Canterbury Week

Fascinating! It's Ladies' Day

Patrick Collins

This is an extract from the essay on a visit to Canterbury Week in Patrick Collins's new book Among the Fans, due to be published in September 2011 by Wisden's new all-sports publishing imprint, Wisden Sports Writing. The aim of the imprint is to extend our long-standing commitment to the best cricket writing to a wider range of subjects: "Books I want to read," says the series editor, Matthew Engel.

Canterbury divides cricketing opinion. Some see it as a place for people who are still coming to terms with the death of King Edward VII: a theme park for vaguely distracted gentlefolk, who find the sport engaging but would really rather be pacifying the North-West Frontier or civilising the dusty outback. Others are seduced by the understated grandeur of the setting: the quaintly decorous pavilion, the lush, encircling trees, the low, staid stands named after Kentish heroes - Woolley, Ames, Cowdrey. And, in Canterbury Week, the marquees, jostling shoulder to billowing shoulder about the sightscreen, gurgling with strong drink and humming with gossip and goodwill. And never more than on Ladies' Day.

It is best to arrive early, not merely to watch the watchers, but to test the validity of Tom Cartwright's theory. Cartwright dealt in swing and seam, but the late England bowler was also a wonderfully perceptive observer of the rhythms and rituals of the game he loved so well. He was a shy man with the soul of a poet, and this was how he approached the day: "If I go on to a ground in the morning, an hour before a game, it's the loveliest of times… There may be a mower still ticking and the groundsman marking the ends, but there's a silence as well. You can stand and think and listen. You've got the birds singing, the craftsman working, the mower ticking, the smell of everything. That's something that makes cricket different from all the other games."

This, the second of the match, is a morning that Tom would have recognised, with sombre cloud to promote swing, and brief, flickering shafts of sunshine to encourage spectating. The cars begin to occupy the space beyond the boundary, moderate of pace and bumping gently across the grass. They ought to be Hillmans and Humbers, but are mostly Toyotas and Hondas, of exceptionally low mileage and carefully driven by considerate owners. One such owner unwinds himself from his vehicle, clutching his back and staring hopefully at the sky. He has been dressed by Central Casting, in blazer and regimental tie, Viyella shirt, stout brogues and trousers of that shade of red which only men of a certain age and rank can carry off. A panama hat might complete the picture. He reaches into the back seat, and pulls out a panama hat.

As he salutes chums and passing acquaintances, his wife excavates the car boot. She brings out a small trestle table, two fold-up chairs, a flask of tea, two cups, two paper plates, a packet of shortbread biscuits, a carton of milk and copies of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. She pours the tea, adds the milk, distributes the biscuits and hands her husband the Telegraph while she retains the Mail. They sit in their chairs, sipping tea, and she smoothes down her sensible skirt, kicks off her sensible shoes and primps the collar of her sensibly cut jacket. It is only then that I notice the object on her head. It is small and feathery and its colour may well be cerise. It is, I am informed, a "fascinator", loosely defined as "a stylish, hand-crafted cocktail hat". By now, she too is nodding to friends, many of whom are wearing similar confections: bright, wispy, verging on the exotic. Just the thing for Ladies' Day.

The marquee guests are arriving. There are suited men, purposefully striding, and women tottering on precipitous heels, with hands clutching improbable hats. Tickets are offered, credentials examined. There are manly handshakes and fluttering air-kisses. Trays of drinks appear and bashful banter is exchanged.

"Swift sharpener?"

"Ooooh! Too early for me."

"Come on, just the one."

"Go on, then. Twist my arm."

Outside, a few yards away, the cricketers of Kent and Somerset are sprinting and stretching, darting and drilling in preparation for the day ahead. Their efforts go largely unnoticed in the marquees.

On the two "popular" sides of the ground, square of the wicket, Ladies' Day makes a more marginal impact. Here the audience is both overwhelmingly male and nearer 60 than 50. Many are tanned from countless days spent in the glare of the Kentish sun. They appear thoroughly knowledgeable about the game and the people who play it. A raffish few wear singlets, exposing patriotic tattoos. Some wear football shirts: Charlton Athletic, Gillingham, and one which puzzles me but turns out to be Real Zaragoza. The talk is of the oldtimers, of Underwood, Denness, Leary, Woolmer. Every conversation touches on the nonpareil, Cowdrey. They do not forget the great ones in this corner of England. On the opening day of every Canterbury festival, a large and respectful group lays a wreath at the memorial to Colin Blythe, a left-arm spin bowler for Kent and England, who died at Passchendaele in November 1917. He was 38 years old, played in 19 Tests and took 100 wickets at a remarkable 18.63. His first-class career spanned 15 years, during which he took 2,503 wickets. He once took 17 in a single day at Northampton, and they say that he did it all with style and grace and rare humility. There is something curiously affecting in remembering such a man.

Meanwhile, the moderns are being analysed. A small, slightly nerdish, clique sits by the scoreboard, swapping anecdotes about the Kent team. Articulate men in late middle-age, they use the players' first names, coyly, self-consciously: "As Joe was saying… you know what Geraint's like… typical Rob, eh? Typical bloody Rob!" They make plans for next week, when they intend to watch a Kent Second Eleven match against the Universities at Cambridge. In the course of their conversation, onemanis asked:"Coming on Saturday?" He shakes his head, regretfully. "I was hoping to," he says, "but we have a family wedding and the wife's put her foot down." I sense that the wedding in question might well be his daughter's.

The visitors, enjoying a vibrant season, have brought a fair smattering of followers. One young couple, part of a group down at deep extra cover, drove up from Taunton at six o'clock this morning. They covered the 200 miles in something over four hours, and they will make the return journey this evening. By motorcycle. The Somerset supporters mingle easily with the home fans, swapping details of decent pubs and reasonable restaurants. "It's nice and friendly, just the way football used to be," one of them tells me. I'm not sure that English football was ever so nice or so friendly.

After a prosperous first day, Somerset's innings ends this morning at 380. Kent then dwindle to a worrying 47 for three just before lunch, when Geraint Jones and Martin van Jaarsveld come together to confront the crisis. The ground falls quiet, an almost resigned silence. More than 30 years have passed since Kent last won the County Championship, and the tide shows no obvious signs of turning. Somebody sneezes loudly at the long-on boundary. "Bless you!" calls a Somerset fielder. Such is the silence that everybody hears the remark, and some giggle. A small number desert the Woolley Stand and make an early run for refreshment, hurrying across to the Bat & Ball pub on the Old Dover Road. There they stand and stare incuriously into their pints to the background blather of Sky Sports News. One man, with hands like hams, delicately picks out the lettuce and tomato from his cheese sandwich. They shrug off their disappointing morning, and speak of football.

Back at the ground, the announcer is urging us to welcome the band of the Parachute Regiment. They drift to and fro across the outfield, pumping out standards like "Soldiers of the Queen", "The Minstrel Boy" and, as a concession to modernity, "Puttin' on the Ritz", by Mr Irving Berlin. Toes are tapped, memories are jogged and there is spasmodic applause. As they troop away, the field is recolonised by a babble of small children with bats and balls. The announcer is ready for them: "We remind those on the outfield that you're very welcome to be out there, but NO hard balls are allowed," he barks. The words "health" and "safety" come spitting from every stand…

© John Wisden & Co.