The long wait for the start of the season is bad enough in England. Even worse during a long, Swedish winter. It’s the dream of the curtain-raiser that keeps you going, writes Paul Eade.
Loughborough MCC University’s Bobby Gamble marches purposefully to the top of his mark, runs in, bowls, and Surrey batsman Rory Burns dutifully leaves the ball outside the off stump. On March 31, the most significant delivery of the 2016 cricket season has been completed.
Not the most memorable ball, of course. Far from it, at a near-deserted Oval that would see many dramatic passages of play in front of packed stands during the summer. But Gamble’s opening delivery, along with four similar rituals in other university-versus-county matches that will barely emerge from obscurity, signifies something pined for by many a cricket fan over the winter months: the start of a new season.
Living in Sweden, the wait for this moment is at times overbearing. If the English winter feels long, the Swedish version stretches out interminably over months of flat deadness with the thermometer barely flickering above zero. While more southerly European climes can enjoy days or even weeks of respite – milder days when heavy coats can be discarded – Sweden offers no such comfort. Grim, grey weeks struggling through sludgy streets is the norm. The native population seems to accept it with a resigned shrug.
This is just about bearable up until the New Year. The run-up to Christmas can even have a magical touch. On Advent Sunday just about every household can be relied upon to dig triangle-shaped electric candles out of the attic and, after a customary struggle with broken bulbs or faulty wiring, display them in the window. A quaint collective light-show dispels the gloom.
But after January 1, as the decorations and lights are packed away – even though some hang on in there until after Twelfth Night – a hard, heartless period takes root. Many Swedes seem to resort to hibernation – the phone becomes silent and socialising is put on hold “until the spring” – signs of which often don’t emerge until May.
It is against this background that I make a regular date with the commencement of the English cricket season. Throughout the winter, the distant prospect of bat and ball and lush turf offers a glimmer of hope to cling to. December produces a brief flurry of excitement with the publication of the fixtures, and my eyes home in on that cherished opening date – the earlier the better.
In 2016, the cricket season commenced in March, for only the second time in the history of the game. Flights were booked and my excellent hosts in London, Gavin and Katy, were informed that I would be arriving on March 30.
In some quarters such an early start to proceedings is seen as ridiculous. Not for me – it means that from February 1, I can say “next month”. Some even say that the matches between the counties and universities are not deserving of first-class status. Not I. That precious “first class” tag means that they definitively mark the season’s start.
From January the agonising countdown is on. By then it has dipped under 100 days. Sometimes it brings false hope – 60 days doesn’t seem so many until one realises that it is the two worst winter months that must be endured. But by March we are into the home straight.
Plumstead is unlikely to ever come close to being a tourist landmark of London. The London postcodes cease just up the road in Welling, where Sixties rocker Gene Vincent lived for a while. However, that house has been demolished and replaced with a petrol station. But Plumstead is home to my regular base for cricketing visits, and it’s comfortingly familiar to be back there when the countdown finally reaches one day to go.
My cosy box room at Gavin and Katy’s has a nostalgic feel. The bookshelf is filled by old volumes inherited from Gavin’s father: Spike Milligan autobiographies and a 1974 Private Eye annual. The view from the window – of an untended, rectangular neighbour’s lawn – is also probably little altered in 40 years. It doubtless sat there peacefully, albeit in a parched state, when Viv Richards plundered 291 runs at The Oval in 1976. Tomorrow’s game is about as far from such heights as one can get in the first-class game. Yet I’m just as excited now as I was in 1976 when I scampered through the gates in my home town of Scarborough at 8am to secure a prime spot on the Popular Bank for an ODI between England and West Indies.
To the Old Mill pub around the corner, for Gavin and I to catch up. This hidden gem is a true regulars’ haunt – some have doubtless visited daily since I was last here during the closing round of County Championship games in 2015. For the pub stalwarts it’s just another evening, but for me this is the traditional prelude to the big day. I put Gavin’s favourite “Gimme Shelter” on the jukebox and savour a good old, traditional bitter. The big day is coming.
There’s one critical matter, though – every cricket fan’s friend and enemy in equal measure: the weather. Throughout March I indulge in a pointless form of self-torture: regularly checking the Met Office’s 30-day weather forecast. This tends to cover every possibility – suggestions of “settled conditions” one day give way to “bands of rain” the next. Fortunately this time, it’s nearly as good as it gets – dry conditions are almost assured, and I sleep soundly, though of course there’s a quick check through the curtains when daylight comes.
In the morning, it’s here. I pack last year’s cricket reference books – it’s still too early for the publication of the 2016 editions – and in good time, we’re away. Down the hill to Plumstead station to join a few straggling commuters for the train to Waterloo East. Is anyone else here aware of what a magnificent day this Thursday in March is?
I opt for the overground route from Waterloo to Vauxhall. In a few months excited crowds will pour from the station for a Test or T20 game. Now I’m the only person marching down the Harleyford Road so often mentioned in Henry Blofeld’s radio commentaries.
It wasn’t always so. On and off since 1970, the curtain raiser was at Lord’s, a match between MCC and the previous season’s county champions. It at least provided some focus and a social occasion – for hardy souls – to mark the start of the season. With the MCC side largely made up of England hopefuls, it was well contested and the TV cameras would even make at least a brief appearance, usually focusing on the least occupied area of the ground or, even better, rain hammering onto the covers.
But in 2010 the match was moved to, of all places, Abu Dhabi and played in March. Initially, this was to trial the use of a pink ball under floodlights, although the prospect of endless sunshine must have been a draw for players and officials alike – it’s remained there even though in 2016 it was played as a daytime match with a red ball.
The move has blurred the lines as to when the season actually begins. It’s hard to claim that a match played over 4,000 miles from the UK has anything to do with English domestic cricket, and the statisticians agree – they now no longer include the runs and wickets in the players’ first-class records for the season.
What’s more, the counties themselves seem to be confused as to what the university games constitute. Some publicly declare them to be pre-season matches. But surely a first-class match, in England, in April, or even March, heralds the season’s start? So the stats gang are on my side.
But what the heck. It’s happening. I’m really here. Six miserable months of waiting and the Swedish winter dissolves as I walk through The Oval’s back entrance. The attendant glances up from inside his hutch as I pass through the gate. I say, “I’m here for the game,” and he nods.
Once inside, there’s certainly no fanfare for this great day. Indeed, most of the ground appears to still be deeply asleep. Behind the OCS Stand, tarpaulins cover what looks like assorted scrap. A kiosk promising sweet-potato fries is firmly boarded up and the bars are shuttered.
What I love, though, about cricket is the things surrounding the match. And on a day like this, The Oval is a playground waiting to be explored. There’s a guided tour of the ground on Saturdays but today, with the exception of the inner sanctum of the players’ changing-rooms, you can make up the tour for yourself, although I’m fairly sure you’re not officially supposed to stick your nose in every room. No one bats an eyelid as I wander the corridors of the pavilion, an absolute treasure trove of historic photos and cricketing memorabilia.
I sneak inside the OCS Stand, a vast warren of modern rooms in which Surrey now makes a sizeable chunk of its revenue from non-cricketing activities. Some type of wine convention is being prepared on the ground floor, but otherwise the place is deserted. Grand rooms, such as the India Room and the England Suite seem to have seen no human presence since they buzzed with alcohol-fuelled conversation during last summer’s Ashes Test. Still, they smell of prosperity. On the outdoor Corinthian Roof Terrace, chairs are piled up in a corner and everything looks as if it was abandoned in a hurry.
Back inside, behind an unmarked door, a storage room is full of boxes of strawberry-flavoured sweets. I ponder if one could actually hunker down for the winter in here, sneaking in after the last ball of the season, sleeping in an executive box and scavenging for food.
What of the match, though? Yes, I do watch most of it, and enjoy it too, for despite the chill of the air, we’re blessed with a fair dose of sunshine. I have most of the 25,000 or so seats to choose from – only a handful of us are in on this secret. As CP Snow’s character Fenbow said, “Drinking the best tea in the world in an empty cricket ground, that I think is the final pleasure left to man.” I doubt if The Oval’s tea is the best in the world, but they do open up one counter in the pavilion to serve it, and it tastes good enough to me.
The Loughborough students make a good case for the university games deserving their first-class status. One player in particular, Basil Akram, must have worked studiously at his game in the winter nets. With a previous top score of 50 in a Second XI game, he comes in at No.7 and proceeds to stroke a classy 160 against a full-strength Surrey attack.
But by the afternoon of the third day, the game is ambling aimlessly towards a draw. At 4.22pm there’s a convenient drop of rain. The umpires have a quick word with Surrey captain Gareth Batty and he doesn’t need to be asked twice.
So, is that the season done and dusted for me? No, I do return in sunnier, more convivial times. In fact, I decide to neatly bookend the season at The Oval on 22 September. It’s a charity game between the Surrey Stars and Cricket United but, despite the weather being very much on the summery side, it’s all a bit after-dinnerish. I’m sated, I’ve had my fill, and I’ve lost the urge to hibernate in the OCS Stand.
Two months on, and I’m hungry again and impatient for the fixtures. Also a little concerned, as one of county cricket’s customary reorganisations means there will be fewer County Championship matches in 2017. Will this mean a later start to the season, maybe in mid-April?
I need not have worried – the 2017 season will begin earlier than ever, on March 28. Sadly it won’t be an Oval start, but Surrey will play Oxford at The Parks, so maybe there or Fenner’s beckons. The countdown begins…