April 18, 2013

The death of two salesmen

Another county season gets underway. It won't be the same without Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Tony Greig

It was with particular interest that I read Chris Stonor's recent piece "County cricket's commercial crusade for the 21st century". I sort of went on one of these myself during the 1990s, so much so that it distracted me from the job of captaining and playing for Hampshire for a time. We had a quaint but ailing ground on Northlands Road in the centre of Southampton, where a full house meant about 5000 people. The idea was to find a bigger site and build a new state-of-the-art venue, ready for the demands and attractions of the 21st century.

In the early summer of 1992, David Gower and I presented to a local business audience of 600 over dinner at the Guildhall in Southampton, amid mighty fanfare designed to win financial support for a club that had previously bumbled along, announcing a profit here and a deficit there. By profit, I mean max £60,000; by deficit I mean much the same. We were small fry but we mattered. We had a good team - Gower himself, Malcolm Marshall, Paul Terry and the incomparable Robin Smith to name a few - and as the trophies were celebrated so the ambition grew.

The plan - first conceived over dinner with the president and vice-chairman during a county match in Leeds during the late 1980s - was to sell Northlands Road for £11 million, borrow a bit and build the new joint for £14 million. (Laughable looking back, and not just the budget but that the first plans were drawn on napkins that night: indeed the reason the boundaries are so big now is that we were sick of seeing average opponents chip Shaun Udal across the road for six.) And then we went out to the community, flogging progress, private enterprise and investment. We compiled lists of the wealthy whose affection for cricket had reached the public consciousness and we knocked at their door, played a short film made with 3D graphics to illustrate our vision and sold our dream.

They listened politely but they could not hear. Our enthusiasm was met with smiles of moral support, or were they pity? With nothing tangible for an investor to feed from, no accurate estimate of delivery and no guarantee of sustainability, we were politely shown the door. Then the property market tumbled and the £11 million price for Northlands Road went south. But there was no going back. Developers all but stole it from us. Hampshire County Cricket Club was on the move. It was destiny. We muddled through, editing the grand plan to something more modest.

We dug the first sod of earth - Udal, Smith and me - on prime land at West End, on the outskirts of the city, given to us for a peppercorn rent by Queens College, Oxford, almost exactly this week 18 years ago. As it turned out, 1995 was to be my last season as a player and thus I missed leading the team out at the Ageas Bowl by six years. 2nd XI cricket was first played at The Bowl in 2000. Robin Smith walked the first XI out a year later. Who better? There should be a stand named after him.

When the hotel is finished and the development of this fantastic cricket ground is complete, the cost will have been a staggering £48 million. Believe me, we would never have taken guard on the project had we known the monster we were creating. The "flamboyant" Rod Bransgrove, as Chris described him in his piece, is well documented as the club's saviour, but in the 13 years of extraordinary commitment to Hampshire - from insolvency in 2000 to security in the form of ownership by the Eastleigh Borough Council today - Bransgrove has suffered moments of deep introspection, doubt, anger and fear. A passion for the club, nothing more, has carried him through. Suggestions that he is in it for himself are unkind and way off the mark. He will not see a penny of the millions he ploughed in. Neither will anyone truly ever know what the journey has taken out of him.

My own view remains that 18 counties are not sustainable and that a streamlining of the system is inevitable one day, but those of the faith continue to shout from the rooftops in its favour

Much of this was on my mind on Tuesday in St Paul's Cathedral, where cricket preceded politics by a day at the memorial for Christopher Martin-Jenkins. And how CMJ would have approved of that! He adored county cricket, of course, but worried about the growing trend of counties taking on debt in pursuit of bigger and better facilities. My own view remains that 18 counties are not sustainable and that a streamlining of the system is inevitable one day. But those of the faith continue to shout from the rooftops in its favour, none louder for all time than CMJ. Mike Selvey nailed it when he called his own friend "cricket's greatest friend", and CMJ was just that, from village green to the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

By just three days did he survive Tony Greig, another who had the game written across his heart. Forlorn, Greig's wife, Vivian, told me of the sympathetic and generous email about her husband that was waiting in her inbox from CMJ just moments after hearing the news of his passing. At first confused and then amazed, she realised he must have written from his bed, weak of body but strong of mind - one of the last things, perhaps the last letter he wrote, achieved during his colourful life.

There was something eerie in their timing, these two adopted sons of Sussex. It was the death of two salesmen for sure. Two very different men conducting the same love affair in two very different ways. Their integrity and warmth, their enthusiasm and courage were shared. But for one read hyperbole, for the other discretion. For Greigy's charisma and extravagance, you might like to swap CMJ's measure and wit. As the new era of television broadcasting evolved under Kerry Packer's bushel at Channel 9, so the sound bite and the catchphrase replaced language and words.

Greig was another champion of the county game, supporting its place in the structure of English cricket while Australians around him laughed in his face. Sussex gave Greig the runway from which he flew, and he never forgot the way in which the game in England wrapped its arms around him. He left under a cloud of deception, so loyal was he to Packer's coup. This niggled away for the remainder of his life until the MCC invited him to give last year's Cowdrey Lecture, an honour previously bestowed on CMJ. Now the ECB will give him a memorial at St Martin-in-the-Fields in late June.

It is 47 summers since Greig first saw England in April. He marvelled at the cherry blossom and the chill showers that interrupted the first sounds of bat on ball. These were pieces of England that defined CMJ, the sights and sounds that he rejoiced in all his life. Now both men are gone but the game remains, forever changing but always staying the same. It is at this time of year that England is truly England. It will hurt a little but we must crack on without them.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK