August 4, 2012

At home with the archers

Was it worth having Olympic athletes walking all over the sacred turf of Lord's a fortnight before the ground's biggest cricket event of the year? The jury's still out

A sunny Thursday morning in early August, and Lord's is ready for the first session of yet another high-level, high-quality battle. The crowds arrive in their droves, hopeful of a full and exciting day's play. It isn't cricket they're here for, though, as England are taking on South Africa 200 miles north, in Leeds. No, the public have come to St John's Wood for something completely different: Olympic archery.

For me, it's my last day on site. They call me a Games-maker, but that doesn't feel like the correct term. I'd love to say I volunteered at the London 2012 Olympics for purely altruistic reasons, but I didn't. I offered to help out at the archery because I wanted to see behind the scenes at its host venue. As a cricket fan, where else would I want to be but Lord's?

I may be an interloper, then, but no one in my team seems to mind. Many colleagues volunteered for similar reasons. Not that everyone here is happy: the MCC has surrendered control of the home of cricket for three, prime, midsummer weeks. The idea was to use London 2012 to promote Lord's to a new audience, but some of the old guard are less than impressed.

I began my stint in mid-July, and the ground was eerily quiet. Walking past the pavilion in my Sergeant-Pepper-becomes-a-supermarket-cashier uniform, I saw an elderly gentleman walking towards me. I smiled non-confrontationally at him.

"Go away," he spluttered at me. "Go away! We don't want you here!" And he walked on indignantly.

I couldn't entirely blame him for his outburst. We'd hindered him from going about his usual lordly business, plonked bright pink access boards all over his beloved pavilion, and the brand protection team had gone berserk with the white sticky tape. This was Lord's, Jim, but not as he'd know it.

And then there was the outfield. Rather than use existing seating, spectator stands were erected on the hallowed turf, right in front of the pavilion. The archers would shoot straight across the square, towards targets on the bowlers' run-ups at the Nursery End. Swathes of grass would see no daylight for weeks, and the wicket would be completely open to the elements.

Geoffrey Boycott might hail a temporary return to uncovered wickets, but with fewer than two weeks between the end of the archery competition and the start of the third Test, what chance is there that conditions will be properly playable? Especially with this being the soggiest British summer in living memory.

"We are working with the MCC and its turf specialist to ensure the venue will be in good condition for the Test match," a spokesperson for the Olympics organising committee told me. "Lord's groundsmen will be able to access the ground for maintenance before and after sessions during the Olympic Games."

New grass is being grown in Lincolnshire, and squares of fresh turf will replace the damaged outfield. Mick Hunt and his MCC ground staff have managed to keep much of the ground in an impressive state. Nonetheless, a 13-day repair job is a monster of a task: dismantling the stands, removing the targets, screens, cables, banners, cabins and tents; removing all signs that the Olympics were here. MCC Head of Cricket John Stephenson admitted earlier this year that Lord's may not be at its resplendent best in time for the Test.

If that's the case, and a crucial England-South Africa match is affected, will the experiment have been worthwhile? The answer seems to be an almost unqualified yes. Sell-out audiences have come to enjoy a new twist on an ancient place. One press veteran of ten Olympics told me he'd never seen archery so popular, whilst the MCC Museum staff were delighted by the number of visitors. High-profile guests have been drawn in too: the Princess Royal, Lennox Lewis and Paul McCartney, to name but three. And cricket even made it into Danny Boyle's opening ceremony.

The archers, meanwhile, have seemed very much at home. The Australians acquired inside information from advisor Steve Waugh; the South Korean men broke both individual and team world records on the first day of competition; and Britain's Larry Godfrey - the Kevin Pietersen of archery - celebrated his second round victory with a flurry of cover drives*.

There were some appropriate pairings: Yorkshire's Amy Oliver against India's world No. 1 Deepika Kumari in the women's event; an Ashes clash between Taylor Worth (Aus) and Alan Wills (GBR) in the men's. Britain claimed a surprise win in the former, but Australia took the second.

Sadly, the promise from India's male archers that they would celebrate a medal a la Sourav Ganguly never materialised. Italy took the men's team title, and, in the individual event, neither Jayanta Talukdar, Rahul Banerjee, nor Tarundeep Rai got beyond the second round. In making the last 16, only Godfrey and Worth flew the flag for cricket-playing nations.

The weather hasn't always been helpful, but rain doesn't stop play. The archers just have to adjust, and the skill on display has been amazing. Not that I've been able to see many matches first-hand. Perhaps aware of my background, the organisers gave me a volunteering role in Lord's most glamorous setting: a Portakabin in the No. 6 car park. Still, I've been able to sneak into the pavilion now and then to watch some of the action, and our workforce canteen in the Mound Stand has a fabulous view of the field of play.

Anyway, it's not the watching, it's the taking part that counts. I've been privileged enough to see Lord's in a way I'd never imagined, to achieve a lifelong dream and walk down the steps and out onto the field of play, and to discover many useful things. Don Bradman looks like Bono, for example, whilst real tennis is a very strange game indeed.

And when Seb Coe zoomed in to see a thrilling finale to the women's competition, ending with a golden arrow shootout that South Korea's Ki Bo Bae won by the slimmest of margins, the place was a different Lord's. Whether all is "normal" again in a fortnight remains to be seen, but for now there was no doubt this strange test had been a great success.

*though they did look a bit golfing

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling