Cricket-Watching Resumed: Part 1

27th July 2021

To Yorkshire for a double-header of cricket-watching: my first for over two years. Last Thursday, Yorkshire versus Surrey in the Royal London One-Day Cup at Scarborough; two days later at Headingley, the Northern Superchargers versus the Welsh Fire in the England and Wales Cricket Board’s “The Hundred” competition.

I selected the two matches in order to juxtapose the (fairly) old and the (very) new. The RL Cup is contested by the First Class counties over 50 overs per side; it is the latest variant on the one-day competitions that they have played since 1962 (when it was 65 overs each). Royal London have sponsored the tournament since 2014.

The Hundred is the ECB’s brainchild (if that’s the word) to attract new audiences to the sport. The then England director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, explained the thinking in an interview with BBC Radio Five Live’s Sportsweek programme when the ECB revealed the format of the tournament in April 2018: “What we’re trying to do is appeal to… people that aren’t traditional cricket fans. We want to make the game as simple as possible for them to understand”.

The Hundred is a city-based tournament, hosted at test match grounds – Headingley being one of the eight chosen locations – the matches comprising 100 deliveries (in batches of 10 from each end) per side. The competition’s first match – the women’s fixture between the Oval Invincibles and the Manchester Originals – took place last Wednesday.

I will nail my colours to the mast. I am a traditionalist on matters cricket. However, I shall park my assessment of The Hundred for the time being and pick it up again in Part 2 of this essay with, hopefully, something approaching an open mind. First things first: the RL Cup.

Of course, whilst putting The Hundred to one side for a day or so, it was obviously the case that its shadow hung over the match at Scarborough. Yorkshire have supplied 11 players to the ECB’s new competition – and Surrey 12 – so the teams on show comprised (for me) some familiar names and a significant number of unfamiliar ones, particularly in the visitors’ ranks.

Surrey’s comfortable victory was based on contributions from both the youthful and the experienced. In his first RL Cup match, the seam bowler Gus Atkinson took 4 for 43, including three of the first four wickets to fall. Later, the opener Mark Stoneman – a regular thorn in Yorkshire’s flesh over the years – batted through the innings as Surrey reached the target of 166 for the loss of 5 wickets with over 10 overs to spare. That Yorkshire had been dismissed in only the 35th of their allocated 50 overs – and on a wicket that was far from spiteful – betrayed a collective misjudgement in the pacing of an innings. The 19 year-old Matthew Revis looked very promising, however, and it was a disappointment when a rash shot truncated his innings at 43.

In the long term, I will probably not recall the match for its detailed statistical outturn. I shall remember it – with affection – for constituting the resumption, after the long coronavirus hiatus, of my county cricket watching with all its quirks and skills The circle drawn in the air by Yorkshire’s off-spinning captain, Dom Bess, at the beginning of his run-up; the urgent skip into action by Surrey’s left-arm spinner, Dan Moriarty, at the start of his; the brilliant diving catch by Jonny Tattersall; the neat efficiency of the two wicket-keepers, Jamie Smith and Harry Duke; the umpire Neil Mallender’s acknowledgement to the section of the crowd that had signalled a 4 (rather than 6) when a lofted shot skirted the boundary rope; the wholehearted aggression of Yorkshire’s South African fast-bowler Mat Pillans – released by Surrey in 2018 – who ended the day with 4 wickets; the skilful way in which the impressive Nico Reifer, another Surrey debutant, evaded a hostile delivery from Pillans by dropping his wrists and swaying out of the way… And so on. It was good to be back.

Indeed, my enjoyment of the occasion had begun even before play commenced. I arrived about an hour before the start and took my favourite place in the West Stand. (I was grateful to be sporting a wide hat in the warm sunshine). The familiar routines unfolded: my initial purchase of a coffee and flapjack; the idle chat amongst some of my near neighbours, some of whom had obviously not met for some time; the volunteer scorecard vendor selling his wares for £1 each; the players warming up on the outfield; the flags drifting in the breeze at the top of their poles; and, this being Scarborough, the seagulls above, circling and observing with a hint of menace. I confess to having felt a pang of emotion. We have all been through a lot and we are now – hopefully – coming out on the other side.

Down to my right stood the hospitality marquee, on the grass in front of which were the rows of deckchairs for the sponsors and their guests. I identified the rough acreage of grass – a couple of square metres at most – on which my friend and I had sat on another hot July day (in 1969) and watched Yorkshire’s Gillette Cup semi-final win over the Gary Sobers-led Nottinghamshire. That had been my introduction to this – my favourite – cricket ground and I was mindful that it had been a long time ago.

After Surrey had completed their victory, I waited for a while before taking a couple of photographs and then making my way to the exit on the far side of the ground. By the time I got there, Mark Stoneman had already emerged from the changing room and, still in his kit, was talking to a couple of acquaintances by the boundary edge. Just along from him, a young boy – I would guess aged no older than 6 or 7 – was facing some under-arm deliveries thrown down to him from a few yards away by (I assume) his father. The boy played his shots with a correctly positioned left elbow and a perfectly straight bat.

As Stoneman started to walk past on his way back to the pavilion, the father stopped him to request a photo with his son. He agreed without any hesitation. A modern – very professional – cricketer with, perhaps, one for the future. It was a touching scene with which to end a very good day.

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