Yesterday to Guildford, in order to watch the second of a four-day county cricket match between Surrey and Kent in a party hosted by an eminent Surrey CCC grandee.
Driving home afterwards, I tried to think of the last time I had taken time out to watch a county game. I think it may have been a Sussex match at Eastbourne about fifteen years ago. Before that a Surrey outing at the Oval in the late 1970s – and, apart from being taken by my father to see Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson bowling at somewhere like Buxton in 1958 or 1959, that’s about the sum of my connection with English county cricket in the flesh.
First, the statistics – a staple prop for any true fan. On Day One, Kent had amassed 351 for 7. Yesterday, they were eventually all out for 408. By 6.37pm when play came to a halt as Kent at last completed their required number of overs for the day, Surrey had replied with 303 for 6, with Jason Roy posting 84 and captain Gary Wilson 80 not out.
In my capacity as an interested observer in a foreign land, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day in blazing sunshine that (I note this morning) has left my face with a vaguely lobsterish hue.
It’s been a while since I went to Guildford – most often, a city I by-pass with silent thanks on my regular trips to the coast.
I’m told that for well-to-do women in south-west London it ranks alongside Kingston as a place to do some serious shopping. It has changed significantly since I last visited in about 1970 to play in a schoolboy hockey festival. The outskirts are heavily built-up with sweeping dual-carriageways and sets of three-way traffic lights lined with car dealerships, light industry units, supermarkets and out-of-town hardware and furniture stores.
The cricket ground – now officially Surrey’s second, behind the Oval – is relatively small and is overlooked at one end by a raised railway line. One famous cricketer on hand told me that in Alex Bedser’s day the trees obscuring it were much smaller and the trains regularly caused pauses in the cricket by distracting the batsman facing the bowling.
Generally, when attending a cricket match, there’s the action on the pitch … and then there’s what happening elsewhere in the ground. I should estimate that there were about 3,000 spectators present, all bantering, swapping ideas on the latest England captaincy crisis, telling each other about their side’s young prospect now bowling or batting, reminiscing about the days of yore, meeting up with their old pals, making new ones and just ‘chewing the cud’ together. They love their game – don’t get me wrong, it’s never just an excuse to disappear and socialise, as at first glance it might seem – but the true cricketing experience is about far more than just what is happening on the square.
Yesterday we had a lot of fun.
A stream of cricketing insiders came by our little tented marquee, simply to say hi or stop for a joke with those inside. There were groups of two and three surrounding mine, all having lively conversations – both intellectual and less so – worthy of being earwigged upon.
The cricketers and their supporting staff resembled quintessential modern professional sportsmen. They glowed with fitness and undertook copious amounts of warm-up routines familiar to other sports. It was a hot day, but before long my table began noticing quite how often the ‘water boys’ jogged out on the pitch … on one occasion this happened before the first over of a new session had ended. The traditionalists amongst us didn’t like it.
Our specific host wore a hang-dog expression all day, when not fending off incoming joshing from his fellow grandees about the state of his battered Panama-style hat.
The cause of his pain was the Surrey batting performance (a poor 57-3 at one point), combined with the regular updates coming over the PA system on progress in the Lords Test match against India. As England slid from 207 for 6 to 223 all out and a 95 run defeat, he began tut-tutting at the dismal response under pressure of the national team and the general decline in quality of the English game. As far as I could tell, he seemed to be comparing Alistair Cook and his men unfavourably with their counterparts of the Edwardian era, when England at least had a real cricket team and a real Empire.
From a personal point of view, my biggest thrill of the day was the privilege of meeting the great Pakistani slow bowler Intikhab Alam.