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Feature

Canterbury Tales speak of a world in retreat

With English cricket awaiting the outcome of the Hundred discussions, an ancient corner of the game endures for another day

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
11-May-2024
Kent supporters bask in the sunshine at Canterbury, Kent vs Worcestershire, County Championship, Division One, May 10, 2024

Kent supporters bask in the sunshine at Canterbury  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

By stealth, but with increasing ubiquity, the old distinction between English cricket's Test- and non-Test venues has been replaced this season by a more stark, faintly grasping pair of epithets: "Haves" and "have-nots".
The "haves" - as epitomised by the likes of Surrey and Lancashire - increasingly have it all. Test matches, Hundred teams. Corporate banqueting facilities and a clientele willing to splash out in them, and now, with a handful of deferred exceptions, even the prospect of Tier 1 Women's outfits from 2025 onwards (and how quickly that untapped revenue stream has snowballed in value).
The "have-nots", by contrast, have only the power of their collective bargaining as they cling to the coat-tails of the counties that offer the promised Hundred riches, and to the fading glories of the ancien régime that they continue to represent. Not least, here at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, on the first true day of the English cricket summer.
For after five desperately dank rounds in the wettest spring on record - exacerbated by the futility of the Kookaburra's early migration - here at last was a chance to bask in county cricket as the sport's forefathers might have intended it.
Gareth Roderick's emotionally charged century was to the fore, as Worcestershire versus Kent served up a day of 308 runs in 96 overs - which seems a brisk enough clip until you recall that, in the IPL on Wednesday, Sunrisers Hyderabad ransacked more than half that many runs (166) in barely a tenth of the deliveries (58 to 576).
But this was not a day for such crassly pointed details. This was a day designed to wash over you as a background to your life choices; to exist - as might have been the case when time itself was first corralled at the height of the Industrial Revolution - only as confirmation that this is your moment of leisure, and it's yours to tailor as you please.
Watch the cricket, or don't watch the cricket - it'll still be there if you ever look up to check the score. Do the crossword, go for a stroll. Pat a dog, eat an ice cream. Loll on the grass banks while marvelling up at the pointlessness of the floodlights, which on a day like this seem as oblique and immutable as the Easter Island statues.
For this is what the "Have-nots" have that the "Haves" have not. You simply cannot replicate a scene like this in the high-rise bleachers of Edgbaston or Headingley, which for all the glory that its history confers, remains a carbuncle of a ground whose once-new family stand at the Kirkstall Lane End was memorably said, at its unveiling in 2004, to possess all the charm of "a viewing gallery at a municipal swimming pool".
Nothing about that sentiment, as penned by the professionally dyspeptic former Times man Michael Henderson, has softened one iota in the intervening 20 years. Unlike the once-controversial but now gently massaged rough edges of the St Lawrence Ground, onto which modernity has intermittently dared to encroach, but where - at least when the sun shines - timelessness still manages to shine through.
Take the Sainsbury's supermarket on the ground's northern corner which, when it first opened in March 2012, was perhaps the most symbolic sell-out in county cricket history. Twelve years later, it's no longer an affront to the ground's bucolic sensibilities, instead it's mellowed to become a convenient - and borderline essential - stop-off for unprepared picnickers, as they make for the ground's wrought-iron gates, barely five metres from the check-out.
Likewise the flats overlooking the square boundary off the Old Dover Road, which were such an affront when the original plans went through a decade ago. They've bedded down and blended in since their completion six years ago, with their patios and matured gardens now reflecting the matured residents within, who take in the action with the same keenly ambivalent interest as the greybeards within the gates.
And then there's the replanted lime tree on the boundary's edge at deep backward point, now 25 years old and an imposing ornament in its own right - albeit not quite as much a feature of the action as its predecessor, which blew down in a gale in January 2005 after 180 years of loitering on the outfield itself. It beggars belief that the Twenty20 Cup began a full two seasons before the death of this monument to amateurism - imagine attempting a relay catch these days, with a three-foot tree trunk waiting to brain you as you dive headlong for the rope. And yet, on this, a day of 26 boundaries in 96 overs, you'd have got reasonable odds that the failure to take on such a half-chance would not have been game-changing.
The St Lawrence Ground is, by design as much as circumstance, a ground of ghosts. Everywhere you turn, from the Frank Woolley Pavilion to the Blythe Memorial to the Cowdrey and Underwood-Knott Stands, evokes an era that, once lost for good, will never come close to being recreated.
And so, despite the upbeat weather (the type, dare one mention it, that the visitors need even more desperately if their own home at New Road is not to be abandoned to the sport's rising tides) this was an elegiac day. It began with an emotional tribute to Worcestershire's young spinner Josh Baker before the start of play, and continued through Roderick's under-stated pat of the club badge as he reached his century midway through the evening session.
Around the boundary's edge, that sense of transcience continued - from the undercurrent of intrigue about the ECB's plans for the Hundred, a deal for which seemed to be edging closer with every over, to the chatter in the day's final hour as word spread of James Anderson's impending England retirement, a toppling to rival that of even the aforementioned lime tree.
It all fuels the sense of a world in retreat, but perhaps that's simply how county cricket has always framed itself - a sigh of contentment that can't help but sound like regret to the untrained ear. So much of the talk among the game's other have-nots centres around the selling-off of their ancient homes and the relocation to purpose-built stadia by motorway junctions in the interests of "future-proofing". But would it really matter if major-match cricket, whatever that may come to entail, never again sets foot on grounds such as these, just so long as the spaces themselves and the bodies moving within them are saved for the nation, performative-art style, by a deus ex machina equity windfall?
Yes, it probably would, as it happens - won't somebody think of the talent pathways, apart from anything else. But it's hard to escape the feeling that we are already deep into the throes of this sport's last stand.
Next to the Old Dover Road Entrance, there's a metal plaque depicting each of the 15 Kent grounds that hosted County Championship cricket between 1890 and 2017, and acknowledging a further 19 that came and went even before then.
It's another parade of ghosts, from the Mote in Maidstone to the Crabble Athletic Ground in Dover, all the way to the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells, which had its most recent festival game cancelled by Covid in 2020 and seems vanishingly unlikely to make a return to the roster. The retreat has already been underway for years, but at least the sun shone. And while it did, this particular have-not seemed to have it all.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket