Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
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Worcestershire 371 for 4 (Haynes 127, Cornall 84, D'Oliveira 58) vs Oxford UCCE
"Take thermals to The Parks," said Scyld Berry when told of my plans. It was, of course, shrewd advice, the sort one might expect from a former editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. I anticipated a cutting wind and reckoned that my thickest flannel shirt would be only one of four layers I'd need. Round the boundary, fanatics would be declaring that they hadn't missed the first day's cricket on this ground since Vic Marks was up and they were damned if a bit of frost was going to stop them now. Fielders would be wearing bobble hats and praying the ball wouldn't come to them. Jokes would feature the prospect of double pneumonia. The whole shebang was first cousin to inevitable. For what manner of loon plans to cover a cricket match before the clocks have gone forward?
But the only foolishness is my assumption. As Worcestershire's players and coaches watch Gareth Roderick tuck Hugo Whitlock's first ball of the match backward of square for a single none is wearing anything more protective than a sweater or a tracksuit top; hardly any are hypnotised by their mobile phones. "One out of one!" Brett D'Oliveira exclaimed having won the toss and the visitors' new skipper then scurries across to move the sightscreen. The temperature must be in the low sixties. Already some of the daffodils in Balliol's back quad are going over and the magnolias in The Parks are in riot. The Crêpes O Mania van is doing good business, although nothing like the killing it will make in the afternoon session. No one has known a March like this in Oxford. My binoculars fall apart inside the first hour's play; perhaps they can't believe their lenses.
Roderick and Taylor Cornall, Worcestershire's almost new recruit from Lancashire, put on 114 in 27.3 overs for the first wicket before Roderick chips Toby Greatwood to Karan Parmar at midwicket. Lunch is taken nine balls later. The morning's play has been watched by around a hundred spectators. The more conservatively dressed are occupying the benches, one of which is named after Martin Donnelly, the New Zealand left-hander whose batting used to empty the lecture halls here just after the war. The more unconventional groups are on the east side of The Parks. Among them have been Japanese visitors, some looking bemused, others entranced. Perhaps they thought cricket is England's answer to the tea ceremony. They may be right.
Oxford University's players are on a pre-season tour to Barbados, so this UCCE team is composed entirely of Oxford Brookes students. Their fielding in the first two sessions is particularly keen but their errors are expensive. On 38 Cornall's edged drive flies more or less unhindered between the wicketkeeper Joe Millard and first slip Whitlock. The Worcestershire opener will go on to make 84 before Millard redeems himself off the home skipper, Chris McBride.
Rather more seriously, when he has made 23 Jack Haynes nicks the slow left-armer, Connor Haddow, to first slip, where Joe Gordon just fails to pouch the chance. A few balls later Haynes drives the spinner just over a leaping McBride at mid-off. They will be more or less his last errors before Haddow bowls him off the inside edge just before the close. By then Worcestershire's finest current young batter will have offered us drives through the covers and mid-on, although he will stroke only six fours in his hundred, and ten in his final tally of 127.
Cornall is dismissed just after 2.30pm and we hear our first "Let's go bang-bang" of the season. It is like spring's first cuckoo and similarly misleading. For Haynes and D'Oliveira will put on 120 either side of tea, and in the evening session Worcestershire's expected dominance is plain on a pitch that is an absolute credit to groundsman John Buddington, a Sunderland lad who arrived at The Parks via Tunbridge Wells and Horsham. Buddington is clearly a good egg and his work exemplifies the important point that although the universities' matches may have lost first-class status, they still offer valuable preparation and are taken seriously. The counties would not play them otherwise.
And yet none of this would be quite so memorable or strangely blessed had not our afternoon been enriched by the 200 or so good-natured students, presumably from Brookes, who gathered on that sunlit eastern boundary and cheered more or less everything their friends did. Every appeal was supported by a chorus; every decent stop was applauded. There was a chorus of "Jerusalem" and for once it did not sound like brain-dead nationalism. There were other songs, too: there is, should you be in any doubt about the matter, only one Joe Gordon. To do a circuit or three was to be revived after a bleak close-season by the bugger-it exuberance of youth. Yes, there were many beer cans and plenty of wine bottles. Indeed, chuck in a few tents and a lot of mud and you had cricket's answer to the Glastonbury Festival. Even Worcestershire's players savoured the show. One wonders if any of them have had such an enjoyable first day of the season.
By seven o'clock, though, Oxford was in near darkness. The cranes that currently compete with cupolas in this enchanted city were obscured, as were the Ukrainian flags that fly from college towers, residents' windows and Blackwell's bookshop. Even in this place, where one can so easily be seduced by memories of say, snowy Decembers, present concerns cannot be avoided. But as it happens, the clocks' going forward was of little consequence. The one on the front of the famous pavilion in The Parks had not been put back in October, presumably on the sound basis that very few people would look at it outside the cricket season. And the suggestion that Oxford has its own way of reckoning time might not have surprised the spectators on the ground this balmy March. For at least one of them, Jack Haynes will always be driving the ball through the covers and there will always be a low door in the wall.