Deckchair Days – The Full Toss

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Today John Bartholomew returns with a couple of ideas that might breathe new life into the County Championship…

Most often my cricket watching is at the Oval. There is no finer time to be there than at a test match against India, with the regular test match full house enhanced by a huge body of partisan Indian supporters creating a great atmosphere. I am quite happy to admit that I also greatly enjoy the similar ambience at Friday night T20 games when the ground is full and the cricket is only part of the pleasure.

It is a bit different at County Championship games. Although the pavilion is generally quite busy with members, the typical soporific crowd of a few hundred (on a good day) is completely lost on the concrete banks. Those who return are only the diehards like myself who are prepared to watch patiently while Derbyshire compiles a huge score on the Kennington featherbed, punctuated by occasional distant ripples of polite applause.

It wasn’t always like this. I remember regularly sitting on the grass there at the boundary edge, with the terraces crowded behind me. There was real immediacy about the cricket. There were other good things too. A hot metal print shop that updated the penny scorecard at the fall of each wicket (surely we have the technology to do this easily now…). A scoreboard with a row of numbered lights along the top identifying the fielder as the ball was thrown in – numbers 1 to 11 of course , the batting order as on the card, no confusion with squad numbers. Test match stars playing regularly for their county sides. That was all in the fifties, the days when I got hooked.

Twenty odd years ago I watched an ODI at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand against England. For a rugby international, Eden Park has a capacity of 50,000. Transformed with a drop-in wicket, a respectable enough cricket crowd of around 10,000 was similarly lost – just not enough people to bring the place to life. Even the Barmy Army had little impact. I was in New Zealand the next time England toured (my daughter lived there) and they never played at Auckland, preferring to stage the test match two and a half hours down the road at the little riverside town of Hamilton (March 2008). It was a good decision. The ground surrounded by grassy banks was a delightful place to pay five dollars at the gate, and settle down with my own folding chair for five days that included a Sidebottom hat-trick before England succumbed to its customary batting collapse in the fourth innings. Same number of spectators. Ground seemed full.

Back home, it is easy to see the difference when Surrey play at Guildford or at the now lamented Whitgift School, or when Kent entertain them at Beckenham for a real local derby. Cricket grounds, not stadia. Same number of spectators. Ground full. The small grounds and the local crowd create that immediacy that is so lacking on those Oval days. I know that the same applies when other counties stray away from their main ground to stage local annual cricket festivals whose relative rarity ensures a sense of occasion.

This was in my mind when a few years ago I suggested at a Surrey members’ forum that – perhaps as an experiment once a year at first – Surrey should declare a deckchair day at the Oval, with the option of sitting at the boundary edge like in the old days. (Sitting on the grass doesn’t work for me any more – I’d never manage to get up). It seemed that those present thought this a pleasant and creative idea, greeted with smiles all round – but of course after a bit of burbling about health and safety it never happened.

I am sure that if county teams went out and about across their counties more – bringing joy to the best club grounds and to outlying towns and even villages – there would be a much greater appetite for championship games. And the almost moribund championship certainly needs a boost.

John Bartholomew



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