ were convicted of begging and sent to prison as ‘idle and disorderly persons‘.  Nowadays the respectable complaint is that children are too idle to make Guys, or that they are prevented from asking for money by paranoia about their safety.

David Cressy is quoted as saying that, by the 18th Century, Bonfire Night had become ‘a polysemous occasion, meaning all things to all men‘, which sounds about right.  As an example, when I lived in London, I remember a friend (a Swedish Marxist academic and protoblogmartyr) and I taking our children to a display on one of London’s highest points.  He looked around as fires raged all over London and explosions lit up the sky and said “I know why you English enjoy this – it reminds you of the Blitz“.  I could see his point.

I confess to having a childlike fascination with fireworks and could look at them for hours – except that I think most small children are more likely to be frightened by fireworks than fascinated and looking at them for hours is precisely what you cannot do.  I  think – aside  from the elemental quality of the fire – that part of the fascination lies in the purely abstract beauty of the fireworks (Whistler’s pot of paint flung in the face of the public was, of course, a painting of a fireworks display).

Having taken some photographs on Friday, I could now look at them for hours (if I had the time), and can read anything into them I choose to –  a dying star, a palm tree, a coral reef, marigolds, fireflies, a Jackson Pollock, the birth of the Universe – or nothing.


A Photograph Of A Ghost

A Halloween special.

When I came to have my photographs of Matlock Bath developed, I was astonished to find that, among my snaps of the Venetian Night boat parade on the River (taken from the Jubilee Bridge) there was this –  

– quite clearly a ghost – perhaps of someone unlucky on the Lovers’ Walk – who had thrown themselves from the bridge in a fit of despair.  In a second photograph, the ghost – perhaps startled by the flash from the camera – has dissolved into a swirling mass of ectoplasm –

Explain that one away, if you can, Psychic Investigators …

Royal Pics! – Exclusive!

Some excitement in the press last week, as the newly-wed Duchess of Cambridge is photographed doing her shopping in Waitrose.

I think I can do better than that.  Here are the Duke –


and the Duchess –

making an unannounced appearance in the window of an employment agency specialising in temporary catering staff, in Granby Street, Leicester. 

I could make a fortune from these, you know.

Copyright Backwatersman Photographic Agency, 2011 (all rights reserved)

Nest Watch : Week Two

I must admit that, last week, I was feeling a little pessimistic about the prospects for our pair of nesting pies.  If Robert the Bruce had sat and watched them instead of the spider I fear he would have concluded that if at first he didn’t succeed it was probably best to call it a day.

I should have had more faith.  By Tuesday the nest had achieved a sort of “critical mass” – enough of a stable base for new twigs to be added without too much danger of them dropping down again.  Of course, the odd twig still tumbles down, but I imagine our pies can laugh this off (“do you remember, only last week … this used to happen all the time?  To think of it now!”)

The happy pair have a new spring in their step (or spring in their spring – they don’t really step) as they approach completion and are probably giving some thought as to what shade of moss they’d like to line the nest.

Almost finished

I hope you appreciate, by the way, that I am putting my liberty on the line to bring you this important news story.  The building in the background is the City of London Police Station, and this is a few yards from where photographer Grant Smith had his collar felt last year – (The Guardian had the story) for taking photographs.

I wouldn’t be too surprised either to find that our magpies – given their reputation for thieving – were being kept under surveillance.  “We have reason to believe your nest is being used to store rings and other valuable shiny items that may be the proceeds of crime. I must ask you to allow me to search the premises and I have a warrant …” 



Come and get me, Copper!