September 30, 2014

The work that is county cricket

Players toil all season, but fans don't really get a sense of the scale of effort involved

James Tomlinson: a season of hard work and hair growth © PA Photos

An English first-class season that began on March 29 wound its way to an end last week, its champion county decided long ago, its issues of promotion and relegation running into the final hour. Like almost every part of professional cricket, it runs on a calendar established more than a century ago, when the world existed on different lines and the notion of a spectator event that took place while its potential customers were permanently engaged elsewhere was not so strange.

It may have continued in its twilight state as a grand folly ad infinitum but for the rise of social media, which has given county cricket a new constituency. It is followed and loved by fans who would be there if they could; instead they can live with it in real time through the live blogs (hastily collapsing that browser as the boss walks past). The BBC offers some terrific radio coverage on local digital and internet stations. Sky showed a couple of decisive games. Through these channels, the county season shimmers as a background glow in thousands of lives.

Through it all, county cricket's titans fight on, knowing that their deeds are glimpsed rather than savoured. It hit home when I went down to the Ageas Bowl to watch Hampshire play Kent in their penultimate championship fixture, and I realised again how rich the game's detail is, and how much of it we miss out on.

Hampshire were clinging to the second promotion spot from Division Two. They would ultimately go up as champions, but as day two of the Kent match unfurled, they were up against it, and third-placed Essex were pushing hard to overhaul them.

There must have been 2000 to 3000 people in the ground, and many of the members eschewed the shaded pavilion seats for a sun-drenched side-on view. It was mid-September, but summer's ebb carried with it some heat. Beyond the ground and in the valley below, fields of green rippled in the haze. Kent were batting. Hampshire had flown in Imran Tahir for their promotion push and he buzzed in from the hotel end, his whirl of arms and knees persuading Daniel Bell-Drummond to pad away a straight one. Bell-Drummond had made 153, his highest score.

The seamers rotated from the other end, first James Tomlinson, who was sporting a tremendous hipster beard, then Matt Coles, a man built on the scale of an ocean liner, and finally Chris Wood, angular and slight. He and Tomlinson, both lefties, rushed to the crease like commuters charging down a platform after the last train of the night. Tomlinson's bouncer was accompanied by a sharp cry of effort.

Sam Billings came in, and Tomlinson and then Coles tried to force him backwards with more short stuff, but Billings, young and eagle-eyed, took guard two feet in front of his crease line and simply walked towards it, swatting the ball to deep midwicket before it had reached its highest point. Soon Kent's total was coming up for 500 and a draw was the best that Hampshire could realistically hope for.

Coles and Tomlinson took turns on the boundary in front of us. Here was the quotidian reality of the pro cricketer's life: the many, many hours in the field. Kent would bat for 149.4 overs. Tomlinson worked on his stiffness by lying on the floor and running through a long series of stretches and rolls. Coles simply rumbled towards the ball when he needed to, hurling it back with a turn of his mighty shoulder. Once, Billings cut hard behind square and Tomlinson had to run 40 or 50 yards, the ball always beating him to the rope.

"Dive!" someone in the crowd shouted.

He looked up with the face (or at least the eyes, the rest was obscured by beard) of a man who had been giving everything, not just this morning, but every day, all season, not knowing whether it would be enough.

A week or so later, he bowled Hampshire to the second-division title in Glamorgan, the work and the tension over at last. I saw Tomlinson's expression again on the face of Lancashire's colossus Glen Chapple during an extraordinary match at Old Trafford as the home side tried and failed to score the win that would have relegated their opponents Middlesex and not themselves.

Lancashire needed to reach 300 before conceding nine wickets and a precious bonus point to Middlesex. They were eight down, and they wanted seven runs from six deliveries to do it. Chapple was batting. He had a broken finger. He was 40 years old, and he'd been doing this since 1992. The Sky cameras caught his face and it looked the same as Tomlinson's had - concerned, mildly distracted, caught up in something that only the other players were really feeling. He hit the next ball over midwicket for six.

I realised then that the County Championship is about work. We the fans miss so many of its lovely moments because we have to go and work elsewhere. The players have their workplace in a public space; they graft in full view of anyone who can watch them do it. There are joys and regrets on both sides. Long may it live.

And as for Tommo's splendid beard: the cult hero of the South Coast has had to shave it off - his wife doesn't like it, and we all know who calls the shots when summer is gone and everyday heroes head home for the winter.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman