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January 22, 2013
Middlesex players will prepare for the new season under a large translucent marquee in the chill of an English winter in preference to jetting off for pre-season practice in the Caribbean or some other warm-weather destination.
For Angus Fraser, Middlesex's director of cricket, the decision is nothing to do with penny pinching in straitened times as much as accepting the harsh realities of the start to an English county season. "I think it's more valuable to be preparing for the season in English conditions where it's a bit cold and miserable," he said.
The Lord's groundsman, Mick Hunt, need not be alarmed. He will not wake up one morning to find tent pegs being hammered into his beloved square. Middlesex will use Radlett as one of their main practice venue in March after a two-year investment of more than £600,000 - a joint venture between Middlesex and Radlett - to upgrade facilities at the ground. They will also train at their indoor academy in Finchley.
Essex were the first county to experiment with practice under a marquee at Chelmford last season. "I went up to have a look and it seemed to work pretty well," Fraser said. "You want to replicate conditions you are going to get at the start of an English season. We are going to Spain for a few days in February, but I want to try this out."
The marquee, which measures 40x20m, will be erected at the end of January, giving the groundsman time to dry out the square - when he is not brushing heavy snowfalls off the roof.
"In a six-week period hopefully the groundsmen will be able to get the surfaces good enough for us to get some meaningful outdoor practice," Fraser said.
"Pre-season tours are great in that you get team bonding and the chance to play on grass, but I question how much they prepare you for the cold, damp, seaming conditions that you face at the start of an English season. Its good for the bowlers to get yards in their legs running up on soft grass and the ball will hold in the pitch a bit more."
The same disadvantage of unreal practice occur in indoor nets where the ball bounces more and batsmen are free to blaze through the line in conditions which bear little relation to even the driest English spring.
The marquee is an imaginative yet experimental solution to pre-season practice in England. There will be room for three pitches and decent run-ups for the bowlers. By March, the light should be bright enough for bad light not to be an issue. And if the ball turns out to swing under a marquee then all the better because Middlesex begin their championship season on April 10 against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge where they can anticipate some of the most challenging batting conditions in the country.
Middlesex were the surprise packet in Division One of the Championship last season, coming to terms quickly with the rise in standard after winning promotion and finishing third as they played some of the most consistent cricket in the country.
As tenants at Lord's, Middlesex have always had something of a nomadic existence, but improvements at Radlett have all been part of Fraser's determination to provide a more stable environment for the county's cricketers.