Golden Hours (A Trick Of The Light) : My July In Cricket

Northants 2nd XI v Sussex 2nd XI, Finedon Dolben CC

Bedfordshire CCC v Cambridgeshire CCC, Bedford Modern School

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road

Leicestershire 2nd XI v Warwickshire 2nd XI, Grace Road

(all July 2014)

“Sit on the Mound Stand at Lord’s on midsummer morning at noon, and if the sun be ample and you close your eyes for a while you will see a vision of all the cricket fields in England at that very minute; it is a vision of the game’s rich seasonal yield; a vision of green spaces over our land, of flashing bats, of thudding, convulsive bowlers, and men in white alone in the deep or bent low in the slips.”

I have quoted that passage (from “The Summer Game” by Neville Cardus) before.  It describes an experience that he that hath understanding of that vexatious phrase “the Spirit of Cricket” will have had at least once (perhaps as often as once a season, if they’re lucky), even if he (or she) might be shy of admitting it.  English cricketers may, as Bernard Shaw once unintentionally pointed out, be unspiritual people, but cricket does occasionally allow them a glimpse of, if not eternity exactly, a kind of seemingly infinite simultaneity.

Of course it’s not necessary to sit in the Mound Stand at Lord’s on midsummer morning to summon the Spirit of Cricket (she is that not that local or particular a Deity).  If I were to try to summon her deliberately I’d have a couple of pints at lunchtime on a sunny day and sit in the stand on the roof of the Charles Palmer Suite (which usually does the trick).  But at the beginning of the month I was surprised to be surprised by the Spirit in what is, almost literally, my own backyard, the Little Bowden Recreation Ground.

At the end of an overcast day which had turned brilliant to the point of hallucination towards evening I made a slight detour on my way home and chanced upon the time-honoured closing stages of a close encounter (the last man, the last over, the winning run, the handshake, the pub).

Little Bowden Rec July 2014

No doubt it was merely a trick of the light (at close to what photographers call the “golden hour”) but at that moment the two elevens seemed to contain all cricketers everywhere and of all time, stretching back to Hambledon and beyond.

Of course, it is the curse of visionaries (think of Rat in “the Wind in the Willows”, for instance, or even Julian of Norwich) that they cannot convey in words the substance of their visions to those who haven’t shared them, which is why it is generally wiser not to attempt it.  But something of that feeling has remained with me through the month and lent a sense of unity to what are, on the face of it, unrelated happening and sights …

… Nathan Buck attempting to score off a last over bouncer from Mark Footitt …

Young Buck

… some natty duck-egg blue sight screens at Finedon Dolben …

Finedon 1

(the batsman is Samit Patel’s brother Akhil, seen here leaving the pitch looking pained after narrowly missing his century)

Akhil Patel

… a tree in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, which overlooks the ground at Finedon (and where at lunchtime the incumbent, the popular radio evangelist the Rev. Richard Coles was supervising the raising of the bellows) …

Finedon Churchyard

… a Cambridgeshire player (who I think embodies the Spirit of Amateurism as much as anything) tucking his trousers into what appear to be (Harlequins?) rugby socks …

Bedford 1 (socks)

… the same displaying a broadness of beam in the slips not seen in the professional game since the heyday of Cowdrey, Milburn and Sharpe …

Bedford 3 (slips)

… a World War II bomber that passed low over the field at Bedford in the late afternoon …

Bedford (2) bomber

and even the poor, much abused alleyway that leads to Grace Road …

Grace Rd alleyway

… until, as the month ends, the skies darken and the outfield parches, Barrow Town’s Stan once again hit out boldly in the closing overs …

Stan Fairfield Rd Aug 2014

So, Lo! – do you see? – it all coheres!  Well no, of course, it doesn’t really cohere at all, but sometimes – do you see? – it just seems to for a moment.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a fine Summer evening, and there might be some cricket still going on somewhere in the vicinity …

(On a more sober note, future England watchers should make a note of the name Sam Hain, who took advantage of the new 50 over format to build a substantial century for Warwicks 2nd XI at Grace Rd. last week.  The new Ian Bell, mark my words, unless he changes his mind and decides he’s Australian again.)

A Last Look Back : Bedford School And Belper Meadows

(I suppose this is a kind of “Extra”, such as you get on DVDs after the main feature has finished.  A couple of matches I attended this season, but didn’t write about at the time.)

Bedfordshire v Hertfordshire, Bedford School, July 2013

Derbyshire 2nd XI v MCC YC, Belper Meadows, August 2013

“Dr. Johnson remarked that if he had no reference to posterity he would spend his life driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman, and, never minding the company of pretty women, there are few more enjoyable ways of spending the English summer in peace-time than riding briskly about the country in trains and cars from one cricket ground to another.  To be sure an object beyond the mere watching of cricket is necessary lest eternal contemplation lead to surfeit, to spiritual malaise and dissatisfaction …”  Dudley Carew, from ‘To the Wicket’ (1946)

Quite so.

I think that you would have to watch cricket professionally for there to be any danger of it leading to “spiritual malaise and dissatisfaction” but, nourishing as a constant diet of good plain cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads may be, I do sometimes hanker after pastures new, particularly when I look through the grounds where Minor Counties and Second XI cricket are played.  Bovey Tracey, Shifnal, Cresselly, Redruth, Mumbles, Great and Little Tew, Aston Rowant, Copdock, Ombersley, Frocester, Sidmouth (if you have a spare moment, try rearranging them into a poem).  I don’t suppose, the state of the railways being what it is, that I shall ever see cricket played at most of those grounds, but I did take advantage of the T20 break this year to visit two of the more picturesque sounding grounds within reasonable travelling distance – Lady Bay in Nottingham (which I wrote about earlier in the season) and Belper Meadows in Derbyshire.

I also paid a visit to Bedford School, where I saw Bedfordshire play Hertfordshire, once, that is, I’d managed to gain entry to the place.  Locating the School is easy enough, but finding an entrance that was open involved a complete circumnavigation of the perimeter walls, rattling at a succession of locked gates (they didn’t seem to be expecting many spectators).  Once inside, the pitch was one of many, overlooked on one side by an imposing red brick building

Bedford School 1

on another by the Pavilion, modern and largely dedicated to Alistair Cook, though it also displayed honours boards that stretch back as far as E.H.D. Sewell

Bedford School Pavilion

and on a third by a marquee, which seemed to be there to accommodate the great, the good and the red-trousered of Bedfordshire cricket

Bedford School marquee

Apparently I was there on President’s Day, and at lunch the great and good disappeared into the marquee, not to re-emerge until tea.  I didn’t have the impression that Bedfordshire were taking the game particularly seriously, after the initial session, as Hertfordshire piled up a considerable total on what seemed to be a fairly dead pitch.  Periodically a huge cheer was heard from the marquee, answered (ironically, perhaps) by the Bedfordshire fieldsmen and the Captain spent most of the afternoon performing imitations of his teammates’ fielding.  At tea, the G&G emerged, fairly well-lubricated in some cases and I headed home, perhaps to return another day.

Somewhere I will definitely be returning another day (if I’m spared) will be Belper Meadows, where I went to watch a pleasant enough match between Derbyshire 2nd XI and the MCC Young Cricketers.  Belper is a small town with a distinguished industrial history eight miles from Derby, on the edge of the Peak District, not quite pretty enough to attract much in the way of tourism.  As at Bedford, I had some difficulty locating the ground and found myself in a cafe in search of a cheese and onion roll and some directions.  An elderly man, who I would say was on the cusp of eccentricity and something else, offered to accompany me to the ground, telling me that he walked to Belper from Derby and back every day and soliloquising about the joys of the single life.  I did wonder quite where he was taking me, but he did indeed lead me down a narrow passageway beside the town library (all the best grounds seem to be reached by narrow passageways) and there it was.  Technically the club is Belper Meadows and the ground Christchurch Meadows and it too is overlooked by an imposing red brick building, in this case a mill, built in 1913

Belper

and, on another, by a vista of rolling countryside

Belper 2

I remember that this match was at the same time as the hoo-ha about Stuart Broad walking or not amid fervent debate as to the existence or otherwise of the Spirit of Cricket.  I have always pictured this Spirit of Cricket as a shy nymph (perhaps portrayed by Sir Edward Poynter) unlikely to reveal herself under the glare of television cameras and the gaze of thousands of Test Match spectators, but who may be surprised sometimes (when you are least expecting it) in the quiet places such as Belper Meadows.  I may have sought the elusive Spirit in many places this season, but felt I was closest to her presence here.

Belper is on the Derwent Valley Line (as are many cricket grounds)

Belper

pleasant with lavender, buzzing, on the day I visited, with butterflies and bees

Belper Station

and I think (pace Dr. Johnson) that had I no reference to posterity, or indeed practicality, I could quite happily spend my Summers riding the Line from one ground to another.

Enough looking back, I suppose, as we are now well into the football season.  I couldn’t help noticing that, sandwiched between Christchurch Meadows and the Mill, was a tidy little football ground with some rather attractive cowshed-style stands, the home of Belper F.C., so perhaps I will have another reason to ride the Derwent Valley Line before the year is out.

Picture Post : Bedford Modern School and Queen’s Park, Chesterfield

I seem to have been too busy watching cricket recently to write very much about it, or anything else, and the season seems to be hurtling to its conclusion faster than I can keep up with it.  So, in attempt to clear the mounting backlog of matches, here is a largely pictorial account of two of them.

Bedfordshire v Cambridgeshire, Bedford Modern School, 26th July 2011

Derbyshire v Northamptonshire, Chesterfield, County Championship, 19th August 2011

Bedford is one stop further up the line from London than Luton, where I last saw Bedfordshire in action, and is slightly more distinctive of the county and less like a suburb of the capital. 

Bedford Modern School is the less well-known brother (a sort of Eric Bedser) of Bedford School. Bedford School has produced many of the current Northamptonshire squad (via a spell with Bedfordshire), not to mention Alistair Cook.  The Modern School can, though, boast of Monty Panesar as a recent sprig.

Like Bedford itself, the ground is rural from one aspect –

urban from another –

The pavilion is attractive –

the dates on the clock (1566 is the date of establishment) suggesting  it was built in 1922

and there was a Marquee for the blazers to graze in –

The day was also enlivened by the arrival of a slightly alarming man, clearly some sort of local hero, who arrived with a sheaf of press cuttings about the day he’d scored a century against Johnny Wardle, presumably when Wardle was playing for Cambridgeshire.

Queen’s Park in Chesterfield has, I’m pleased to say, altered little since my visit in July of last year.  One difference though is that, as we are now in the School Holidays, the playground just outside the ground behind one of the wickets was full of children, and there was a miniature railway in operation. 

As at Desborough, the club have erected a high net to prevent lofted straight drives from braining some unfortunate infant

Although it wasn’t really that kind of game, a net like this is seen as a challenge by some players, and James Middlebrook almost managed to hit over it a couple of times.

Simply as a game the one at Bedford rather had the edge.  It was the last day of a three day match, and was decided at about half past five, with the result uncertain until the last half hour (Bedfordshire won, I think).  Given fine weather, three days really ought to be enough for a cricket match.

I suppose the four day game does provide better preparation for Test cricket, in the sense that it allows one side to grind out a huge total and then crush the other like a bug.  In this case it was Northamptonshire doing the grinding and crushing, moving from 286-6 to 416-9 dec. to set Derbyshire 493 to win.  Oh for the days of the sporting declaration!

Although Northants’ batting was undeniably impressive, the most entertaining part of the day was when opener Chesney Hughes removed a couple of tail enders with his occasional slow left armers.  Here we see him acknowledging the applause of the crowd –

    

When Northants declared, a very charming man, who must have been at least seventy, tapped me on the shoulder and asked why the announcer had said that Derbyshire needed 493 when Northants had only scored 416.  When I told him that the score on the board was only the score in the second innings, he thanked me for the explanation and said that it was his first time at the cricket.

Good to see Festival Cricket attracting a whole new audience!

Harmony in Luton : A Day At The Minor Counties

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.