February 9th, 2015. Brisbane is hot. Two miles should be a laughably easy stroll. It's about 1.99 miles too far for this Englishman fresh off the Singapore flight, sleep limited, stomach upset and skin burning. The prospect of free Sheffield Shield cricket is just about enough to keep us stumbling down the South Bank towards the ominously named Vulture Street. We arrive to find the teams have just stopped for lunch. We slouch off to a launderette.
September 22nd, 2015. Worcester is not very hot. The brightest elements in my vision are the double yellow lines guarding every inch of kerb in the vicinity. We park, leaving a straightforward half-mile amble to the ground. An attempted shortcut through Chapter Meadows promptly deposits us in a sodden muddy field. With the skies unleashing torrents of September rain, we manage to choose every wrong turn, thus contriving to double the length of our journey. We arrive to find the teams will not start before lunch. We slouch off to a library.
I ought to be more of a Worcestershire CCC fan than I am. Over 15 years ago, New Road was where I paid my first visit to first-class cricket, and buried as I am in deepest Herefordshire, it remains my nearest first-class ground. Most on the county circuit would consider this to be a stroke of good fortune. New Road, after all, has a deserved reputation as one of the most attractive county grounds, so any excuse to pay regular visits should be gratefully seized. Even the recent redevelopment isn't entirely negative: they didn't quite pave paradise to put up a Premier Inn, but at least the cathedral finally has a rival on the skyline to provoke discussion among the brethren that Paul Allott would term "the Worcester faithful".
"There's the retired gentleman, reading out statistics from Wisden 2015 to his wife. There's the East Anglian expat who can't believe her luck in getting to see free first-class cricket. There's the twentysomething most likely tuned in to the BBC commentary"
Yet I can't in good conscience claim to be among them. Over the years I haven't attended with sufficient regularity or devotion. Nor have I really identified with the cause: I live in Herefordshire, after all, so geographically Worcestershire have no claim on me. Despite all that, I've retained a certain soft spot for the Pears. More than that, after a year of attending overseas ODIs, Test matches, and the odd T20, returning to New Road emphasises to me the value of the oft-overlooked facets of the domestic first-class game.
Most frequently, the domestic game's primary value is considered to be reflected in the quality of players it produces for the international side, and it cannot be denied that this function is a key one in its continued battle for survival. At the same time, it would be a mistake to view it merely as a conveyor belt for the benefit of selectors and a curiosity shop for rejected players to end their careers in. While attendances are dismal in many parts of the world - West Indies springs to mind, and even in Australia, the idea of crowds at Shield cricket raises a laugh - in England, at least, there is still an appreciation of the game, perhaps not sufficiently voiced, that transcends a purely utilitarian view.
At the risk of sounding pompous, I feel that one cannot truly appreciate cricket without appreciating people, and no match that I have attended this year has afforded more opportunities for the latter than my two domestic first-class games.
There's the retired gentleman absorbing the late-afternoon sunshine at New Road, reading out statistics from Wisden 2015 to his wife with gentle excitement. There's the East Anglian expat sat in the shade at the Gabba who can't believe her luck in getting to see free first-class cricket. There's the twentysomething with earphones peeking around his long hair, most likely tuned in to the BBC commentary, whose frantic gestures at the regular fall of Middlesex wickets reveal where his allegiance lies. It is clear that the domestic first-class game attracts those who have an abiding, long-term love of cricket. It would take a harder heart than mine to not feel at least a degree of warmth for such companions, and a renewed understanding of the intangible value of this supposedly anachronistic competition, with its floppy-hat wearers, unhurried PA announcements of raffle winners, and John Arlott book sales ("THIS BOX ALL £1").
Wandering around the boundary, sighting the new hotel through the rather older chestnut trees, reinforces my conviction that preservation should, and indeed can, be balanced with modernisation. New roads present themselves, with the opportunity for both more exploration and further appreciation. TS Eliot may or may not have had much knowledge of our fair game; indeed, David Foot suggests that it may have been on the limited side. Nonetheless, as stumps are drawn on my year in the stands, returning to Worcester brings his words home to me with new meaning:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.