The golden fox
A visit to Grace Road after two decades and the memories come flooding back - of bowling to Viv Richards (maybe), and having Chris Broad lbw (definitely)
On a cold and clear January afternoon, beneath one of those bright winter skies that can beautify even a city centre as grey and drab as Leicester's, I decided to walk the three miles to Grace Road.
It's been a while since I was last there, 20 years at least, possibly more. Not that I could forget the route to the ground, a journey I've probably made over a hundred times, usually by taking two different buses.
Today, I'm walking. I want to see what memories the hike brings back, a psychogeography of batting and bowling moments with each step towards Leicestershire's cricket Mecca. I don't need reminding about the disappointment I felt when Viv Richards trudged back to the pavilion after failing early for Somerset, or my run out in the junior cup final when I was 15, sent back going for a sharp but well-judged single. And then a few years later, that six-a-side game where I slanted one back into Chris Broad's pads - don't worry, you'll hear more about that later.
Starting at a café next to the car park where Richard III was resurrected and then buried in a cathedral that looks more like a parish church, the narrow lanes quickly open up into a roaring artery that flows traffic from the centre towards the suburbs. I pass the demolished council building, the castle-like Welford Road Prison and the sprawling hospital, before bisecting the two current powerhouses of East Midlands sport - Welford Road, home of Leicester Tigers RFC, and the King Power Stadium, the coliseum where Leicester City FC have dramatically toppled the old order in the Premier League. Both stadia gleam in the unfettered sunshine, intimidating structures puffing their chests out with pride.
It's still another mile and a half to Grace Road, past the Mecca Bingo hall, under the railway bridge, and a sharp left turn at the second-hand car dealership. If you don't know your way you could easily miss the small blue sign noting "County Cricket". Where rugby and football stand tall, cricket hides away in terraced back streets at the poor end of town.
I may not have skittled anyone, but I do recall finding the edge of James Whitaker's bat more than once
Aged 11 I wasn't quite as cynical. This was the culmination of a long bus ride to see my heroes. In the summer holidays I woke up early, opened my curtains and checked the sky, before running downstairs to confirm the weather forecast on Ceefax. If I wasn't actually playing cricket in the park, against factory walls on the industrial estate, or rolling that little silver ball down the green gulley of the plastic bowler in the Test Match board game, I was making the trek to Grace Road.
Rucksack loaded with a pair of binoculars, a membership card loaned out from Syston working men's club via my stepfather, the Playfair annual, and a Wall's Ice Cream box crammed with Marmite sandwiches and chocolate biscuits, my friend Matt and I would walk through the gates, tingling with excitement at the day's play ahead. And we got there early, often the first into the ground. We took a bat and ball to every match, always ready to start up our own ad hoc game on a patch of grass behind the stands. This was also where the nets were, and where we might catch a glimpse of our heroes warming up. When we felt brave, and could see that a batter needed a bowler, we'd volunteer our services. I have an untrustworthy memory of getting to send a couple down at Viv Richards when the touring West Indies team played here, but that could be fanciful recollection. I do trust my memory of bowling at the late Wilf Slack, and how he square cut one of my skiddy outswingers into the side netting.
That seems a very long time ago today, as I walk up to the locked metal gate and peer through a gap at the verdant outfield. A groundsman rides on a sit-down mower, and a builder in a hi-vis bib stands on scaffolding erected over the pavilion. Nobody but us three. I was hoping I might be able to sneak in and walk around, sit in my old favourite seat, a privileged spot in the top row behind the bowler's arm - a first-class view provided by the maroon members' book that we had to show the stewards, who always seemed surprised that two scruffy vagabonds actually possessed such a thing. It was from that vantage point way above long-on that I'd watched Jonathan Agnew york Chris Broad with a sublime slower ball, zooming in with my binoculars on the moment he struck the Notts and England opener dead in the crease.
Peering over the top of the rusting barbed wire, I think I can see the very same seat. I can certainly see the corrugated roofing of what used to be the café. It might still be the café for all I know. In fact, from my limited view of the ground not much seems to have changed. Except, that is, the results.
While the 1980s promised success with England star David Gower, and pace bowlers Phil DeFreitas, Jonathan Agnew and Chris Lewis, apart from the Benson & Hedges Cup win in 1985, the trophy cabinet didn't trouble the feather duster. But then in the '90s things changed. County Championship wins in 1996 and '98 put cricket firmly alongside rugby and football in a remarkable sporting era for this small city - the 1996-97 season also saw Leicester Tigers win the Pilkington Cup, and Leicester City lift the Coca-Cola Cup, a triple that was commemorated in a bronze sculpture of an interlinked footballer, cricketer and rugby player, erected in the city centre to remind denizens that the glory days did once exist for all. Although there would be more trophies when T20 arrived, and the Foxes found they could hit a white ball harder than the more glamorous and moneyed teams, the county made national news last year because of a single win. By finally ending a record-breaking losing streak of two whole seasons, they found themselves on TV sports reports across the nation. Yes, a victory, at last, but it was losing that had put them in the headlines.
Sporting failure wasn't the world I grew up in. That gleaming gold fox, striding across a lambswool sweater, was the emblem of cricketing success. The 11-year-old Darren Maddy might have even had one of these on his whites when I bowled at him during a break time in the first week at my new comprehensive school. He was batting with an aluminium pole on a rough wicket against the side of the sports hall. I'd been the best player at my primary school, and fancied my chances. I ran in and flung down the tennis ball, then watched it rise up over the science blocks.
I was in his shadow for the next five years, until he quit his A levels and signed a professional contract. Although we only played for our school a couple of times - our rough comprehensive barely had kit, let alone a square or groundstaff in a decade when teachers were striking and refusing to organise out-of-lesson activities - we netted together constantly, both learning to bend the ball like a banana under the tutelage of swing legend Ken Higgs. Looking back it seems remarkable that Higgs, an England Test bowler, would once a week drive out to our scruffy school in full whites and teach a few kids how to play the game. I presume it was something funded externally, a programme supported by the county or the TCCB. It was a cold and draughty sports hall with a handful of keen lads who wanted to bat and bowl, nothing more. But Ken was always smiling and encouraging. I certainly owe him a debt of gratitude for my ability to swing the ball away for the next 30 years, even if I couldn't polish it with one of the many cans of Mr Sheen he carried in his kit bag.
I'd grown up walking through the gates into a ground illuminated by iconic cricketers, an arena that I'd now been lucky enough to play on
It was bowling that very outswinger at the Leicestershire Schools trials, drawing Maddy into a drive that he snicked into the slips, that ultimately got me selected for the team and then put forward for the Leicestershire CCC winter nets programme.
That journey I'd made as an LCCC acolyte, carrying sandwiches and scorecards in my rucksack, would now be made wrestling my kit bag across the city during rush hour. Through the dark wet streets and into the bright lights of the indoor nets, getting changed next to players whose autographs I'd once hunted - Gower, Lewis, DeFreitas and Agnew. Although our net was essentially the under-17 squad, first-team players would be encouraged to bowl at us. Lewis, in particular, was lethal off the curtailed run-up imposed by the short hall, needing only a few paces to catapult balls past my chin. Bowling at the pros was a little easier, as the last thing they needed was the death rattle from a teenage wannabe. I may not have skittled anyone, but I do recall finding the edge of James Whitaker's bat more than once.
The following season I made my debut, on a damp pitch in the Cotswolds in a game against Gloucestershire. My very first ball was a rank long hop that stuck in the track and got smashed straight into extra cover's hands. It was probably the worst ball I bowled that day but the only delivery that got me a wicket. Against class batsmen at my pace I needed to swing the ball to compete. I could rifle teams out on a helpful wicket with a buffed-up cherry, but here I was on county tracks with true bounce, and young tyros who'd go on to play professional cricket.
Unlike me. I wasn't good enough. A bit more gas and perhaps I'd have had a fighting chance. But it didn't matter, really. I'd got further than many. And so what if the rest of the county circuit scoffed at our ugly venue? I'd grown up walking through the gates into a ground illuminated by iconic cricketers, an arena that I'd now been lucky enough to play on.
And I had my very own golden fox. Even though the coaches had run out of sweaters to present to new players, Darren Maddy had been noble enough to gift me his very own - knowing, rightly enough, that he had a long innings in the game ahead.
Thinking about Maddy's career - the Leicestershire successes in the '90s, the brief England chances, and then his time as part of a strong Warwickshire side - I walk on, past the Cricketers pub, alongside a few redbrick factories that hide the ground from view, and then around to the David Gower Gate. Through another small gap I take a last peek at the wicket. Rather than reminisce about being out for a duck in the junior cup final, I think about running in to bowl at Chris Broad. A bright blue sky, like today. But hot, and the ball was hard and new and swinging, slanting back into his pads. I can see the tiniest details, how his cheeks instantly flushed crimson because he knew I'd nailed him to the stumps.
Despite the bellowed appeal and utter certainty of batter, bowler and wicket-keeper, the umpire didn't raise his finger. I imagine they heard the "Howizthaaaaaat" all over Leicestershire. Shoulders slumped, I walked back to my mark and finished the over. I can't recall every delivery, although Broad definitely clipped one off his legs to the square-leg boundary. It was then the umpire whispered to me: "I can't give him out first ball of a charity game."
I doubt I took solace in his confession at the time, but with hindsight, and now that I'm a player with some knowledge of what it takes to organise charity cricket games, I do see his point.
Walking away from Grace Road, on this crisp and dazzling January afternoon, I try not to get too sentimental. However, once I've turned a corner and can no longer see the ground, it feels like those first few minutes when you emerge from the cinema, adjusting to the light and the power of the truncated narrative you've just experienced.
Then I'm two streets away, reality bites, and no one but locals and cricket fans would ever know there was even a patch of green in the middle of this estate.
This article also features in Issue 13 of the Nightwatchman
Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His third novel, TOKYO, is out now. @nicholas_hogg