A Midlands Romance

 

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“The only thing romantic in the Midlands is the names of the professional football clubs – and football, generally speaking, is not a romantic game …

 

The towns are, perhaps, not meant for summer, summer’s delights and summer’s games, and only when the fogs come down and blur their grim, unlovely lines and the street-lamps mingle with lights from stalls and shops to deck them out in a boisterous blaze do they become warm and human. 

 

Football is their proper game, and, seen in the lights of the trams as they sway over lines glittering in the December rain, the stop-press columns of the evening papers with their long lists of scores and results take on a mystic significance …”

Meet me on the corner when the lights are coming on and I’ll be there – I promise I’ll be there …”

Quotations from Dudley Carew (“To The Wicket”) and Rod Clements (“Meet Me On The Corner”).

 

Happy Days and End Games

 

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On my first visit of the season, I complained that the inscription on the sundial in the Garden of Remembrance at the County Ground, Northampton had become illegible. I don’t know whether close to six months at Wantage Road has somehow cleansed my doors of perception, or whether they have shelled out to have it cleaned, but on my last visit I found I could read it clearly. It seems to read:

Make time, save time, while time lasts. All time is no time, when time is past.

This sounds like the sort of riddle contestants on 3-2-1 once had to solve to win a microwave oven, but, in fact, appears to have been borrowed from the 17th century monumental sculptor, Nicholas Stone. If the specifics are a little gnomic, the gist is clear : (depending on how you like your eggs) carpe diem, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … YOLO.

As September falls, a sense of an ending concentrates the minds of players, coaches and spectators alike, though unalike, according to their roles. Months of settling for high scoring draws (ensuring that the season will not be the kind of disaster that leads to the coach losing his job) give way to a desperate dash for results. In the previous five months of 4-day cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads I saw two results, in the last five weeks, I have seen five (two defeats and a win for Leicestershire, two wins for Northamptonshire).

For a few players, the end of the season will see their last game, some for their current club, for others anywhere or ever. The same goes for some of the crowd : we all hope to winter well, to see you next year, to have all the time in the world, but, as I was saying in the Spring, it does not do to take time for granted. And hovering at the back of our minds, at this season’s ending in particular, there skulks the baleful figure of the Angel of Death, in the shape of Colin Graves, and his plans for city-based cricket.  All time is no time, when time is past …

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, County Championship, 6-7 September 2016

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Should any of us have required a reminder of our mortality, the first day of this game had been designated as “Heart Attack Awareness Day” : praiseworthy, of course, though I found the sight of children simulating heart attacks in the outfield during the lunch interval did little to alleviate the sense of unease generated by another poor Leicestershire performance. They had gambled by preparing a green wicket against a side whose main strength looked to be its seam bowling, and who would have first use of that wicket. Not unpredictably, they were bowled out for 135 and 119 and, having allowed Sussex to recover from 156-7 to 313 (an inability to dock the tail has been a persistent problem), lost by an innings within two days. As if that were not punishment enough, the Umpires added to the insult by reporting the pitch to the ECB.

Little has gone right for Leicestershire recently ; what, precisely, has gone wrong is peculiarly hard to say, though the steep swan-dive in form has, at least, coincided with the confirmation that coach Andrew McDonald would be returning to Australia and the sudden departure of wicket-keeper and chief opposition-irritant Niall O’Brien. What goes on inside a professional cricket club is as mysterious to outsiders as what goes on inside a marriage : commentary is, at best, speculation, at worst gossip. It does appear to the outside observer, though, that the core of this side, mostly thirty-somethings of Australian or South African origin, are a rather introverted, self-sufficient group whose loyalty is (not unnaturally) to each other, rather than to Leicestershire per se, and who, without being actively unfriendly, see little need to build a rapport with outsiders.

There are also hints of a hierarchical split between the first-teamers (eight of whom have played in almost every four-day match this season) and the younger, local-ish players, reduced to the 2s and fetching and carrying (and who are gradually being shed from the staff). Zak Chappell, potentially the most talented, has been unable to bowl more than a few exploratory overs since he broke down in April, but returned against Sussex. Inevitably, given the long lay-off, his length and direction were awry (though he was quick enough to induce some balletics from Eckersley, who is nothing if not an elegant wicket-keeper). When he did finally find his range to finish the innings by clean bowling Jofra Archer, there seemed to be a marked lack of the usual back-slapping and high-fiving from his senior colleagues, and he was left out for the next game in favour of the ready-made Richard Jones. It would be a shame if he had to go elsewhere to find nurture.

Derbyshire 2nd XI v Glamorgan 2nd XI, Belper Meadows, 8th September 2016

The premature ending at Grace Road gave me a last chance to re-visit what is probably my favourite ground on the circuit, at Belper. I have tried to capture its charm in words before, but, as its appeal is largely aesthetic, it is probably best conveyed in pictures. I wondered why anyone would want to watch city-based cricket when they have the option of its De Chiroco shadows and distant prospects of the East Mill and the Derwent Valley.

(On the subject of intimations of mortality, during this match a Derbyshire batsman, completing his second run to reach 200, was struck on the head by a shy at the wicket. He lay motionless on the ground, and there was initially some concern that he was dead. Happily, it transpired that he was just having a larf (#topbantz!), but I wonder, if he had been killed instantly while out of his ground, but his momentum had carried his lifelless body over the crease, would the run have stood? Is it enough for the batsman’s body to complete the run, or does he need to be present in spirit? A question for Ask the Umpire, perhaps, or possibly a theologian.)

Leicestershire Over 50s v Essex Over 50s, Kibworth, 11h September 2016

The final of the Over 50s 50/50 Cup (I don’t think the Over 60s play 60 overs) saw the first of this season’s happy endings. Leicestershire (the underdogs) were struggling (as the shadows lengthened) at 108-9, in reply to Essex’s 167, when the last man arrived at the crease. He made the bulk of the runs to take us to victory, and, as darkness fell, he was sprayed with Champagne by his team-mates, and presented with the Man of the Match Award by the increasingly Tudor Mike Gatting. This is what is usually described as a “fairytale ending”, or “like something out of a Boy’s Own Comic” ; we instinctively mistrust them as too neat, too satisfying, as, in fiction, they would be. Which is why it matters that it actually happened, and that we can believe our eyes.

Derbyshire v Leicestershire, AAA Arena Derby, 12th September 2016

Of all the counties I know well, I’d say Derbyshire has the most attractive grounds – apart from Belper, there is Chesterfield, Buxton, Duffield and, no doubt, many more I have yet to visit. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the County choose to play all but one of their home games at the AAA Arena, which is rapidly transforming itself into one of the ugliest. It has long suffered from being surrounded by a system of ringroads that makes it perilous to approach and which keeps up a whooshing, grumbling, drone in the background, and is famously windswept. It used to have redeeming features, though, such as a well-stocked secondhand bookshop, decent ice-cream, and deckchairs rather than fixed seating around much of the boundary. Unfortunately, this section was cordoned off in connection with the building of a new media centre, which seems designed to complete the transformation from a cricket ground to a collection of multi-use industrial units (with a Travelodge looming over it all). I am not unaware of the commercial imperatives that lie behind this (and that something of the sort threatens at Grace Road), but the thought does occur that, if this is the future for the smaller counties, then a threatened alternative future of playing minor counties at, for instance, Belper, might well be preferable.

It didn’t help that the weather was dull, the crowd glum (as well they might, not having won a match all season), and it cost £18.00 to get in. On the field, it was another frustrating day for Leicestershire, who having ground Derbyshire down to 177-6, as usual allowed 19-year old wicket-keeper Harvey Hosein (83*) to drag the innings out to 307. Both sides looked weary, as though they felt that the season had gone on for too long, and as the gloaming descended in the late afternoon, I began to feel the same way. The most interesting feature of the day was that one of the home supporters had brought along a pet tortoise in a cardboard box, which was allowed to graze just outside the boundary fence ; on the whole I found watching that more entertaining than what was going on inside it.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire, County Ground, 12-15 September 2016

Moving from Derby to Northampton was to move from gloom into bright light (once the early mist had burned off). Since their T20 victory, Northamptonshire have been sealed in a golden bubble of happiness, on a winning streak where every gamble they take pays off, where they only have to hope for something to make it happen, much as it must seem to their talisman Duckett (who, while Leicester and Derby had been toiling, had knocked off 208 in a victory over Kent). In this match he could only manage a 70, mostly backhand-smashed off Gloucestershire’s quartet of season-weary back-of-a-length merchants, though he was presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year Award (not to mention being called up by England).

On the final day, Gloucestershire had been set 441 to win. At 286-5 with time shortening, logic suggested a draw, but dream logic demanded that Northants should bowl them out, and that Ben Sanderson (a plucked-from-obscurity fairy story in himself), should take eight wickets to do it. After that it was beers on the balcony, and precious, sweaty, kit flung over it to the faithful, who lingered as long at the ground as they decently could. Make time, save time, while time lasts …

Northamptonshire’s Members too, seem to be locked in a golden bubble of happiness, to the extent that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to surrender control of the club to a “group of investors” (I voted against this). The current investors appear to be amiable and well-intentioned, and, in the short-term, the future may well appear bright. In the longer term, though, when those investors grow old, or need some cash, the ex-Members may discover that it is harder to regain control of a club than to surrender it, at least until it goes bust (as the supporters of more than local football club will testify).

On the other hand, the long term is too far ahead to look for some of the older Members. As I heard one say “Oh, well. There’ll be cricket here next year … and maybe the year after”. Carpe diem … and let the future look after itself.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road, 20-22 September 2016

And so to the end, and a bitter end it looked to be, when Leicestershire were bowled out for 96 on the first morning (on what Andrew McDonald described as one of the worst days of first-class cricket he had ever seen). I won’t bore you with what led them to this position, but Gloucestershire found themselves, at lunch on the third day, needing 35 to win with 6 wickets in hand. There followed a fairytale ending, of the kind in which the big bad wolves (in the shape of Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck) gobble up the little piggies, as they lost those six wickets for ten runs, to give Leicestershire their first home win since 2012. It somehow happened too quickly to quite take in, and, after a brief explosion of disbelief and relief, I was left with the realisation that, after close to six months, and God knows how many thousands of words, it was all over, finished, gone, and I could think of nothing to say about it at all.

All time is no time, when time is past …

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Remembrance Days at Wantage Road

The County Ground at Northampton houses a pleasantly modest memorial garden. It contains a sundial, memorials to various worthies of the club (such as Ken Turner) and one to the Northamptonshire players who died during the two World Wars. It is surprising that it was erected as recently as 2014, but then it seems that the sense of loss for the war-dead increases rather than diminishes as time goes by, and as those who survived the wars, too, die away.

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I had only heard of one of the seven commemorated on the plaque (R.P. Nelson, who I believe has, or had, a personal memorial in the pavilion), but their stories were roughly as follows:

Sydney Askham played 5 matches in 1914, Ryan 8 between 1911 and 1914 and Tomblin 2 in 1914.  Askham, an all-rounder, had played for Wellingborough School and was killed, aged 19 at the Somme.  Ryan, a regular soldier from Roade, also played 1 match for Ireland, and died at Loos in 1915, aged 23.  Tomblin, from Brixworth, died a year later at the same age.

S.C. Adams, “a County Council clerk” and leg-break bowler, took 6-32 on his debut against Dublin University in 1926 but did not play again until 1932, when he played a further 9 times, ending his first-class career with 13 wickets at an average of 17.54.  A Gunner in the Royal Artillery, he was killed in Germany in May 1945.  Michael Cassy played in wartime matches for Northamptonshire and Oxford University and died serving with the Grenadier Guards in Italy in 1944 without making his official first-class debut.

E.J.H. Dixon had been an Oxford blue between 1937 and 1939. According to J.D. Coldham’s 1959 History of Northamptonshire cricket, he was “a Yorkshireman, his rock-like defence was an affliction to Cambridge and, as a cool and capable captain, he led Oxford to victory in his last year“.  He played 8 games for Northants in 1939 and died on service with the R.N.V.R. in 1941, aged 25.

Nelson really deserves the chapter to himself that Coldham gives him.  A Cambridge blue and a master at Maidwell Hall preparatory school, he was offered the captaincy in 1938 when Northants were at a low ebb, having not won a match since 1935 (a feat they achieved in his second and last season in 1939). According to Coldham  “he impressed everyone with his charming personality and by the stability, self-control and tolerance of a real leader of men.  Only through reasons beyond the jurisdiction of cricketers was his reign so short“.  A second-lieutenant in the Royal Marines, he was killed at Dover in October 1940.

I say that Nelson deserves a chapter to himself, but, of course, they all do, even if not primarily as cricketers.  All amateurs (though it’s possible Adams was giving it a go as a pro in 1932) they were typical of the men who played for the smaller Counties before the Second War, when clubs such as Northamptonshire had only a small number of professionals (as few as three in 1921) and the bulk of their sides were made up of playing members, more like a modern club side than a contemporary county.

Schoolmasters, soldiers, students, clerks, they played, when they could escape from work, for the love of the game (if love is not too unambiguous a term for what motivates amateur cricketers).  The  sense of unfulfilled promise is there, of course, but their promise at cricket must have been a small part of the potential lives they lost.  No doubt they have other memorials elsewhere, in their home villages and overseas, where they are commemorated in the context of their wider lives, but it is fitting, too, that they should be remembered in the place to which they had escaped to play cricket, by those who have managed to escape from work to watch it.

(I had originally planned to publish this last Sunday, but have been distracted.  Still, the dead, like the poor, are always with us (which is as it should be).)

Thoughts after Duffield

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At about this time last year I assembled some of the photographs I’d taken in the course of the preceding season into a slide show, or, as I grandly referred to it, a film. (If you don’t remember that, or would like to watch it again, you can view it here.) I’d guess I was the only one to watch the thing from beginning to end, but I felt quite proud of it. I had been intending to do the same with the snaps I’ve taken this season and may, time and technology permitting, still do so. I wonder, though, on scrolling through them, how I can plausibly pass them off as a record of the cricket season when there are so few photographs of cricketers, so little, from the plain man’s point of view, cricket.

There are practical excuses for this, of course. It is not an easy matter even for professional photographers equipped with hundreds of pounds’ worth of zoom and training to capture the decisive moments of a match (a wicket falling, a six, the crucial catch) because of the difficulty in predicting when they will happen. I have no great pretensions as a photographer and use a camera bought roughly on my usual principle of choosing the second cheapest available from Argos.

To make matters worse, my faithful old camera, which I had mastered, gave up the ghost mid-way through the season, to be replaced by a newer, supposedly improved, version which, whenever I take a picture of an object at all far away (a cricketer, for instance), chooses, against my wishes, to mimic the gauzy, soft focus style of the once-fashionable, now frowned-upon photographer David Hamilton (yes, even Luke Fletcher). Another problem is that any fast-moving object (like most cricketers, though perhaps not Luke Fletcher) seems to be caught slipping away out of the frame in a ghostly-white ectoplasmic flash.

But these are remediable problems: I could buy another camera; I could even, as a last resort, read the instructions. Even so, I think I would still find that I’d chosen to photograph, not cricketers, but trees (endless trees, bare trees, budding trees,trees in Autumn), effects of the light in the sky and on the outfield, pavilions (grand whited sepulchres of pavilions, modest, homely pavilions, venerably ricketty pavilions) and (when I’m feeling bold, or perhaps sly) those of us who watch the cricketers.

I suppose we all photograph what we consider valuable and wish to preserve. In the early days of mass camera ownership people took photographs of their families, now they take pictures of themselves (and their dinners). If these (the trees, the pavilions, the spectators) are what I photograph they must be what I value and what, for me, make up the largest part of cricket. Remove the game from the English landscape, the English seasons and my interest in the technicalities, individuals and narratives is diminished.

I thought of all this earlier this month when I visited Duffield in Derbyshire, which lies between Derby and Belper on the Derwent Valley Line. I had visited Belper earlier in the season to watch Derbyshire’s 2nd XI (and was fortunate to catch a glimpse of a Spirit of Cricket there). On the way I had also glimpsed Duffield’s ground from the train and made a mental note to return there to watch a game before the season ended (I think if I had no local loyalties I would choose to watch cricket in this area above any other). I didn’t manage to make it there during the season, so I thought I’d visit when it had ended and, as you can see, it was every bit as lovely as I’d hoped, in terms of my trees, pavilions and landscapes …

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… in fact, perhaps lovelier in the Autumn than it would have been at the height of the season, as any tree-lined ground is likely to be.

So I wondered, as I sat there, looking out over an uninhabited, leaf-dusted pitch at the distant hills, why I bother with the effort and expense of watching the game of cricket at all, why I don’t simply tour the grounds in the close season and take photographs of trees (you may be wondering the same, if you’ve made it this far).

An obvious answer is that I am exaggerating my lack of interest in cricket as a game (which is true – I am rarely bored by the action, at worst a little disengaged from it) another that none of it (the trees, the pavilions, the boundary ropes and benches that allow the viewer to turn a view into a landscape as an object of contemplation) would exist without the pretext of cricket. A love of the game purely for itself (cricket for cricket’s sake) is rarer than you might think among those who write about it (if not those who purely play). We, most of us, use cricket as a pretext to satisfy some other urge or pursue some other agenda (very commonly psychological or political); mine (or one of mine) simply happens to be this aestheticised topophila.

(Another good reason is that cricket provides me with something external – narratives and a cast of characters (my Freckinghams and Fletchers) – to write about. Left to its own devices the mind (or my mind anyway) turns in on itself – and produces pieces like this …)