Yorkshire v Middlesex, Scarborough, County Championship, Sunday 3rd July 2016
“While I have had the best of cricket in my lifetime, there will be lifetimes to come when it will be good enough.” – J.M. Kilburn
I have left it late in life to watch cricket in Scarborough ; also, at least, forty years too late. At the ground on Sunday I bought a copy of “Sweet Summers“, a compilation of the writings of J.M. Kilburn, for many years the Cricket Correspondent of the Yorkshire Post (owing to some terrible mix-up it had been signed by Geoffrey Boycott, but I kept it anyway). Kilburn was the Laureate of Yorkshire cricket, and, in particular, the Laureate of Scarborough and its Festival, which sometimes tempted him into a slight relaxation of his scrupulously decorous prose style.
In an essay originally published in 1937 Kilburn wrote:
“Not to be concerned with cricket in the first days of September is to be an outcast in Scarborough, a stranger in a strange land without reason or justification for existence. There are cricket dances, cricket banquets, cricket celebrations of every possible kind, cricket is first and last in the mind of every public entertainer.”
This was not the case over the week-end (the entertainer in our hotel, a Doncaster songbird, seemed more concerned with the deficiencies in her love-life) and I doubt whether it is any longer even true during what is left of the Festival proper, now shrunk to five days in August.
We stayed in the Grand Hotel (historically, an essential part of the Festival experience). So intense was the interest in the players who were staying there that a special room (“the Cricketers’ Room”) was set aside for them to escape pestering. It closed in 1979, by which time public interest in cricketers had, presumably, subsided sufficiently to allow them to eat their breakfast unmolested. In 2016 I doubt whether even Joe Root would be greeted by more than a flicker of recognition over his cornflakes, and I wonder how many visitors would be able to name this character, who gazes, all lordly, down at them as they make their way to their rooms.
lf I am forty years late for the heyday of the cricket festival, I am about a hundred and forty late for that of the Grand, which, after various changes of ownership, now combines the architecture and décor of a Belle Epoque spa hotel with the ambience and amenities of an English holiday camp (a sort of L’Année dernière à Pontins effect, “grand” in both the French and the George Formby senses).
In a small history of the hotel on sale from reception Nikolaus Pevsner describes it as
“a High Victorian gesture of assertion and confidence, of denial of frivolity and insistence on substance than which none more telling can be found in the land.”
I was initially puzzled by that phrase “denial of frivolity” (the Grand struck me as a vast monument to frivolity), but I suppose what he means is an undertaking that is essentially frivolous, yet taken entirely seriously. Which brings us neatly on to Yorkshire cricket (and Kilburn’s writing about it).
In a series of tributes at the end of “Sweet Summers“, David Frith writes that he prefers Kilburn to his Lancastrian contemporary Neville Cardus “for the simple reason that he did not indulge himself in fantasy”, nor, he might have added, whimsy, comedy or aestheticism. Yorkshire cricket (in the person of Kilburn) demands that the game be respected as an essentially serious undertaking : Lancashire cricket (in the writings of Cardus) has a deep-lying sense of its own essential absurdity.*
Lancashire cricket has accommodated exquisites such as Reggie Spooner, who would be dismissed as poseurs in Yorkshire, irresponsible egotists like Archie MacLaren, who would be taken down a peg or two, buffoons of genius like Flintoff, amateurs, dilettantes, piss-artists and assorted comedians who would all be regarded with grave suspicion the other side of the Pennines.
It has also (perhaps because its two main cities are ports and its main industry relied on an import) been more outward-looking and accommodating to outsiders : Lloyd and Engineer looked no more out of place than Ted McDonald had fifty years before.
Yorkshire is not simply inward-looking, but it does have a sense of unselfconscious mental self-sufficiency that is, I think, found nowhere else in England. (Kilburn, unlike Cardus, never left his native county, and never saw any reason to.) If Scarborians are insular, that is forgivable in a setting where the sense of living on an island is so intense, where Europe seems so far away and the open sea so inescapable.
The atmosphere at North Marine Road is not, perhaps, entirely representative of the Yorkshire attitude (Scarborough is, as Kilburn says “Yorkshire cricket on holiday”) but there was no mistaking that it was a Yorkshire crowd ; not unthinkingly partisan, but, as he suggests elsewhere, more deeply and personally identified with the fortunes of their team than the supporters of other English counties.
The ground itself was larger than I had expected, with a capacity roughly equal to that of Grace Road (apparently the crowd on Sunday was 3,500, Yorkshire’s largest of the season) and more modern. There was one wooden stand (where I spent most of the day), and an expanse of wooden banking (where the rowdier element congregated), but there were also new stands with plastic tip-up seats and, rather to my disappointment, no deckchairs (and no brass band).
The first ball of the day saw Adam Lyth play the archetypical Yorkshire opener’s shot – the leave. Unfortunately, the ball, from Tim Murtagh, moved in at him, kissed the face of his bat and dropped neatly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. This brought Kane Williamson (appreciated in the same way as a good club professional, though I don’t suppose he is expected to help roll the wicket) in to join the other opener, Alex Lees.
Everything about Lees (one of those players to whom I have a not entirely rational attachment) is ramrod straight, from his stance at the crease
to the arc of his strokes. He bats as if inside an invisible sentry box and, if (perish the thought!), he had walk-on music, it should be “The British grenadiers” (“Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules“). He hits his boundaries with a crack like a pistol shot, whereas Williamson strokes them silently, as if batting with a giant feather.
Lees and Williamson’s partnership proved the most enjoyable part of the day (though not, I think, the crowd’s favourite). Williamson was out in exactly the same way as Lyth, which brought Gary Ballance to the crease. Lees had not looked in great form, but compared to Ballance, he seemed to be batting as if in a dream. Ballance is always an awkward, limited player but, at the beginning of this innings, he seemed like a child playing with a bat two sizes too big for him. Observing his slow progress to a century (shortly before the close) was like watching a three-legged donkey giving rides on the beach : inelegant, at times painful to watch, but astonishing to see it done at all.
After Lees had gone (for 63), and Gale soon after, Ballance was joined by Tim Bresnan. Although Ballance is an old Harrovian from Zimbabwe, he embodies enough of the stubbornness of the stereotypical Yorkshireman, and makes enough runs, to have won the goodwill of the crowd : Bresnan is echt-Yorkshire and claims it as his birthright. As the day wore on (and, between Ballance’s scratching and poking and Roland-Jones’s lackadaisical traipse back to his far-distant mark, it might have seemed a long afternoon in less pleasant surroundings) Pevsner, had he dropped by, would have detected many of the same “gesture[s] of assertion and confidence” in the crowd as he had in the architecture of the Grand Hotel.
As it was, Ballance’s painstakingly constructed platform was, eventually, to be washed away, like an afternoon’s sandcastle erased by an evening tide. I should also say that, as on every occasion I have seen them bowl together, Tim Murtagh was more effective than either Finn or Toby Roland-Jones. I have never heard Murtagh mentioned as a potential England player (and now he never will be), whereas, as I have learned while writing this, both Finn and Roland-Jones (not to mention Ballance) have been included in the squad for the next Test match. Murtagh, I suppose, “doesn’t look like a Test bowler“.
I walked back to the Grand, not, as I had arrived, along North Marine Road, but along the seafront. A woman, having drained the weekend to the dregs, had collapsed outside a pub and was receiving medical attention on the pavement, some Italian goths were photographing Anne Bronte’s grave, another drunk was groping blindly in the gutter for something to throw at his companion and, at the hotel, a man in an MCC panama, with the glint of happier days in his eyes, was checking.
And on all of this, it being only July, the evening sun shone brightly and high in the sky ; there were no long shadows on the outfield, no sun setting over the bays, no chill in the air, none of what Cardus called “the ache of festival cricket“. If I want that, I suppose, I shall have to come back later in the year, or another year, which I should like, if it is not too late.
*(A declaration of interest : I spent most of my childhood in the vicinity of Blackpool. Although I have never considered myself a proper Lancastrian, no doubt some of their influence has rubbed off on me. I prefer Cardus.)