No 45: Disappointment!

This was suggested by one of our other contributors after yet another defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by an ever more flummoxed [currently] England team. Disappointment is the default mode of most cricket fans, even if you are currently on a high, you just know that sometime, probably soon and certainly well before later, your team is going to disappoint you. You fully understand that a single dropped catch can lead to total meltdown, even within the best teams and before you know it, those celebratory drinks in the pub are more of a wake for what might have been. You have a firm grasp on the laws of cricket sod, can appreciate every nuance of a bad bowling spell just when you needed your most reliable ball chucker to dig you out of a hole; of a golden duck when a 50 is normally easily knocked off by your No3. Whether it’s a Sunday afternoon knockabout or an International fixture, regardless of whether you are urging on South Africa or the South Ambleside 2nd XI [a club entirely of my own invention for literary purposes] matters not, the safest place to view it all from is the boundary of disappointment.

So why I hear you mumble, through the mouthful of bile you are spitting at the latest defeat, is this possibly a cricket Love? There are two reasons, let me explain…

The first is the more obvious, possibly even clichéd, but no less valid for that – it’s because the disappointment makes the good times feel even better. Take a look at the photo below and witness if you will, the unbridled joy at an unexpected win near the end of a pretty unremarkable, nay, ‘disappointing’ season for Somerset in 2013. It was the end of August and before this LVCC match, they had only 1 championship win to their name before coming to face a Middlesex team that had out performed even the hopes of the most optimistic pundits. The Somerset lot had the best remedy for default disappointment available, whilst the Middlesex lot had that all too familiar bitter taste back in their mouths.

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The second reason is slightly more abstract but I defy any fan to argue against it – because secretly, deep down, probably hidden in a dark festering corner, we love it! We revel in cricketing disappointment, it gives us myriad excuses to lay bare the reason for the disappointment, to dissect, to cogitate over, to offer our own opinions on what should have been done, or what shall be done in the future. To demonstrate this, witness if you will the column inches and blog posts given over to ‘analysis’ when disappointment levels ratchet up. Count up the number of articles questioning decisions, actions, outcomes and alternatives. They are many, varied and always far more copious than in victory. Oh, and don’t for one minute think this is merely the media filling space, a few hours on twitter after a win and then a loss will set you right on that score. After a win, people will hang around for a brief while expounding their teams various virtues before heading off to their own lives with a self satisfied smile on their face, disappointment temporarily gone [but never forgotten, that would be just too stupid to contemplate] If a defeat was the outcome, the post-mortems can go on for hour after hour, debates will rage about what went wrong, individual players will be torn apart for the smallest error. Now OK, I am stating this from an ‘English’ perspective and as a nation, we are given to being naturally pessimistic [probably weather related] but from what little I have a seen, I have a sneaky suspicion this is not only an English affliction, I suspect this is a cricket affliction, regardless of the colours you wear on your replica kit. We are all cricket fans, and we all come to the conclusion eventually that disappointment is the optimum mood to adopt, because it’s part of what makes cricket what it is.

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No44 : Anticipation

1999 , I had travelled from Plymouth to Taunton a day early in order to be in plenty of time for the Australian tour match. I was staying with my sister so popped into the County Ground for a drink and to soak up pre match atmosphere.

I noticed Andy Caddick chatting with some guys and I wandered into the pavillion. The Australian team were there mingling with officials and some we’re wandering around the ground . I asked members of the team to sign my Aussie shirt and they were more than happy to sign their shirt . I sawSteve Waugh in W H Smith later that afternoon too .

I arrived early at The County Ground the next day and got myself a good view. The seats alongside me quickly filled with people eager to watch the day’s play, carrier bags full of sandwiches and flasks of  Coffee.

Talk of the match , the England team , and the Aussies dominated as the teams were announced .the expectation of a good match was almost palpable. The crowd grew until the seating itself was bulging , beer and burger vendors were kept busy as the teams practiced on the pitch. After what appeared to be an age the  game , finally was under way . The noise as the first ball was bowled was amazing.

Somerset lost by 32runs , nobody seemed to be upset , Cricket was the winner .

No. 43: The Parks

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.

No. 42: One Sunny Saturday, and a Leg of Lamb

The late summer of 1985 would be a particularly memorable one for me. Having returned back home from boarding school in the dark forests of the Quantocks, the sun would be shining almost every day in late July and almost all of what would be a truly glorious August.

1985 would be Ashes year, with the Australian squad making their way to England shorn of a number of players who had thrown in their lot with the rebel tourists in South Africa. The leader of that infamous rebel tour would be former skipper Kim Hughes, whose tearful resignation during the West Indies’ tour down under in 1984-85 would quite literally be a watershed in the recent history of Australian cricket. Derided by the machismo Australian press for his tears and subsequent treachery, Hughes would never wear the famous baggy green again; his replacement would be a man cut from a completely different cloth in the gritty Queenslander Allan Border.

David Gower’s England meanwhile had recovered from their painful “blackwash” at the hands of the visiting West Indians in 1984 with an historic 2-1 series win in an inhospitable India, and with a number of players from their own rebel tour now fully reintegrated back into the squad it was always going to be an interesting six-match series – back in the day when an Ashes series would occupy the entire summer. An era without back to back tests, and where the tourists would break things up with a collection of matches against county sides.

The opening test at Headingley would see England take an early lead. Australia’s 331 would be overhauled by England’s 533 with Nottinghamshire’s Tim Robinson scoring 175, and their tourists’ second innings score of 324 would not be quite enough as Gower’s side stumbled their way to their target of 123 for the loss of five wickets.

Lord’s had always been an unhappy home for England back in the 1980s and 1990s, and it would prove to be the case again as Border’s side unexpectantly turned the tables. England would be bundled out for 290, and the Australian skipper would respond with a typically gritty innings to finish four short of a double century as his side racked up 425 and a crucial lead of 135. Despite a belligerent 85 from Ian Botham England couldn’t haul themselves back into the match, and Border would lead from the front once again with an unbeaten 41 to guide his team a four-wicket victory.

A docile and unhelpful track at Trent Bridge would see both sides score heavily as the game meandered to a draw, and the combination of the limpet-like Border and the infamous Old Trafford weather would be deny England in a match where they would be on top for the first four rain-affected days.

With the series poised nicely at 1-1, things would be nicely set as both teams headed to Edgbaston, the game that would always stick in my memory and provide the perfect summary of that memorable summer. A game that would be defined by one glorious Saturday, and a Monday afternoon where cricket lovers would see the moment that I would always call “the leg of Lamb”.

Nobody could have predicted what would happen next after what had been a fairly ordinary opening two days blighted by inclement weather, with the Australians finishing on 335/8. It had been a topsy-turvy innings, with the men in the baggy green caps reaching 189/2 before stumbling to 218/7 and then recovering thanks to fast bowlers Geoff Lawson, Craig McDermott and the once-feared Jeff Thomson.

Then came that bright and unexpectedly warm Saturday that would turn the direction of the match – and with it the destiny of the Ashes. 17th August 1985, a day when England would truly wrest the initiative from a stubborn but gradually ailing foe. 17th August 1985, the day when Tim Robinson and David Gower would run riot.

The day would being dramatically enough even before England would start their innings. Resuming on their overnight score, Lawson and Thomson had already put on 59 runs and would look to pick up where they had left off – but England would have other ideas. They would seize upon the early morning panic that would see Lawson being run out for 53 before a further run had been scored, and swingmeister Richard Ellison would then wrap things up as number eleven Bob Holland was dispatched for a fourth-ball duck. The Kent man would finish with figures of 6-77.

England would reach 38 before Graham Gooch swished at Thomson and was caught behind, but crowd would not know the treat they would be in for as Gower ambled to the crease. With that famous mop of blond curly hair peeking out from under his blue helmet, the England captain would deliver a masterclass. Every shot would come off: the smooth clips off the legs. The crisp drives on both side of the wicket. That distinctive swish of the blade that would look ugly when clipping the ball to slip on a bad day, but on this day graceful and truly glorious. Robinson would be no slouch either as he joined his skipper in carting the woeful Australian bowlers to all parts. It was pure buffet, and the England batsmen just gorged on the short and tasty half-volleys and long-hops. By the close, England had stormed to 355/1, with Robinson on 140 and Gower on 169.

Australia would have the rest day to mull over things, and when play resumed on Monday would strike early to remove Robinson for 148. But this would just be the prelude to the second act. Fresh from his 160 at Old Trafford, Mike Gatting would join in the fun as he pulled and punched at will. Poor Thomson would be flying off the bat at a rate of over five an over, and Gower would motor past the two-hundred mark in that familiar languid style. Gower was one of those batsmen who could inflame and inspire in equal measure: on a good day, he would caress and feather the ball to the boundary. On a bad day, he would look like comedian Ken Dodd with his feather duster. On this day, we would see the best of the man known as “Lord”, and when he finally fell in the afternoon session for 215, there would be rapturous applause from the Birmingham crowd.

But England were not done yet, as Gatting continued to plunder runs with Allan Lamb. With Gatting moving towards his second successive century he and Lamb would put on 109 for the fifth wicket, setting up what would be cameo of the match from Botham. Looking like the comic cavalier with his bleached blond hair and no helmet, England’s perennial Ashes hero would twice launch the ball into the crowd off McDermott. He followed this up with another boundary to take himself to eighteen from just ten balls, but the eleventh would see him spoon a shot into the hands of the mulleted Thomson at deep square leg.

Thomson, a shadow of the bowler he had been in the late 1970s and early 1980s alongside Dennis Lillee, could offer nothing more than a two-fingered insult at the crowd who had been barracking him all morning. Nobody would be insulted, and everyone just laughed.

With the score at 592/5 Gatting would need just three more to reach his century, and Gower would make the declaration and give his bowlers a crack at the Australian openers.

On a roll following their impressive batting display, the England bowlers knew they would have a job to do – and what a job they did. “Happy Hooker” Andrew Hilditch would be quick off the blocks, but would be caught by Ellison in the deep off Botham after playing one suicidal hook shot too many. Expat South African Kepler Wessels would follow, nicking the ball behind off Ellison. At 32/2 Australia would send in the bunny Bob Holland as nightwatchman, a plan that would backfire immediately as Ellison trapped him plumb lbw first ball. When Wood was felled by Ellison after a painful 82-minute vigil the score would be 35/4.

In would step Allan Border, Australia’s captain courageous. Could he stave off the rampant England attack? At the very least, could he hold out until the following day? He would keep out Ellison’s hat-trick ball and would survive sixteen further deliveries as he took his total to two runs – and then it came. Pitched on a good length, the ball would cut and swing back inside. Playing no stroke, Border could do nothing as it clipped the top of the bails. Ellison and England were ecstatic, the barnacle had been prised off, and Australia were looking down and out at 36/5. One more one would be added before the close, and Australia would be left with a mountain to climb.

The players left to climb that mountain when play resumed on the Monday would be Greg Ritchie and wicketkeeper Wayne Phillips. After the England pacemen had failed to make the initial breakthrough it would once again be the Phil Edmonds and John Emburey show, but the Aussies would see themselves through to the lunch break.

At 113/5 Australia were still a distance away from making England bat again, but were starting to look comfortable with Ritchie on twenty and Phillips, displaying a mix of patience and calculated aggression, on 59. With Edmonds bowling over the wicket and the square crowded with close fielders, the left-handed Phillips would chop the ball down into the legs of silly point fielder Allan Lamb – only to see the ball loop back into the hands of Gower, stationed close by at silly mid-off. The England players would look at the umpires.

Had the ball hit the ground? Had it come off the side of Lamb’s boot? The archive replays – just like England’s third goal at the FIFA World Cup final in 1966 – will never really prove conclusive, but in the days long before Hawkeye, Hotspot, Snicko, reviews, referrals and high definition slow-motion replays it would have to be a straightforward call from the men in the middle. To think that we didn’t even have pitch audio in England back then.

After consulting with his colleague David Constant at square leg, David Shepherd would raise his index finger.

His face grey and ashen, the mustachioed Phillips would trudge off the field, and with him take his sides chance of pulling off a miracle. His departure would precipitate a dramatic collapse: Ritchie would fall with just one more run added, Lawson would be snared by the smooth and snarling Edmonds, and O’Donnell would see his timber cartwheeling out of the ground as the rampant Botham thundered in to take his share of the spoils. The man popularly known as “Beefy” would then have McDermott caught in the deep to take his third wicket of the innings, as Australia were all out for 142. The man of the match however would be Ellison, whose 4-27 in the second innings would give him outstanding match figures of 10-104.

With victory by an innings and 118 runs England would move 2-1 in front in the series, with just a draw required at the Oval in the sixth and final test to secure the precious urn. However, momentum would see them more than chasing the draw: with the Aussies looking completely broken, they would go in for the kill.

The defeat at Edgbaston had sucked all of the remaining life out of the Australians, though Border would remain standing to take the punches right to the end. A stylish 196 from Gooch and another breezy century from the mercurial Gower would entertain the South London crowd and see the hosts through to 464, and Greg Ritchie’s fighting unbeaten 64 would be unable to prevent the follow-on. By this time the Aussies were probably thinking of the flight back home, as they subsided to a miserable 129 all out and a second successive innings thrashing.

The tourists’ second-highest score would be the eleven scored by bespectacled slow left armer Murray Bennett, whose wicket would be gobbled up by the indefatigable Taylor to bring things to a suitable close – a looping return catch would be the greatest moment in the cricketing career of the former coal miner from Earl Shilton in Leicestershire. In days far removed from today’s sporting celebrities and tattooed tweeters, Les Taylor truly was salt of the earth: after retiring from first class cricket at the end of the 1980s, he would return home to take up a job as a postman.

No razzmatazz. David Gower with the 1:1 scale replica urn in 1985. Left to right: Allan Border, Gower, Peter West.No razzmatazz, just the urn. Allan Border, David Gower and Peter West

David Gower’s post-match interview with the BBC’s Peter West on that Oval balcony would see him jokingly refer to the West Indies “quaking in their boots” ahead of England’s trip to the Caribbean early the following year – a trip that would turn into yet another one-sided massacre at the hands of the brutal Caribbean quicks. But on the afternoon of September 2nd 1985, English cricket would be at its highest ebb.

No. 41: The 1992 World Cup

Over the last two decades, the Cricket World Cup has become synonymous with terms such as overextended, never-ending, bloated and dull. Various tweaks of the format have been attempted, but none has improved upon that of the 1992 World Cup; the best nine teams in the world playing each other in one large group, followed by semis and a final.

This format had the benefit of (mostly) avoiding some of the mismatches that have blighted other World Cups – Australia v Namibia in 2003 anyone? – and also made for a much leaner event. In 2007,  48 games were played before the semi-finals, but in 1992 only 36 group games were required.

It was a trendsetting World Cup in that it was the first to feature coloured kits, white balls and dark sight screens. However, there were also a number of elements that seem incredibly outdated when compared to the modern game but, looking back, add to its charm.

Only four years later Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana would change the sport completely by bludgeoning huge scores off the opening 15 overs, but in 1992 things were much more sedate. For example, Neil Fairbrother’s match winning innings against South Africa was deemed a classic ODI knock, but looking back at the scorecard, he ‘only’ scored 75 off 83 balls – pretty pedestrian by modern standards.

It was also the event that provided Ian Botham with his last hurrah. Against Australia he took four for 31 – including the wicket of old adversary Allan Border – and hit a half century to take England to victory against the old enemy. The sight of a very, erm, beefy Beefy doing a little wiggle dance after each wicket either delights or appals in equal measure, depending on which side of the rivalry you’re coming from.

As mentioned previously, this was the first World Cup to feature coloured kits, albeit every team wore the same design, only with different colours. Red. green, blue and white across the shoulders, then maroon for West Indies, yellow for Australia and so on. Team names across the middle, no sponsors or kit manufacturer logos emblazoned across them. Nice and simple. Some players – such as Graham Gooch – still wore their Test caps rather than the standard issue ODI baseball-style caps, something the good people at adidas or Nike wouldn’t tolerate these days.

No such thing as the Duckworth-Lewis method either. Rain affected matches – and there were a few – were decided by a far more mysterious process, which would invariably result in one team being hugely disadvantaged. Who could forget the huge scoreboard graphic stating that that South Africa required 22 runs of one ball to win their semi-final against England? Especially as it was wrong – the Proteas ‘only’ required 21 off that final delivery.

Speaking of England, this tournament no doubt holds a special place in my heart as not only was it the first cricket World Cup I watched to any great extent, it was also the last one in which England actually did themselves credit. Second behind New Zealand in the round robin phase, they were favourites going in to the final against Pakistan, who had won only four of their group matches. In true England style, a decent start – Pakistan were 28 for 2 when Mum *made* me go to school – gave way to defeat, but at least we got close. It’s also notable that the aforementioned shirt from that World Cup is regarded as iconic – cricket’s version of the red football shirt from 1966 perhaps – and can still be seen at cricket grounds across the country. When did you last see someone wearing the top from England’s ill-fated 1999 World Cup campaign?

Finally, the sponsor. For this wasn’t just the Cricket World Cup but the Benson and Hedges World Cup. A sporting world cup sponsored by cigarettes – those were the days.

No. 40: Sir Paul Getty’s Ground, Wormsley

Buckinghamshire is not renowned as one of the great regions of world cricket. It has plenty of history, with cricket being recorded there as early as 1730, and the County Cricket Club itself actually declined the opportunity to join the County Championship in 1921, over concerns about the standard of their facilities. It has won the Minor Counties championship nine times, and famously beat Somerset in the 1987 NatWest Trophy.

It is also home to possibly the most beautiful cricket ground in England, perhaps even the world.

Set in the rolling hills of Wormsley Park, Sir Paul Getty’s Ground is a monument to the beauty of simplicity. It is a relic of a bygone age – in an era of stadia, it is a true cricket ground. The immaculate playing surface is situated inside a grassy amphitheatre, flanked on one side by a thatched mock-Tudor pavilion, and on the other by an old-style manual scoreboard, behind which the Chiltern Hills slope up towards the clouds. The only sounds are those of the wind, and that of leather on willow. Occasionally, some polite applause. It really is like being in another world.

Getty was a life-devotee to everything English, and a few years after being introduced to the game by Mick Jagger, he had fallen so in love with the game that he decided to build the idyll we see today, loosely based on The Oval. For twenty years it has stood as a shrine to both his philanthropy and to the game he adored so much.

During the course of a match, should you look up the chances are you will see a Red Kite swirling around on the rolling breeze. After having been extinct in England and Scotland for many years, they were reintroduced on Getty’s land in 1989 as part of a project to increase their population, and are now a signature part of the park.

For those lucky enough to visit, there are few places that can match up to the experience of watching cricket at Wormsley. They have played host to many international sides, from Australia, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and South Africa, and of course, they hosted the 2013 Women’s Ashes Test.

That match was my unforgettable experience of Wormsley. As you climb the hill up to pitch level the view awaiting you genuinely takes your breath away. You are consumed by the majesty of the place, and it is easy to see why it is so beloved of players and fans alike.

A lot of grounds draw their lustre from their sense of history and tradition – for example Lord’s, or The Oval. Some are so big that, when full, they produce an experience like no other, such as the MCG or Eden Gardens. Grounds like Wormsley, however, are just stunningly attractive places to watch cricket, and in my view, it is as close to Heaven on Earth as you are likely to find.

No. 39: Pre-Season Matches

Its cold. Oh its so, so cold. And its windy. You’re wearing three jumpers, two tops and if you are under a certain age, a ‘base layer’. And you are still really cold.

“Why am I here?” you ponder, gazing longingly at the warm clubhouse and spectators, watching from the bar or their cars, heating full blast. Thwack! The ball is smashed right at you. No ‘half-efforts’ here. Like an icy missile, it hits your hands. Without expression, you throw it to the bowler, and this miserable cycle repeats.

Welcome to your first pre-season friendly.

It sounded a great idea in January. The skipper rang round, “Fancy it?”, fired up by highlights of England’s winter tour and daydreams of run-a-ball hundreds, “Yes skip, dead keen”, comes the reply. Thwack. Ouch. The cycle repeats.

And it’s not just fielding. You went out to bat, invariably behind a couple of lads from the team below, faced four balls, got hit on the arm and promptly got bowled. By a junior. Bowling? Forget it – too short, too full, seven an over. You’re too rusty – this season is already a nightmare. Miserable.

But its not miserable. These are some of the very best days of the season. Rocking up in the changing room, the jokes are flying, good and bad. “You’ve wintered well”, is the standard welcome to anyone of a certain stature, handshakes aplenty, smiles all round. You admire new kit and swap tales of your winter. Camaraderie is rarely this high. You’re back with the lads and its fun.

And that new season excitement is still there. You’ve not ducked out (just yet), and those new whites are oh so clean. That new signing, the world beater, looks like a bit of class, and so does the new Aussie. There’s something just great about the first game of the season.

The ball comes. Thwack. Urgh.

Miserable.

No. 38 Those Matches

The seven year old sat glued to the TV.

This was the first summer he had watched organised cricket.  He had played it for hours with the other children who lived in the compound on the sub-continent, until he watched the first test at the WACA he had not seen it at this level.  Visiting his Grandparents in Australia, he had watched the TV with interest for as much of the tests in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide as his parents (and grandparents) would allow.

Another over passed unscathed.  A few more to the total, but it was still unlikely…

This match was different. His grandparents had taken him to see the second day of play live.  England had been bowled out just on stumps the night before and the Aussies were batting.  He had ridden the highs and lows of the day – his hero was out hooking first ball, but the wicketkeeper had scored a fifty to go with a couple of others from the batsmen. Like the Englishmen the previous day, they were all out right on stumps, a princely lead of three runs on the first innings.

A streaky shot and a few more to the total.  There was just a possibility that they could what had seemed impossible.

The English second innings saw a third straight day where the innings finished just on stumps.  England had been in trouble early but a couple of partnerships had made sure they posted a reasonable total – ten more than their first innings and seven more than the Aussies only innings.  The match was set up for a stellar finish.

With the field pushed back, the batsman took another comfortable single to put the number eleven on strike.  Another run closer.

The Aussie second innings had swung wildly from one side to the other.  First the Aussies seemed in the best position, until the opening partnership was broken and then the captain fell cheaply again.  A third wicket shortly afterwards had England in the box seat.  However a fourth wicket partnership of 100 had seemed to settle the result.  However both batsmen were out within two runs, and another couple of wickets 17 runs later left England in dominant position.  Two more wickets fell as Border was given singles so that the English team could work on the tail.

An edge for four and against all odds, these two had taken Australia within one well hit shot of victory.  The boy could hardly believe what he was watching.  

The final pairing had come together needing 74 runs to win.  Border had been out of form all series, and Thompson was not expected to last long.  England had won the match.  But the two Queenslanders had other ideas.  Border was under very little pressure due to the English tactic of giving him runs in an effort to get to Thompson. Thommo for his part gritted it out, and even occasionally hit a half decent shot.  For the first time in the game, a team survived to stumps.  More than that the last pair had halved their target: 37 still to get.

The tension was almost too much to bear.  One ball was all it could take…either way.  

Given that the day could end first ball, the gates were thrown open for the last day.  After four days where the match had been so enthralling, 18000 people turned up to see the end.  Millions more watched on TV.  Border and Thompson had inched their way towards the target against the new ball.

Botham came on to bowl the 18th over of the day.  Ball took the edge of Thompson’s bat.  The boy’s heart went into his mouth.  Dropped! … no… caught!  England had won.  

Tavare had dropped the catch at slip, but it had bounced up, not down, and Miller had come around behind him to complete the catch and a three run victory.  All four innings had been completed with scores between 284 and 294.  The match had been close throughout with the ascendancy moving backwards and forwards.  

Even as a seven year old he knew that this was one of “those matches”, the extra special ones that make cricket such a joy (win or lose).  He went on to watch many more of those matches- Australia and the West Indies in Adelaide 1993, The Ashes in Adelaide in 2006, Australia and Pakistan in Hobart in 1999, Trent Bridge 2013 just to mention a few-  But it was the first of these that sealed his love for cricket.  

No 37: Lords – The Home of Cricket

I have been mulling over writing this one pretty much since @legsidelizzy first tweeted this blog before Christmas and even now, I am not sure I am up to the task of doing this one justice. Where do you start with such a icon of the cricketing world? This is not a player for whom you can wax lyrical about his cover drive, or ability to swing it both ways [ooerrr missus] or even quote stats & records, though Lords has seen plenty of those in it’s lifetime. It is not a pretty village pavilion nor inner city rough but ready pitch, the starting point of so many illustrious careers held in deep affection only by those that have lived in the locale. No, Lords is often the pinnacle of those careers, it is the symbolism of having ‘made it’, the absolute peak of cricketing greatness on so many levels. So, if this mighty edifice in the heart of St John’s Wood is so great, why does a diminutive [metaphorically and literally] soul like myself always feel so at home the moment I walk through the gates? I guess that is the point of this post, I am going to explain from a simple point of view why the self styled Home of Cricket is worthy of being one of our 500 Loves. This isn’t about history per se, or the intricacies of the MCC and its role, it is about the actual physical place that is Lords and those that work and play within its walls.

The first time I walked into Lords, via the tradesmans entrance otherwise known as the North Gate [which despite the glamour of other gates, is still my preferred way in, there is something about the build up, walking past the Nursery, players out there in training kit, often having a knock around with a football] it was all rather surreal. I had of course seen this cathedral of cricket worship on the TV, but that first view of the lovely old groundsmen sheds alongside the Nursery ground, the back of the spaceship Media Centre dominating the skyline, it was all a bit, well, weird. The sharp contrast between the traditional and contemporary bits didn’t jar in the way I would expect, it just all felt so right, so familiar and yet so new… and I hadn’t even seen the Pavilion at that point.

I spent the next 3 days at Lords, lucky enough that my first few days there included being fed and watered in the Media Centre – an odd place indeed, especially during a county match, which is the only way I have seen it on the inside, sort of fish bowl meets gentlemans club with a bit of the comedy store thrown in for good measure.

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Lords is quite large, as you can imagine, but you quickly get a feel for the layout and there are always smartly dressed stewards around to point you in the right direction should it be required. It is an odd combination of the original architecture with all manner of miscellaneous new bits bolted on, like someone took the stations & platforms from an old Hornby railway set and chucked them in the box with the Meccano. Walk round the back of the Mound stand and the brick archways are more reminiscent of an Abbey cloisters than anything else – possibly quite appropriate. Popping out at the Tavern stand and 70’s/80’s kitsch is all encompassing, but it almost goes unnoticed because there is the sign to the Clocktower, the clapperboard style tower that contains the scorers box and the clock. Sitting proudly atop this tower, Father Time himself [not, as many think ‘old Father Time’, have a read of THIS straight from the horses mouth], reliably offering advice on wind direction and a comforting presence to all, like the guardian angel of wood & willow the world over and certainly of this corner of London.

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Beyond this you reach the majesty of the Grace gates and the Tavern pub [the Tav], topped by the Thomas Lord Suite – again, TLS is not the most eye pleasing part of the ground, but it is of little consequence as the eye is drawn by those gates, known the world over and together with the Pavilion itself, probably symbolise Lords more than anything else. We are now very much into ‘members’ territory, Allen & Warner stands are down this end, acting as bookends to the monolith that is the MCC Pavilion, THE home of cricket, it’s laws, it’s members, it’s history… look carefully, you can probably see the glow of the aura that surrounds this building. Pitchside, it’s facade is a symphony of symmetry, spoilt only by a sliding sight screen that for my visits is nearly always off centre, a bum note.

From the rear, this symmetry is less noticable as it spreads across into the museum via the player changing rooms and offices and ‘stuff’, and becomes a neighbour of the Middlesex shop, which in turn sits cosying up to the Harris Gardens, where the ‘posh’ people drink champagne on warm days. Walking under here, you pass the main entrance to the Pavilion, always watched over by a pair of stewards in smart blazers [like all the Lords stewards in fairness] You glance down at your trainers and jeans and feel just ever so slightly under dressed and out of place, so scurry past before you lower the tone too much.

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Popping out the other side you come across what is probably the most peaceful place at Lords, the Coronation Gardens. Gently manicured lawns surrounded by benches. A place to sit and appreciate the passing world, enjoy your packed lunch, watch a couple of kids knock a tennis ball around with little cricket bats. There is something very serene about this little corner.

From here it is the long run under the main grandstand, a modern concoction of concrete and steel that is as close to ‘football ground’ as Lords can possibly get, although the friendly welcome at the bar under the stand has any resemblence quickly banished.

Finally you are back behind the Compton stand, which together with Edrich, flank the media centre. A pair of two tiered stands, that require their occupants to have a love of the English weather – the lower tiers have a venturi quality, pulling the wind in off the Nursery pitch and sending it howling down your neck even on a relatively balmy day. The upper tiers are completely open to the elements, rain or shine, you never forget your rain coat and your sunblock if you plan on sitting up there. They are popular though, especially in toward the Media pod, behind the bowlers arm y’see.

lords_001-4All sounds quite grand, not your average county ground at all. I have visited other grounds, like Kent and Essex and they are relatively small and intimate, Lords isn’t…and yet, it is. Since that first visit in 2009 I have been back many times, for both Middlesex and England matches, as a ticket paying great unwashed, as a Middlesex CCC member and even in a working capacity as a photographer for non-playing third party events and you know what, Lords is an amazing place.

It may be big in the overall scheme of English cricket grounds [probably quite ‘big’ in the world of cricket grounds], but it is still friendly & welcoming. This lass, born in a council house in the north of England, has drunk champagne in the Harris garden and not felt out of place. I have smiled at those doormen at the Pavilion doors as I walked in as well as been smiled at as I walked past them dressed down for sitting in the public stands. Staff have always been friendly and happy to chat, especially the older stewards who love to tell you their anecdotes. You walk into Lords and it wraps you in it’s familiarity, you can leave life’s worries at the gates and relax into it’s atmosphere. Some say Lords is full of ghosts of cricket past and maybe it is, but if so, they are friendly ghosts, very happy to have you share their home.

I remember the first time I went to a test match, 2012 against the West Indies and the ground was of course packed with people, with additional food and drink stalls and it was all very merry. I was initially quite taken aback at all these people at ‘my’ special place, forcing me to stay in the same seat all day and queue for a drink – but in truth, it matters not, because each time that happens, I know that my next visit will be peaceful. It will be back to county cricket with the die hards, the Middlesex supporters [and opposition] wandering around making the place feel occupied but not overly crowded. The Coronation gardens will be quiet, the bar staff will have time to not just smile a welcome, but ask me how I am enjoying play [or not, depending on how things are going for ‘the Middle’] and best of all, I can pick and choose where to sit for each session, whatever the weather. So I can relax and enjoy international cricket at Lords too, because ultimately it is still Lords, it still the place I love to be and I hope every other cricket fan that has been there feels even just a little bit the same.

Reading back, I am not sure I have done it justice, it requires more than my best effort in truth, but hopefully, you get the idea.

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No 36: 99.94

Some sporting achievements will be remembered forever: Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths; Usain Bolt running the 100m in 9.58 seconds; Brian Lara scoring 400 not out in a Test match.

Then there are sporting careers the likes of which, in all likelihood, we will never see again: Michael Phelps winning 18 Olympic gold medals; Joe Louis defending the World Heavyweight Championship 25 times in a row; Michael Schumacher taking victory in 91 Formula 1 Grand Prix.

And then you come to 99.94. The four most famous digits in cricket.

Sir Donald Bradman’s Test batting average is so absurdly large that it renders all comparison meaningless. You are considered an all-time great batsman with an average barely half of his (only 35 others to have played 20+ Tests average more than 50), and the gap between the Don and the 2nd on this list, Graeme Pollock (60.97), is roughly equal to the gap between Pollock himself and Graeme Swann.

However it is not just the size of the number which evokes awe and wonder, but the story behind it, which has passed into sporting folklore. Bradman went into his swansong, the final Test of the 1948 Ashes tour, with an average of 101.39, and needed 104 runs in the match to guarantee a final average of 100.

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Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller then made the Don’s job easier, bowling England out for 52, and such was Australia’s domination that by the time Bradman came in, at first drop, they were already ahead by 65. Arthur Morris was well on the way to a magnificent 196 and it was already looking likely that Australia would only need to bat once. If Bradman did only get one opportunity, he would only need four for his three-figure average.

Bradman came to the crease with the Oval’s appreciation ringing in his ears, and was cheered to the wicket by the England side. Blinded by his tears, he missed Eric Hollies’ googly and was bowled second ball. He departed to as loud an ovation as he had received two minutes previously, and disappeared up the pavilion steps and out of Test cricket.

England folded for 188 in their second innings meaning that Bradman wouldn’t get another go. His record would be ever so slightly imperfect.

But to me, that is why Bradman’s record is so great. That this freakishly great player who had achieved everything in the game could be so enslaved by his emotions proved that, for a few minutes at least, he was just like one of us.

99.94 confirmed Bradman’s immortality as a cricketer. The lack of that 0.06 confirmed his mortality.