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I can look back over twenty years of full-time cricket writing but I am as susceptible to my surroundings now as I was the first time Norman Preston, the editor of this almanack, introduced me to the old press box at Lord's and I was conscious of looking out at one of them meeting places of all nations who speak the English tongue. As the formidable Dr. Johnson put it "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism could not gain force on the plain of Marathon or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona."
Atmosphere, association, environment, use what name you have a mind to, but the joy of daily participation in first-class cricket has always been enhanced for me by the ground on which it has been played. Cricket grounds are exactly like human beings in so far as no two are alike.
Lord's, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Headingley, Edgbaston, The Oval. I know every brick, every contour; it has been my privilege to visit them annually in the course of duty and I would not have missed any of them.
They have been honoured in prose and poetry, song and fable by the game's great minstrels and noble writers -- Nyren and Cardus, Norman Gale and Alan Ross, Robertson-Glasgow and Arlott, Jack Fingleton and Ray Robinson. These are the mighty halls of the game where cricket is played from late April to early September each year. Their status is unchallenged, but theirs is only part of this heritage of English cricket grounds.
I can take up my tale anywhere. At Kettering, for example, where only one first-class fixture is played each season. It enjoys no title to conjure up visions of summer delights like Mote Park or The Saffrons. It is just the local cricket ground located between the railway and the River Slade, but a line of tall poplars turn the former into the opposite of what every small boy was supposed to be in the 19th century.
In a line, the railway is heard but not seen. You watch the cricket from the pavilion balcony in a delightful sense of privacy, away from such rude necessities as earning the daily bread. You enjoy it all the more when you learn that in 1927 omnipotent Yorkshire complained about the facilities at Kettering, and the pavilion was built to avoid a second charge of this nature, partly from the proceeds of raffling a motor cycle!
It was here just over ninety years ago that the Northamptonshire County Cricket Club was born. The Gentlemen of the North, including four ministers of religion, were playing the Gentlemen of the South in July 1878 and a discussion during the game drew attention to the need for county cricket in Northamptonshire.
A public meeting in the George Hotel under the chairmanship of the Rev. J. Marsham followed this game and that was how the county club came into being. Here at Kettering, a boot and shoe manufacturing town where the market rights bestowed by Henry III are still effective, cricket and rugby pitches are provided upon a dozen Midland acres, all maintained by voluntary efforts.
Even as late as 1956 these worthy men found they could not escape historical romance. A second field adjoining the ground on which the annual county match is staged was prepared for local cricketers and when they cleared away the dense tangle of bush and weed between the two fields there was found in the undergrowth a stage coach. Why it was there and who had put it there will always by a mystery like the disappearance of the crew of the Marie Celeste.
The outfield at this second cricket ground has been used as a site for the annual fair and sometimes this has been in full swing at the same time as the annual first-class match. Here one Saturday I watched Jimmy Pleass of Glamorgan fight his way to 96 not out against the background of Dodgems and the Roundabouts, while the music of the hurdy gurdies and the raucous cries from the coconut shies competed with shouts of "No ball", "Come three" or "Wait on".
Over the weekend the Welsh party speculated endlessly as to whether the popular Pleass could get the four runs he needed to complete his maiden century, but his captain ended all musing on the Monday morning by declaring immediately.
One game per season only, but at Kettering George Cox Junior made 232 for Sussex and before him Duleepsinjhi made 193 in an innings the old timers still talk of with awe and affection. According to them his assault on the poplar trees should have been reported to the Forestry Commission.
In 1933 Yorkshire skittled Northamptonshire for 27 and two years later when those champions of champions came back again Bill Bowes returned match figures of 16 for 35 and was reported to have said to Maurice Leyland -- "Ee, fancy complaining about Kettering. I wouldn't mind playing all my matches here."
I first regularly reported cricket at Chesterfield after being demobbed from the Army in 1946 but I do not think this has anything to do with my lasting affection for Queen's Park. Even after a visit to Newlands, the South African Test arena under the shadow of Cape Town's Table Mountain, I still regard it as one of the truly lovely cricket grounds of the world.
Queen's Park is overlooked by the famous twisted spire of the parish church. It has been that way for something like 600 years and there are many local versions of how it got twisted.
The one most likely to be true is that it was warped by an extremely hot summer in the year it was erected, but the most popular if undoubtedly scurrilous legend is that the spire twisted with shock the last time a virgin was married in the church and that it will not straighten out again until another one is married there!
The ground also serves as the town's principal ornamental public gardens and by the time Derbyshire play the first of their five or six matches per season there the gentle banks around the pitch are showing the first blaze of summer colour.
To the left of the pavilion is a bandstand redolent of Victoriana, where such famous collections of brass instrumentalists as Fodens and Black Dyke Mills keep their supple fingers in for national competition.
Behind the sightscreen opposite the pavilion is a boating lake whose surrounding bushes provide the homes for spectacular looking Muscovy ducks. In wet weather they often leave their natural habitat and waddle on to the cricket ground. More than one cricket writer of my acquaintance has, to his shame, seized on such heaven sent material to titivate his reports.
Some historic cricket has been played here. In 1904 Essex made 597 in their first innings and lost the match by nine wickets. Percy Perrin scored 343 not out with a record 68 boundaries and then saw Derbyshire reply with 548, shoot out Essex in their second innings for 97 and romp home to an easy victory with time and wickets to spare. Perrin holds the unenviable distinction of having played the highest innings in a losing team.
Six years before, J.T. Brown and J.T. Tunnicliffe the Yorkshire openers scored 554 -- a first-wicket record which stood until 1932 when Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes, their even more famous successors, scored 555 against Essex at Leyton. In the match at Chesterfield, Yorkshire, having reached 554 without loss, were all out for 662.
In those days a declaration was allowed only on the last day, and the cunning Yorkshiremen, determined to leave their bowlers enough time to get Derbyshire out twice, threw their bats at everything, as delighted to get out as to hit a six.
Nothing in this world is constant and since World War Two, Chesterfield has frequently proved a paradise for pace and swing. In 1947 I covered my only one-day finish to a first-class match when Somerset were dismissed for 68 and 38 against Derbyshire's 231. As Harold Gimblett packed his bag in the poky little dressing room not much bigger than a large cupboard he said "We must have been looking at the ruddy spire instead of the sightscreen."
Ten years later Middlesex were all out for 29. Here, too, I saw George Pope take six for 12 in the rout of Yorkshire for 44 before lunch on the first day.
In another Yorkshire match (which always goes to Chesterfield, a mere dozen miles from Sheffield) it was discovered after a few deliveries that the pitch was 24 yards long and proceedings came to an abrupt end until a new pitch was cut to the regulation 22 yards alongside.
Everything is right about Oxford. There are no points at stake so the county professors can relax and enjoy their cricket surrounded by wonderful foliage in a public park where no charge for admission is permitted. The pavilion has unmistakable character and each panel in its walls carries in gold lettering the names of every Oxford XI going back into the nineteenth century.
It is said, and one hopes the tale is not apocryphal, that it was looking at these names that gave Frank Richards his inspiration for his endless tales of Greyfriars School which used to appear in a magazine called The Magnet and which were avidly read by boys of earlier generations. Indeed you will find Cherry and Coker on these ancient panelled walls playing together in 1842 and 1843.
The story also goes that Richards was walking down Keble Road on his way to a match in The Parks mulling over a name for his fictitious public school. He passed Keble College and his eyes travelled over it. Redstones? Greystones? H'mm. Not quite. At that moment a monk entered The Parks ahead of Richards, perhaps also enchanted at the prospect of spending an hour or two in a deck chair to watch the run stealers flicker to and fro. No, not Greystones. Greyfriars was even better.
Greyfriars it was and Quelch, Bunter, Wharton & Co. were soon to give weekly pleasure to countless millions of boys who are now fathers and grandfathers.
In 1962 Oxford's bowlers conceded 982 runs in taking their first four wickets but no-one worries about figures, results or finance. The Parks, Keble and All Souls, the Mitre and the Randolph, Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson. Yes, everything's right about Oxford.
There are of course grounds in the sharpest contrast to Chesterfield and Oxford. Leicester, apart form its name Grace Road, has nothing of grandeur or dignity. Somehow the straggling trees have never come to maturity and from dressing rooms and pavilion one looks across at the red-bricked backs of a terrace of Victorian houses.
Nowhere are Victorian houses so depressingly red and Victorian as in the Midlands. One of the worst Monday mornings I know in cricket is to walk on to the ground at Leicester and see the back gardens of these houses dressed overall with the week's washing. But already things are changing and Grace Road with new buildings appearing each season it seems, is fast taking on the stature of a county headquarters ground.
Splendid work for the club did not wrest the ground from public ownership until as recently as 1964. Leicestershire cricket, however, had its roots at Grace Road, which it bought from the Duke of Rutland in 1878.
Here ten years later Leicestershire gained their only victory over an Australian touring side by 20 runs. The captain, C.E. de Trafford, and the club president, J.N. Cooper, were so delighted that they presented the amateurs in the team with silver snuff boxes and gave the pros a fiver each.
There was talk of spending the then large sum of £40,000 on a pavilion, an hotel, cycle and running tracks, but by 1901 the club reluctantly decided to give up Grace Road. The only transport was an infrequent horse tram and the ground was too far out of the city.
They moved to Aylestone Road much nearer the centre and there they stayed until the outbreak of World War Two. By the time it was over the electricity undertaking had put up huge water cooling towers in the outfield, so county cricket moved back to Grace Road where from 1946 to 1964 the club had to share their H.Q. ground with the local educational authority. School football matches and athletic meetings are not exactly the best bedfellows for a groundstaff trying to make a pitch and outfield fit for first-class cricket.
Here in 1965 before transformation had got under way Jeff Jones of Glamorgan bowling downwind on a flyer took eight for 11. Half the Leicestershire team were out for 3 and Don Shepherd held up a white handkerchief to the home dressing room and invited the rest of the batsmen to surrender.
Few towns where county cricket is played go further back into history than Brentwood. Of all the Essex grounds the tree surrounded acres of Brentwood are, without doubt, the most beautiful. The ground is situated at the top of the town, 21 miles from London's teeming East End, where the A.12 road heads for Chelmsford 11 miles distant.
To play cricket at Brentwood is to feel that one is playing in the grounds of some vast country mansion -- which is virtually true. Yet neither cricket ground nor town itself would have existed but for the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170. His tomb became a shrine which drew people from all over the country and to reach it a staging point was needed for those travelling from the Midlands and East Anglia.
The accepted route to the Tilbury Ferry in those times ran through a clearing in the forest and soon houses and inns sprang up on this spot. Brentwood had been born.
The new half-way house on the route to Canterbury got into historical records as early as 1177 when the goods and chattels of a notorious outlaw, one Reginald Brentwood, became forfeit to the Crown. The late headmaster of the famous Brentwood School, Mr. James Foster Hough, purchased much of the surrounding land for playing fields, but he made no attempt to acquire one of England's loveliest cricket grounds.
Some sixty years ago a leading executive of the Canadian National Railway, a Mr. Horne-Payne, brought his bride to Essex. Merrymeade, their home at Brentwood, with its tall, graceful chimneys and 80 acres of land, became a gathering place for cricket lovers.
Before World War One and under the patronage of Mrs. Horne-Payne, Brentwood Cricket Club made their headquarters in idyllic surroundings. The great oak tree on the north side, square with the wickets, dominates the ground and hides the house from the too inquisitive. Until modern times this tree, like its better known counterpart of the St. Lawrence Ground, Canterbury, was included in the playing area but it has now been fenced off and is officially part of the Merrymeade gardens.
A few years ago the local council purchased the entire estate, leaving Mrs. Horne-Payne in residence until her death at the age of 90. Her will revealed her intention to leave the ground to Brentwood Cricket Club.
This club has had such notable cricketers as the Ashtons, Ken Farnes, the England and Essex fast bowler who was killed while flying in the R.A.F. in October 1941, John Pretlove and John Whitcombe. Essex played at Brentwood for the first time in 1922 but did not come back until 1934. This game provided some of the most amazing scoring ever known in English cricket.
Kent, batting first, amassed 803 for four before Brain Valentine called his batsmen in. The story goes that one of the Kent players turned aghast as he saw Valentine start to signal and said "Skipper, you are surely never going to declare, are you?" Bill Ashdown made 332, Frank Woolley, dropped at two, went on to 172 and put on 352 with Ashdown in just over three hours after which Les Ames, given a life at 30, proceeded to make 202 not out.
Essex replied with 408 but followed on nearly 400 behind! By this time the pitch was not so immaculate as it had been, Tich Freeman got his wrist spin to bite and Essex, all out 203, lost by an innings and 192 runs although they had scored over 600 in the match.
Here in 1948, Glamorgan, on their way to the Championship, added some notable statistics to the first-class history of this sylvan setting. Emrys Davies and Willie Jones established the third-wicket record for the county with a partnership of 313. In the same match Len Muncer took nine for 62 in one Essex innings and deprived himself of immortality by catching the remaining Essex batsman.
No cricket writer ever forgets the ground at Worcester, which one minor poet, inspired by its charm and the dominating presence of the Cathedral, described as "the fairest ground, foundations in God's earth and head in heaven."
The drive to Worcester for the traditional opening fixture of the touring country is the end of our winter of comparative discontent. It is the official end of winter, a time of being born again, a 36 miles journey along The Blossom Route the Vale of Evesham, the first asparagus on sale at the roadside stalls, the descent into Broadway, that village which sends American tourists into rapture, with seven counties visible at the top of the hill. Then the old city itself with its hostelries crammed with journalists, acquaintances renewed after eight months apart, the good, familiar talk again.
It is a time and occasion to ensnare a cricket writer into flights of fancy. It is said of C.B. Fry that on his first visit as a writer he wrote his preview of the game and did not discover until he was on the point of going into dinner that he had wrongly named the river flowing at the bottom of the town. With the savoir faire one might have expected from the great man, Fry telephoned his office and said "For 'sparkling Avon' insert 'muddy Severn'."
The weather is often unkind so early in the season but frequently events have matched the setting and the symbolic significance of the curtain raiser to a new English season. It is only necessary to give the figures to establish the identity of the batsman -- 236 in 1930, 206 in 1934, 258 in 1938 and 107 in 1948. Who else could it possibly be but Bradman?
Other countries however have plummeted to a maiden defeat at Worcester. The West Indies lost by 85 runs in 1939, India by 16 runs in 1946 and South Africa by 39 runs a year later. Scarcely a winter goes by but the Severn overflows its banks and floods the county ground which, ironically, can boast no other name but the prosaic New Road. Despite this annual inundation the pitches at Worcester have often smiled upon the batsman.
In 1949 Jack Robertson of Middlesex scored 331 not out on the first day. Bowlers have also known their triumphs at New Road. Somerset's slow left-arm spinner, J.C. White, took all ten wickets for 76 in 1921 and 15 years later Jack Mercer in his spell with Glamorgan considerably improved upon that performance by taking all ten for 51. The season before, Alf Gover of Surrey had taken four wickets with consecutive deliveries.
Kent have in their time played home fixtures on more than a dozen grounds all the way from Beckenham down to Dover but none can challenge their headquarters at Canterbury. Over 120 years ago Kent beat England by three wickets at the St. Lawrence Ground and ever since the place has exuded the very essence of cricket in play and scenic background.
The obelisk to Colin Blythe just inside the main gates on the left, the famous tree inside the boundary, the ring of tents with their bunting, the oddly gaunt concrete stands with their hint of serious professionalism, Ladies' Day when in happier times the band of the Royal Marines came over from Deal and played suitable airs from a slight eminence to the right of the square while the cricket flowed. I recall with gratitude that even the sun shone warmly.
Legend has it that all the great players of history have appeared at Canterbury at some time or other. The Graces set their stamp on the St. Lawrence Ground for all time. In 1862 E.M. Grace carried his bat for 192 out of an M.C.C. innings of 344 and followed this up by taking all ten Kent wickets for 92.
Fourteen years later W.G. went there with the M.C.C. and scored 344. Straight from this terrible scourging of Kent he went to Clifton where he scored 177 against Nottinghamshire and from there to Cheltenham where he took 318 off Yorkshire without being dismissed -- 839 in three innings for twice out. Follow that, as they say in the theatre!
What would one give to see now the kind of match that the St. Lawrence staged in 1937? Kent set Nottinghamshire 310 to win in three hours and the Midlanders got them with threequarters of an hour to spare after Joe Hardstaff made 117 out of 134 in an hour for the third wicket. He reached his century in fifty-one minutes and took the Lawrence Trophy for the fastest hundred of the season.
The achievements of a list of Kent names could make the head reel but let us leave St. Lawrence with mention of just one -- the hat-trick by Doug Wright against Hampshire in 1949. It was his seventh in first-class cricket -- a world record.
Suddenly one is overwhelmed by the enormous canvas one has attempted to cover. There are so many grounds, so many stories about each one, so many personal memories. To do justice to them all it would be necessary to gain the editor's permission to write a triptych, which would be unlikely. So a quick kaleidoscopic flick and I must be gone.
Snibston Coalville where I covered the maiden first-class fixture, walked out with the Leicestershire players to look at the pitch newly created from what a few months before had been miners' allotments and nearly fell over in astonishment when I spotted an uncovered manhole where backward short leg would have to stand; Ashby de la Zouch, where Denis Compton once changed in his bedroom, walked down the garden path of the Royal Hotel and straight on to the outfield to perform his daily duty for Middlesex and where in 1949 I headed a press deputation to the groundsman to ask for the docks and weeds to be scythed down so that we could get into the press tent; Ebbw Vale where the sheep come down from the hillside on to the outfield and where Peter Walker swore that on one occasion when he banged down the pitch with his bat he received answering taps from miners working just beneath the surface!
Petrarch was of the opinion that where you are is of no moment, but only what you are doing there, that it is not the place that ennobles you, but you the place. In the same vein Cicero has gone down to posterity as observing "It is not the place that maketh the person, but the person that maketh the place honourable." Even Shakespeare wrote "The place is dignified by the doer's deed."!
It would be churlish of me to express Henry Ford's opinion of history and dismiss such immortals with the word -- Bunk, but I feel I must go so far as to say -- Honoured sirs, I am not in complete agreement with you.