Glad to be Alive

And then I woke up, and it was all a dream …

Leicestershire (390-3 dec. & 245-0) drew with Loughborough MCCU (152), Grace Road, 2-4th April 2020

I seem to find it harder each year to find something new to say at the start of the season, but then, perhaps, novelty is beside the point.  There, is, of course, the promise of a new start, a clean slate, a blank piece of paper on which any story could be written, but the essence of it lies in the rediscovery of the familiar, of finding that those familiar scenes are still there.  Winter has passed, Spring has returned, as it sometimes felt during the Winter that it might not, and, with it, the cricket.

The first game at Grace Road seldom lives up to our wintry day-dreams of the platonic spring day, if only because it is always against Loughborough University, and the ground is only half-awake.  We enter not through the usual, welcoming, gates, but through a gap in the wall at the end of a bottle-strewn alley, but the first sight of the ground, even if it is yet to cast off its winter weeds, its parasols unfurled, still feels like a release : in our minds’ eyes, we see it, not under grey skies and sparsely populated, but bathed in mid-summer light and humming with life.  It is not the first day itself, but the sure and certain knowledge of the six months still to come that makes us feel newly glad to be alive.

Given the age of many of our members, and most of those who turned up for the first day, ‘glad to be alive’ is not an idle figure of speech : it is always a relief to find that familiar faces have survived the Winter.  Although the general bonhomie may not survive far into the season, its beginning is celebrated with handshakes, backslapping and even the occasional hug, as friends, reunited, congregate in convivial groups, or share their winter-news over a drink in the bar.  I am afraid that we sometimes take these pleasures and liberties, however small in themselves, too much for granted, and the start of the season makes us feel it.

Leicestershire, as is the convention in these games, batted, and the first ball of the season was faced by Paul Horton, who has now been relieved, or possibly relieved himself, of the captaincy.  Unfortunately, perhaps due to the dim light, or the remnants of dew in the pitch, he played down the wrong line to a full, straight, delivery and was bowled.  This was less unpropitious than it might seem, given that the bowler was Alex Evans, who is contracted to Leicestershire and will be available to strengthen the bowling later in the season.

After taking a few overs to acclimatise (Evans’ first three overs were all maidens), the incoming Colin Ackermann then played the hare to opener Hassan Azad’s tortoise, scoring freely on the off-side, in particular, to reach his fifty shortly before lunch, by, rather gratuitously, lofting Leicestershire academician Don Butchart, who had been brought on for the last over, over long on and into the, mercifully underpopulated, car park.  Azad, who had not departed from his trusted techniques of patient accumulation, had then made 17.

During the lunch hour, I dropped into the office (buzzing with anticipation) to renew my membership (excellent value at £99, given the number of days of cricket, particularly in the coming two months, it will entitle me to see), then dropped into the Meet, busy despite its limited menu, and picked up my ‘Playfair’ from the Friends of Grace Road shop, providing its usual reassurance, so little does it change, that, whatever else may be wrong in the world, the cricket season will inevitably return in the Spring.

Shortly after lunch, in a stroke that might have been an act of deliberate self-sacrifice, Ackermann chipped a half volley from Evans straight to cover point.  The manner in which the next man in, Mark Cosgrove, emerged from the pavilion suggested that he felt in the form of his life, but also that he was feeling the cold.  The first two deliveries he ostentatiously left alone, the third tested his powers of abstinence too far, and he was dropped at second slip (the edge was audible to all in the ground, except, if his body language were to be believed, the batsman himself).

After reaching twenty more by luck than judgement, Cosgrove’s co-ordination seemed to return, if not his self-control, and three good balls were stroked, with his usual incongruous delicacy, through the covers for four.  The next ball must have hit some foreign object on the pitch, or perhaps he was unsighted by light reflected off a car windscreen, because it removed his off stump.  He appeared as incredulous at this turn of events as ever, though, given the cold, less reluctant to leave the field.  Cosgrove is no longer quite the batsman he was, but he is still a joy to watch, and we are lucky to have the prospect of at least one last full season in which to watch him.

Harry Dearden came to the crease shortly before 2.15, with the total on 129-3, and Hassan Azad three short of his half-century.  Dearden, who does not have the credit at the bank that Ackermann and Cosgrove enjoy, is in no position to spurn a chance to make a substantial score, and, reverting to his earliest manner, scored at a rate that made his partner look like a chancer : by tea, the pair had crept surreptitiously to 210-3.  With the evening chill creeping in, I crept off too at 5.00, by which time the score was approaching 300, in the stealthy manner of a game of grandmother’s footsteps.  Unfortunately, my departure coincided with the rush hour, and I spent the journey home pressed against a window by a large man with little conception of personal space and a nasty cough.

I arrived a little late for the second day, having stopped off at my favourite Café Roma (cash only!) for a macchiato and a brace of cannoli.  The warmer weather had brought some of the more elderly element of Leicester’s café society out, and we were packed together cosily, like anchovies in a tin.  As I was not expecting any dramatic developments at Grace Road, I passed some time strolling through the crowded lanes, browsing aimlessly.  How pleasant it can be to wander at will through a crowded city, when the weather is fine and the mood relaxed!

When I finally arrived at the ground, Azad and Dearden were, as I had suspected, still at the crease.  The scoring rate had increased slightly, but only in the manner of an elderly and overworked donkey goaded into a jog-trot.  By lunch, the score had advanced to 390 : Azad had made his century at some point in the morning, and  Dearden was closing in on his (assuming the game was first class, his maiden century).  The students must have been wondering whether their turn to bat would ever come, like a younger brother in the back garden.

There had, incidentally, been an amusing incident just before lunch.  You may remember that, in the corresponding fixture a few years ago, when Hassan Azad was still playing for Loughborough, Charlie Shreck, frustrated by his obdurate batting and Loughborough’s failure to declare, had directed a few unfriendly remarks at him (‘The Times’ alleged that he had threatened to kill him).  Umpire O’Shaughnessy reported the incident, Shreck was suspended and Leicestershire were subjected to a points deduction.  Alex Evans (who obviously knows Azad) pantomimed a repetition of the incident : the batsman seemed highly amused, Umpire O’Shaughnessy, perhaps, less so.

To the surprise of most, it emerged that Leicestershire had declared at lunch.  Although I can see why they would have wanted the bowlers to have a run out, it did seem hard on Dearden, who was left on 94*.  It is true that he had every opportunity to make his century over the previous six hours, but we will have to hope that the disappointment will not have the same effect on his psyche as it did on Graeme Hick’s, in similar circumstances.  It was noticeable that he spent his time in the field with hands in pockets, and dropped a couple of catches (though not, perhaps, ones he would normally have caught).

The Leicestershire bowlers did not have the time to put in quite as many overs as they had hoped, although Wright, Griffiths and Taylor (apparently now fit) all claimed three wickets, and Mike (a little loose) one.  Only Joe Kendall, of the batsmen, made more than a start, falling two short of his fifty while trying to reverse sweep a full delivery from Taylor off his stumps.  The innings ended shortly after 5.30, with the score on 152, leaving Azad and Horton to play out the remaining overs (Horton surviving a couple of persuasive shouts). 

If it had not been for the balmy weather, and the general feeling that we were glad just to be there, Leicestershire’s tactics on the Saturday morning might have attracted adverse comment.  Azad was only marginally more fluent than he had been in the first innings, and Horton defended his wicket as if it were his life, against some tired bowling of moderate quality.  In the second hour, Evans, knowing the chink in Azad’s armour, posted two short legs and a leg slip, and bowled short from around the wicket.  Clearly discomfited, Azad fended one delivery just over one of the short legs, another just wide, and then, attempting a pull, deflected the ball hard on to his helmet.  Although he was able to leave the field unaided, he appeared disorientated.

After lunch, Tom Taylor, who had replaced Azad, livened proceedings with some firmly driven boundaries until, bending to tie a loose shoelace, he appeared to put his back out, and had to be helped from the field.  Surprisingly, it was Harry Dearden who replaced him.  As the afternoon wore on, it was clear that he was not inclined to miss another chance of a maiden hundred, and, reverting to his one-day style, hit the bowling to all (or most) parts of the ground.  Justifiably suspicious that Ackermann might be inclined to shake hands on a draw at 5.00, he accelerated further as that hour approached, passing his hundred at 4.50, to wild, and only half-ironical, applause from the few spectators who remained.  The end of play was postponed to 5.10 to allow Horton to catch up and make his century as well.  

There were some worrying pieces of news in the aftermath of the game.  Taylor has apparently suffered a recurrence of the back problem that kept him out for most of last season, and Hassan Azad will have to miss at least the first two Championship games under the concussion protocol.  Alex Evans had been reported to the ECB by Steve O’Shaughnessy, and it is possible that any suspension will mean that he will be unavailable for Leicestershire when term is finished (as it only affects first-class fixtures).  The report in ‘The Times’, which alleged that Evans had kneed Azad in the groin, and threatened to tear him limb from limb and dump the pieces in the Soar, cannot have helped matters.

One or two of the members were also a little perturbed by newspaper reports of a new flu-like virus that had emerged in China in the last weeks of March, apparently caused by someone in Wuhan Province thinking that it would be a good idea to eat a bat.  But I’m sure that it will take more than that to spoil the prospect of a new cricket season.

And then I woke up …

Dreams of Leaving

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For a few years after they were married, our parents managed a butcher’s shop, the end building of a deformed 1930s’ crescent of ten shops, a series of white concrete cubes with elongated windows, unornamented, geometrical, exiguous. California had come to the outskirts of Northampton, futuristically prefiguring the society of consumption. The building was redolent of absent sunshine, leisure and romance ; although it was not long before the rain seeped through the flat roofs and in fungoid green stains on the inside walls, and subsidence cracks veined the already maculated concrete with black, and the parents separated and returned to the familiar red brick terraces from which they had unsuccessfully tried to anticipate their future release.” (Jeremy Seabrook : The Everlasting Feast)

I think I remember reading, some time ago, that W.H. Auden had once described his ideal as being to live “a Mediterranean life in a Northern climate”. I cannot remember where I read this (it might have been in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the poet), and have not been able to verify it. I may have misremembered, or even invented it, but that is beside the point : it is not Auden I am concerned with here, but Mediterranean lives and Northern climates.

The phrase stuck in my mind because, at that time, (about thirty years ago), I sympathised with the sentiment, although I had never been anywhere near the Mediterranean, and my idea of what life was like there was exceptionally vague. I supposed, though, that it involved making a leisurely daily round from café to café, good food and drink in civilised quantities, with plenty of time for contemplation of beauty, both natural and man-made, and convivial conversation. (This is, I imagine, very unlike the daily life of – say – the average Greek fisherman, but – again – that is not the point : we are discussing day dreams and ideals here, not realities.)

I doubt that Auden and I are alone among the English in nurturing this fantasy, which finds one expression in certain types and features of English buildings. There is the patio, which (as I have pointed out before), was intended, in its Andalusian home, to offer protection from the sun, but, in England, itself requires protection from the cold by heaters. Expanding the scope of the fantasy a little, there is the verandah (purloined from Hindi), and the pavilion. There is the balcony and the window-grill. In Spain, these serve the practical purpose of allowing a ground floor window to be left open safely during a siesta, and, as a happy side-effect, facilitate picturesque flirtations :

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In England, where, I have noticed, newly built flats often sport vestigial balconies and waist-high grilles, they seem more designed to prevent children, sleep-walkers, and drunks toppling out of upper-floor windows.

Then there are white buildings, of any description. In hot climates the whiteness is, presumably, intended to reflect the sun’s rays and cool the interior. In a northern climate, they suggest, to me, a longing to be elsewhere, an aspiration to distance themselves from their homely, russet-coloured, indelibly local neighbours.

For a while (I think after an earlier visit to Southern Spain) I developed a fascination with these buildings and photographed them whenever I came across one : pavilions, stuccoed villas (“do you know that the stucco is peeling?”), a Sikh gurdwara, a working men’s club.

The last of these, a moderne house in Paradise Lane, Kettering, (which used to belong to my Uncle Ray), would be in its natural habitat in the South of France, an introduced species with a reasonable chance of survival on an English sea-front, but splendidly incongruous and redolent of hankering after “absent sunshine, leisure and romance” in its actual setting on the fringes of Wicksteed Park.

A danger, I find, in visiting the Mediterranean is that it stirs into life pipe-dreams of giving up the struggle against the damp and dreich, the winter warmers and beer jackets, and leaving to pursue that Mediterranean life in a Mediterranean climate. The day-dream objection to this, (as opposed to the insurmountable real world objections), is that it would mean I would no longer be able to watch much cricket.

But then it has often occurred to me that a day at the cricket (the proper kind that begins in the late morning and ends at dusk), with its white pavilions, its leisurely strolls around the boundary, its retreats into the shade, its prolonged periods of contemplation and breaks for refreshment, even its occasional siestas, is the closest the English ever come to attaining Auden’s ideal. Perhaps all the business with bats and balls is merely a pretext, and, perhaps, I would not miss it, or not too much.

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An Occasional, Seasonal, Dream

Trigger warning : if you are one of those who believes that other people’s dreams are always and inherently boring, then look away now …
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Every year, at about the same time, I notice that the daffodils that grow perennially in the flowerbeds that border my patio have begun to poke their tips through the topsoil. In fact, I can be more precise. In 2014, I first noticed them on the 2nd of November, in 2015 on 11th November, and this year, on my return from a short holiday in Spain, on 27th November. And, every year, I think that they have come too early.

It may be that I am over-sensitive to the probability of “climate change” (although I am not sure whether this “small data” supports that) : I think, though, my reluctance to see these green shoots too early has more to do with not feeling ready, with the last leaves still clinging bravely to the trees, to think about the Spring quite yet. These shoots, I feel, should be nudging hopefully against an eiderdown of snow, not snuggled under a blanket of fallen leaves.

I felt much the same way when, while in Spain, I was visited prematurely by a recurrent dream that usually saves its first appearance for the darkest nights of Winter, the dream of the forgotten cricket ground.

The most commonly reported dreams involving sport, I’m told, fall into two categories. One includes those where the dreamer finds themselves called upon to play, (often at a higher level than they are used to), and finds that they can perform either much better than they can in real life, or only embarrassingly badly. I have occasionally had dreams of this kind, in which I find that I am incapable of bowling, (the aspect of the game I used to have some slight talent for), in more than slow motion, or, alternatively, that I have been magically transformed into a high-class batsman (which, in real life, was far from the case). But these “performance anxiety” dreams are commonplace enough, easily explicable, and do not concern us here.

The second kind are those dreams involving well-known sporting personalities. These are, apparently, common too, but I seem largely immune to them, in the same way that I don’t think that I have never dreamed about meeting the Queen (or any other member of the Royal Family)*. The only memorable exception was one in which I watched James Taylor compete in a game of wheelchair football, using one of those little carts that amputees seemed to use in continental Europe between the wars (you sometimes see them in films by Luis Bunuel, for instance). I remember feeling in something of a quandary, at the time, as to whether I should expose him as able-bodied. But, vivid as this dream was, it can be explained rationally, in that I had recently watched wheelchair football (or rugby) on the television, and Taylor “warming up” by playing (non-wheelchair) football in the outfield. My subconscious had simply reassembled those elements, and added a dash of continental spice.

My recurrent dream falls into neither of those categories. What is striking about it, apart from the regularity of its occurrence, (at least once a year, as I have said, usually in January or February), is that it is always exactly the same in every particular, so that I can now relive it (or re-dream it) perfectly without even being asleep.

It always begins, on a Saturday afternoon, in the rain (not heavy rain, but steady drizzle), and I am standing outside the British Heart Foundation shop in Market Harborough (I accept this will mean little to you if you are not familiar with Market Harborough, but bear with me). I am feeling at a loose end, perhaps because the football season has ended. I then remember that the cricket season has started and it suddenly hits me that there might be a game on at the forgotten ground (I call it that because, in my dream, I appear to have forgotten its existence). I feel some sense of relief, but more of self-reproach (as well I might, given how often I seem to have forgotten it).

I then set off for the ground. One of the few verifiable aspects of this ground is its physical location, which is here :

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– a slightly sunken area of Welland Park which, in reality, contains a rose garden (there is no cricket pitch, and, as far as I know, never has been).

I approach the ground by a long passageway that leads between two tall hedges, (at this point followers of the good Dr. Freud may be adjusting their pince-nezs thoughtfully), and arrive at a narrow turnstile. I now remember that I have forgotten to renew my membership (more self-reproach) and will have to pay to get in. In the corner of the ground nearest the turnstile is a portakabin, which acts as a club shop and office. I think of renewing my membership there, but realise I don’t have enough money on me.

I am now standing on a terrace. This terrace is, in a way that would be impossible to construct physically, simultaneously an old-fashioned terrace and a roofed “scratching shed” of the type that you still find at the smaller football grounds. It is, though, as steeply raked as the seating in a Roman amphitheatre (the obvious trigger for this dream is that I had, that day, visited such a one in Malaga).

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The pitch itself is oblong, like a football pitch, (although they are clearly playing cricket on it), only sunk into the ground like an empty swimming pool. On the far right hand side there is a pavilion of sorts : on the other sides there are grassy banks, ringed with tall hedges. It continues to rain, and the light is poor, but the game continues. Everything is very indistinct, and I can remember nothing of the match. And that is it.

The ground certainly has elements in common with various grounds that I have visited. The long passageway has something in common with Rothwell Corinthians FC, and, perhaps, Tunbridge Wells. The portakabin is very like ones I have seen at Stamford and Belper. I have spent many an afternoon in many a scratching shed. There are still banked terraces at Scarborough (wood) and the smaller of the two grounds at Wardown Park in Luton (stone).

The curious thing, though, is that the dream-ground predates my visits to most of these, resulting in a faint, untraceable sense of deja vu, a sense of having been there before, when I do visit.

This dream, especially its persistence, frustrates me by its sheer banality. It is, at least, useful, in that it reminds me that the season is on its way, and that I need to remember to renew my membership, but I receive quite enough letters and e-mails reminding me to do that already. I would prefer it, on the whole, if the subconscious mind, which seems to offer others (or so I read) access to vast archetypal images and lurid psycho-sexual dramatics, did not settle, so bathetically, in my case, for behaving like a pop-up reminder of a meeting on Microsoft Office.

Thank you for bearing with me. Perhaps the simple act of writing about the dream-ground will somehow exorcise it. If not, I should welcome any suggestions as to :

a) Which actually existing ground I might be dreaming about (preferably one that was demolished in about 1942 – a hint of the supernatural would, I feel, add a touch of distinction)

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b) Any symbolic interpretation, the more fanciful the better, but preferably of an encouraging nature.

Anyone who prefers to suggest that my dream means that I spend far too much of my time watching sport of only moderate quality in the East Midlands needn’t bother. I knows it.

 * With the possible exception of Camilla Parker-Bowles (but it was very dark in that dream, and there was an awful lot going on).