A Derbyshire fan in Melbourne
How books, magazines and live scorecard updates allowed an Australian teenager to keep track of county cricket in the 1990s
Of all of the ridiculous sub-genres of cricket appreciation - and there's more than a few of them - following domestic cricket from foreign shores must be among the more esoteric. In this case I'm not talking about supranational T20 leagues, either. I'm talking about the pure concentrate: the County Championship.
A Derbyshire fan from Melbourne, you say? How could that be? Well, long ago and in a distant land where internet streams and ESPNcricinfo were not even within the realms of an imagination as fertile as mine - we'll call it the early '90s - the only way to stoke an interest in overseas domestic cricket was using the pages of outdated books and magazines. And if you weren't afraid of puzzled stares, asking questions of people with even the faintest hint of British accents.
The flame was lit upon picking up the 1965 Playfair Cricket Annual
, edited by Gordon Ross, the one with Ken Barrington playing a cut shot in front of a bold and quite artificial green background. The information in that tiny book's pages intrigued me. Players referred to as "staff"? Some of them don't get caps? What do they do if the sun is shining? Hang on, Ian Buxton
played soccer for Derby County as well
as playing cricket? I paid what I had to for the book and resolved to learn more about these faraway teams. To start with, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire necessitated enquiries to parents on the matter of pronunciation.
Pretty much straight away there were roadblocks; the Australian papers rarely carried any information about these exotic (or so I thought) cricket encounters and when they did it was inevitably as a punchline to repeated jokes about the sudden demise of English cricket. It was a good five years before I'd discover David Frith's Wisden Cricket Monthly, and the even more grown-up yellow annual was equally elusive, not to mention downright intimidating. Snippets of detail would emerge every now and then but it wasn't until 1996 that things clicked into place - at internet speeds of about 2.5 kilobytes per second, as it turned out.
There are many great things that ESPNcricinfo achieved in its early years, but as far as my nascent obsession with the County Championship was concerned, the best of all was the introduction of live scorecard updates and then text commentary for first-class matches in distant continents. All of a sudden a procrastinating or disinterested teenage me had a closer, albeit static, connection to Derbyshire and Gloucestershire and Leicestershire; the lot of them. Derbyshire's opening batsman by the late '90s, Steve Stubbings
, had played in my home town of Frankston, which was a close enough link for full-hearted support, and what else was a cricket nerd to do at 11pm on a school night but watch numbers ticking over on the screen as such a no-name player approached a batting milestone?
Even if Stubbings was out, Michael di Venuto or Kim Barnett might make runs. Karl Krikken had probably taken a few catches earlier, too. Maybe Tim Munton would rip through the opposition top order? All of this rapt fascination on my behalf despite the fact that I wouldn't have recognised the last three if they'd stopped me in the street. I didn't think of it at the time but I now imagine it's what being a cricket fan in a remote country down in the 1940s must have been like. Even they probably had radios to rely on for a fix.
Did cricket fans in other countries do this? In lieu of cable TV or streaming coverage or YouTube, did you ever sit following a late '90s game between, say, Natal and Griqualand West? I can't have been the only one but every time an Australian winter rolls around, as it is now, and cricket talk turns to the happenings of the English summer, I always think of what it was like back in that fairly recent past when coverage wasn't so accessible and abundant.
Then and in a way that would never be so now, even that humble page of slowly updated text provided moments of tension and drama I'd never known. I still had almost nothing but it felt like everything.
Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko