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Cricket, lovely cricket

06/19/2013
The crowd go wild at Trent Bridge as Nottinghamshire reply to Derbyshire's first innings

The crowd go wild at Trent Bridge as Nottinghamshire reply to Derbyshire’s first innings

Remember the Live Aid concert at Wembley in 1985? Stuart Maconie picks it out as one of the most significant events of the twentieth century in his book Hope and Glory, an entertaining canter through the social history of Britain in the last century. In addition to the millions that were raised for starving people in Africa, he describes it as the birth of our modern obsession with celebrity. Brangelina? Madonna adopting an African baby? It all began at about noon on 13th July 1985.

The day is memorable to me for non-musical reasons. While teenagers up and down the land were glued to television sets enjoying live performances by the likes of David Bowie, Queen, U2 and The Who, I was at Queen’s Park in Chesterfield watching the county cricket teams of Derbyshire and Leicestershire do battle in the Britannic Assurance County Championship. The joys of live music would come a few years later for me. For now, I had developed an unfashionable and slightly nerdy interest in England’s premier summer sport. Whilst most sixteen year old lads hid copies of Mayfair in their bedrooms I was more into Playfair. The annual Playfair Cricket Annual was a pocket sized cricketing bible that contained all the vital statistics I was interested in. John Morris’s batting average in the County Championship last season? Ole Mortensen’s best bowling figures in the Benson & Hedges Cup? It was all there. I was a right laugh me.

Live Aid day was stiflingly hot and by the afternoon tea break Derbyshire had been skittled out by a bowling attack led by Jonathan Agnew. The remainder of my cheese and tomato sandwiches had been reduced to a sweaty mush and I was steadily getting sunburnt. It wasn’t one of my finest days of cricket spectatorship.

I’m not sure when my love affair with cricket started. Part of it must be in the genes. My grandad played and later umpired the game and was described as “a fine spin bowler” in one article I read on the internet recently. And my gran also liked her cricket. On summer visits to see her, she’d regularly turn on the radio, on the hour, to catch the local news and find out how Derbyshire were doing. Then as she switched the radio off she’d remark something like “ooh, Peter Kirsten’s doing well again” before asking us if we wanted any more lemonade.

Cricket was the only sport I was even moderately competent at at school, even captaining the primary school team for a while (well, the one match a season we managed to play). This wasn’t because I had any leadership skills but probably because I was one of the few kids that seemed to be genuinely excited by cricket. In those days many a lunchtime in summer would be spent playing tennis ball cricket in the playground.

Similarly when the summer holidays came round, if the weather was fine, we’d more often than not head to the local park with bat and ball. When not playing it, I’d invariably be watching cricket on the telly. Whether it was five day test match cricket or forty over Sunday League games, there was usually a game to watch.

Soon, rather than just watching games on the box, I was attending them as well. When Derbyshire played in Queen’s Park you could generally watch the last hour or so of the day’s play for free after the gatemen had cashed up and disappeared for the day. I’d often go down straight from school, sit on the grass bank opposite the scoreboard and enjoy a taste of live cricket, occasionally mithering whoever was looking bored fielding at third man for an autograph.

A few years later I was lucky enough to see the great West Indies side of the 1980s play Derbyshire in a warm up game for that summer’s test series. I loved watching the Calypso cricket of that West Indies team, buzzing off the likes of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding (who later played for Derbyshire) and Malcolm Marshall. They were a joy to watch. I’d have failed Norman Tebbit’s infamous cricket test miserably as I always wanted West Indies to beat England. On this occasion I got to see West Indies bat and Gordon Greenidge score a quickfire century, full of his trademark, rapier-like square cuts. It was wonderful, a couple of years ago, to see the film Fire in Babylon all about that West Indies side.

If the West Indies were top dogs during my first few years of watching the game then it was Australia who were the next team to dominate the game from the mid-nineties to the mid-noughties. We spent three months in Australia in late 2000 and the opportunity to see one of the greatest cricket teams of all time in action was too good for me to spurn.

The not too shabby Brisbane Cricket Ground in Woolloongabba

The not too shabby Brisbane Cricket Ground in Woolloongabba

Most backpackers spend several sun-drenched, beer-stained weeks on the Queensland coast north of Brisbane indulging in all manner of activities in the likes of Fraser Island, Hervey Bay and the Whitsunday Islands. Not for me. After six months of travelling I’d grown a bit weary of the “look at me, I’ve bungee jumped off a hot air balloon into a field of dolphins and it’s not even breakfast yet” crowd and after an underwhelming couple of days in the tropical outpost of Cairns, I was on an overnight Greyhound bus heading south. A few hours into the journey on a meal break stop in Townsville a young Aussie lad came over and asked “so where you heading then mate?” When I replied that I was going to watch a cricket match in Brisbane he promptly left to talk to someone else. His parting look said it all. Why on earth was I going to a cricket match when I could be sailing, surfing, whale watching, diving, camping and doing all those things that backpackers were meant to do?

When I rang up to buy tickets a few days before the first test between Australia and West Indies it was a pleasant surprise to find that a ticket for all five days was the Aussie equivalent of twenty five pounds. Crikey, even in 2000 you couldn’t see one day of test match cricket in England for that much. A mere five pounds per day to watch the best team in the world? Bargain. In any event, the match at the Gabba lasted only until lunchtime on the third day as the West Indies were routed. Glenn McGrath was virtually unplayable on the first day taking six wickets for only 17 runs. The balance of power had undoubtedly shifted. Even though the game was curtailed it was a privilege to see the likes of McGrath, Steve Waugh, Brett Lee and Ricky Ponting in action on their own turf.

Cricket has changed a lot in the last decade or so since that visit Down Under. One of the biggest changes has been the birth of Twenty20 cricket which started in England ten years ago. I’ve been to many Twenty20 contests over the last decade but I’m still to see a really good, nail-biting, last ball contest. The relatively concise nature of the games, the music, the razzmatazz, the coloured clothing and the after-work time slot tends to give them the feel of a baseball match. Undoubtedly it’s opening cricket up to an audience that wouldn’t ordinarily go to watch it but it’s in danger of reaching saturation point, if we’re not careful, as counties seem to play pretty much only this form of cricket for about a month in the heart of the season.

A quiet evening watching the Delhi daredevils in Champions League action at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium

A quiet evening watching the Delhi Daredevils in Champions League action at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium

However, you can’t deny the popularity of Twenty20 cricket which has now caught on across the globe. Like football it even has its own Champions League. The first one was played in India in 2009 and I was lucky enough to be able to see a couple of matches in Delhi’s imposing Feroz Shah Kotla stadium on a balmy October evening. New South Wales Blues beat Sussex Sharks in the first match before the local favourites Delhi Daredevils took on Wayamba from Sri Lanka. Delhi batted first and the Indian opening batsman Virender Sehwag launched into one of his typically explosive innings dealing only in fours and sixes. He scored sixty odd in not many balls and the crowd were in raptures, each boundary greeted by music, fireworks and dancing girls. It was a long way from Queen’s Park on a wet Monday afternoon.

Another change to cricket over the last few years has been its almost complete disappearance from terrestrial television. Gone are the days of watching the test match or some limited overs county cricket on the BBC. My objection to paying the Murdoch shilling means that unless I make the effort to go to a game I barely see any live cricket these days. If I’m back home from work in time then I’ll watch the highlights on Channel 5 and I’ll catch snippets on the news but it’s not the same as watching it as it happens. The upside of this is that I get to listen to the brilliant Test Match Special on the wireless. As I’m typing this I’m listening to Jonathan Agnew, twenty eight years after his part in Derbyshire’s downfall on Live Aid day, filling in during one of several rain delays in today’s Champions Trophy match.

Last Friday I was at Trent Bridge in Nottingham for the third day of the four day County Championship match between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It was a largely uneventful day’s cricket, save for a stylish century by the Nottinghamshire batsman Michael Lumb, and the rain affected match petered out into a tame draw on Saturday. But it was lovely to be able to watch cricket in some pleasant evening sunshine in one of the finest sporting venues in the country. The ground has a capacity of about 17,500 and in a few weeks time it will be packed for the eagerly anticipated first test of this year’s Ashes series. Last Friday there was probably about four hundred of us sprinkled around the ground. It was wonderful. There were no corporate free loaders. No water cooler banter merchants. No fancy dress. No Mexican waves. Just proper cricket fans enjoying the game that they love. Cricket, lovely cricket.

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