It’s just down the road from the museum. Some might say that the location is apposite.
For me, however, the University Parks in Oxford – The Parks in cricketing parlance – are a repository of memories. Walk down from the dreaming spires, past the University Museum and into a verdant urban space. I spent the lunch break of a school outing transfixed by the cricketers who use the centre, the accidental discovery of a high quality match in the midst of the city, unwatched by the joggers and park footballers who share the field. One time, the first ball I saw was launched for four by Graeme Hick to bring up his hundred. Part of the beauty of the ground is its accessibility and openness – you can just drop in for a session. It also offers a rare proximity – one time, stood by the pavilion, I heard the changing room clunk of a just-dismissed batsman’s hurled helmet. You can field the ball off boundaries and chat with boundary fielders. You can stand by the nets whilst the pros practice, and then have a go yourself.
One time, watching the Varsity Match, I chatted to two American exchange students. They were looking round Oxford for some material for a presentation on something quintessentially English. They had come into The Parks and stumbled across cricket. They weren’t to know that this match, with its anachronistic First Class status, was more English than most, but I explained the basics: straight arms, six balls, six runs, and why the players had apparently randomly wandered off for a cup of tea. This is the beauty of the ground; as the only free First Class ground in the country, there is a haphazard nature to the crowd. There rarely is one, but the grounds are full of joggers and pub footballers, couples and picnickers. The cricket fades into the background, softened but not overshadowed.
The intimacy this bucolic setting offers, combined with the insight proximity offers, seems to relax the game. Even when huddled against Arctic winds in April (the free entry means you don’t feel so guilty leaving early), the ground feels cosy. This is cricket at its approachable best – top level sport unfranchised and unadulterated, available and accessible. At the Varsity Match, essentially club cricket elevated by tradition and historic pedigree, you wander past revising girlfriends, dismissed batsmen, the intimacy of village cricket combined with understated quality. The players wear traditional cable-knit jumpers. The Victorian pavilion is neat and half-timbered, suitable for a pastoral Lord’s. You can sit on the bench that serves as a memorial to Colin Cowdrey. It is outdated, twee and quite beautiful.
Moreover, it is an Oxford experience. Wander through from High Street, past the grandeur of the Bodleian Library and the University Museum, the dreaming spires behind you, and you arrive at The Parks, urban escape at its finest. Some would see the cricket played here as almost as prehistoric as the dinosaur footprints up the road. But a world away from the IPL, under cloud-streaked spring skies, the game continues as it did decades ago, fading into the background of a beautiful day.