I love the relatively gentle tempo of county cricket… being part of a tiny crowd of (mainly) old men who seem to spend most of their time talking about the ‘old days’ (although, to be fair to Somerset, they attract daily crowds of perhaps up to 5,000 whereas at the Gloucestershire game I attended a couple of weeks ago, there couldn’t have been much more than 200 people present) . I much prefer watching the four-day games (they used to be three-day back in my youth) to the one-dayers or the Twenty20 versions and, over recent years, have watched games at Taunton, Bristol and Birmingham.
I’ve been reading Neville Cardus’s wonderful book “The Summer Game” (first published in 1928 – my copy was published in 1949) – hugely evocative and very beautifully written. It’s conjured up lots of my own cricket-watching memories…Growing up in Birmingham, the Birmingham+District Cricket League was readily accessible to us and I used to go and watch West Bromwich Dartmouth (just up the road from us) – starting perhaps in 1960(?). I well remember being mesmerised by watching Roly Jenkins in action (born in 1918, he was a talented leg-spin bowler who’d played for England several times)… as well as his bowling (and his age!), my principle memories of him were that a) he always wore his cap, even when bowling, and b) he always used to field at mid-on/off and, if the ball went past him (which wasn’t difficult), he used to let one of the other players run after it!
My early county championship games were at Edgbaston, watching Warwickshire. I’m pretty sure that my grandfather Fred was a member, but I don’t think he ever took me to a game. I certainly remember going to Edgbaston in 1960, 1961 and 1962… Warwickshire ‘heroes’ included MJK Smith, AC Smith, Tom Cartwright, Jack Bannister, Jim Stewart, Billy Ibadulla, Norman Horner, David Brown, John Jameson and Ronnie Miller (I once watched Horner and Ibadulla put on 377 for the first wicket). The wonderful thing in those days (which I very much regret in the current game) was that a) international cricketers were always in the county game (these days they rarely feature) and b) the touring sides ALWAYS played each of the 17 county sides (Durham have subsequently been added). I was fortunate enough to see South Africa, Australia and the West Indies play Warwickshire in 1960, ’61 and ’62 respectively – which meant that I saw such stars as Richie Benaud, Bobby Simpson, Neil Harvey, Graham McKenzie, Wally Grout, Jackie McGlew, Hugh Tayfield, Frank Worrall, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith (sadly, I don’t think I ever saw Gary Sobers).
These, of course, were the days before helmets for batsmen and close fielders – memories of MJK Smith fielding in his cap and bespectacled at short-leg, just a couple of yards from the bat… apparently fearless!
One thing I certainly regret these days is the fact that, with the massive increase in the number of international matches (five day test matches, one dayers and Twenty20 games), the county game has become very much ‘second division’ in cricketing terms – with current international cricketers only making intermittent appearances for their county sides due to their other contractual commitments (see footnotes at the end!). It means that county teams are largely made up of keen young players endeavouring to make their mark (which is obviously a good thing, but…); run-of-the-mill/average players who are never going to make an international side; or a few players who are perhaps on the cusp of international cricket – some having been discarded or desperately wanting to be given another chance and some simply ‘waiting for the call’. Sadly, virtually the only way to see the ‘star’ players is to go and watch the international games.
It’s very strange looking back… I well remember looking for the cricket scores every morning during the summer in my father’s Daily Mail (sorry!). I even recall the annual Gentlemen v Players matches (between professionals and amateurs, which were thankfully abandoned in 1963). I well remember the Annual Sports Argus Cricket Annual produced by the local newspaper at the start of each season (why on earth did I ever throw them away?).
When I was at college in Oxford (1968 was my first summer), I frequently dropped in to University Parks to watch (for free) the university play one of the county sides – at a time when the university games were given ‘first class’ status. After leaving college in 1973, I got a job with The Oxford Architects Partnership in Oxford city centre and managed to negotiate a ‘deal’ with one of the partners allowing me to have extended summer lunch hours so I could cycle to University Parks to watch an hour’s cricket. Imran Khan played for the university in 1973-75 and I have a memory of seeing him complete his double century against one of the counties (unfortunately, I can’t access any of the old scorecards without signing up and paying a subscription for one of the online cricket archive sites!). Journalist and BBC Test Match Special commentator Vic Marks also captained the university side in 1975+76.
Somewhat ridiculously, I’ve never been to a test match (I probably need to rectify this deficiency!), but I have been to watch a game at Lords. It was the University match between Oxford and Cambridge in perhaps 1998(?). At that time, I was a partner of Brocklehurst Architects and one of our employees, Mike Kennedy, was a cricket-mad Middlesex supporter (his only question when interviewed about working for us was “can you allow me to watch all the Middlesex games – home and away - during the cricket season?”!). Because he was a long-standing Middlesex CC member (and Lord’s is their home ground) and someone who appeared to “know everyone”, he obtained special permission for me to enter the hallowed Pavilion and get into the England (ie. home) dressing room, as it were… from where we walked down the main stairs (in my imagination, I was padded up and carrying my bat… obviously), through the Long Room, down the pavilion steps, out on to the outfield and then walk to the wicket! An amazing privilege that very few non-players receive. A very special cricketing memory.
As far as my own playing ‘career’ was concerned, I was just a pretty ordinary player - although I did captain our junior school team - I recall taking seven wickets at Handsworth Park against Grove Lane School on the day Princess Margaret was married (but she didn’t send me a congratulatory card!) and was vice-captain of the Handsworth Grammar first eleven. I was very much a utility player – reasonably gifted, but nothing special! I did get a trial for Warwickshire Schoolboys, but utterly failed to make a good impression. Indeed, batsmen were given two overs each and I seem to remember being ‘out’ five times in twelve balls – I don’t recall the bowler, but he probably went on to become an international superstar (of course)!! – and my bowling failed to take a single wicket. In my own mind, of course, I was a VERY accomplished batsman/wicket-keeper/leg spinner (remember, this was WELL before Shane Warne was born!). I also very much enjoyed playing cricket for my office (The Oxford Architects Partnership) in later years and we were very fortunate to be able play on a variety of wonderful Oxford College grounds – including the University second eleven ground of New College… where I scored my one and only half century (still no blue plaque!).
So, today, I went to watch a division one relegation battle at Taunton (Somerset need to win to stand a chance of avoiding relegation). The last game of the season… Day One, Somerset v Middlesex. Lots of doubt over the weather… would it rain? The forecast wasn’t exactly brilliant, but I decided to risk it anyway – afterall, this was my LAST chance to watch a game this season. Would it be a momentous day when I see the burgeoning talents of future (or past) England stars?I HAD been intending to watch the mid-table second division game at Bristol, between Gloucestershire and Derbyshire… but the weather forecast didn’t sound good (certainly worse than Taunton – but who knows with these forecasts!?). In the event, I made the right call… there were only 26 overs at Bristol due to rain and the wet outfield, whereas there was a full day’s exciting cricket at Taunton (Somerset 236 all out, Middlesex 18-3 at the close)… lots of action, a few dropped catches and a dramatic comeback by Somerset at the end of the day (and eleven of the 13 wickets fell to spinners).
Photo: The Middlesex players “team bonding” before taking to the field after lunch…
PS: Actually, although there was only one current England player featuring in today’s game at Taunton (Dawid Malan), the Middlesex team did also feature three players who have played for England over the past three years – Steven Finn, Sam Robson and Nick Compton)… Somerset’s only contribution was 41 year-old Marcus Trescothick – who last played for England 11 years ago.
PPS: Yes, there are more competitions (one-dayers and Twenty20s) these days, but it seems astonishing to me that the last game of the English domestic season finishes just THREE days before the start of October! This is supposed to be a “summer game” for goodness sake – there are only SO many jumpers that a cricketer can wear on the field at any one time (and hugely unfair on the spectators – the idea of them wrapped up in their winter coats and thermals for 6 or 7 hours a day for the four-day County Championship games seems faintly ridiculous!)… In 1960, for example, things seemed far more sensible – with the last game finishing on 6 September.