Friday morning. I get to St Helen’s at about ten past eleven. Play has already started: Glamorgan v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Division 2. Day two of a four day game. It’s £15 to get in. I say to the ticket man, ‘I don’t suppose there are concessions for older persons?’. He gives me a pitying look. A glance around me confirms that 90% of the spectators are either over 65 or under 15 years old.
These days only one Championship game is played in Swansea each season. Money, which rules cricket almost as mercilessly as it rules other sports, dictates that the SWALEC Stadium in Cardiff – how much more mellifluous and suggestive was its old name, Sophia Gardens – has appropriated almost all Glamorgan’s home games. But Swansea hangs on grimly to its single match, and the ground’s full of veterans who can remember when St Helen’s hosted almost half of Glamorgan’s games and witnessed some of the club’s greatest moments.
I take a look around, then climb the steps to the small concrete stand next to Mumbles Road and join three rows of elderly men, all of them studying closely the progress of Glamorgan’s tailenders. Some have binoculars to scrutinise the batsman’s stance and the incidence of swing or spin. But within twenty minutes the innings comes to an abrupt end. 299 runs looks an inadequate score on a cloudless day that should favour batting. I come down in time for the beginning of Gloucestershire’s first innings and lean against the railings behind the boundary, almost in line with the pitch. Alongside me stand small groups of men in their 60s. Most of them are bald and some, stripped to the waist, have skin that’s as brown and wrinkled as the paper my grandmother used to wrap her cardigans. They’re distracted from any interest in the play by their joshing conversation, washed down with quickly refilled plastic cups of beer. A man in a jacket with swept back hair and a strong moustache tells a story about how he was caught by traffic police for driving while under the influence of alcohol, and how he saved himself from prosecution by his own quick wits.
One of the great things about St Helens is that you can stand or sit anywhere, and walk round the ground freely. The crowd isn’t large and there are enough seats in all parts. Tiring of the bibulous men I move round to a position square of the wicket and find a blue seat close to the boundary, where I can see the scoreboard. The sun shines without interruption, the lightest of breezes moves across the ground from Mumbles, and the mind begins to adjust to the slow tempo of the fast bowlers’ overs. The bowling is wayward and only occasionally are the Gloucestershire batsmen obliged to put a bat on the ball. Hardly any wickets fall, not many aggressive strokes are played. After a while the idea that this is a competitive event seems to lose any salience, and the game enters a doldrum phase, neither side much interested in taking the initiative. At lunchtime an announcer tells us what’s happening in the Test Match at Trent Bridge, and all the latest County scores, just as I remember when my father took me to see Yorkshire play at Sheffield, Headingley and Harrogate in the 1960s.
The afternoon session brings no added excitement. Glamorgan try different bowling combinations, but nothing seems to make much difference. The runs accumulate, slowly. Then teatime, and a chance for a circumambulation. The authorities don’t mind you wandering across the ground, as long as you avoid the pitch itself, and groups of lads start impromptu games on the grass. I catch snatches of talk, often about historic cricketing events. Many conversations are in Welsh, proof that Glamorgan’s appeal extends well to the north and west of Swansea. I’ve drifted round to the pavilion, a good spot for watching the afternoon play as the sun moves to the west. Three nostalgics a couple of rows behind me are recalling games long ago in Cheltenham and other county grounds, and names I remember from my youth, like David Steele and Colin Milburn.
Somehow play livens up a little after tea. A few wickets fall. There goes another. A man called Dai in front of me turns round and asks how it fell. I have to admit I was too busy with a crossword clue to notice (though to be fair I did observe the rest of the wickets). Of course there’s no Big Screen here to replay moments of drama and tension. The only live technology is the old scoreboard, and at the other end, for the benefit of those out of sight of it, a smaller, manual one operated by a bulky lad apparently paid in packets of crisps. The score increases, with more boundaries and an alarming number of extras, and eventually Gloucestershire overhaul Glamorgan’s total. Behind me inside the pavilion a group of men are singing Calon Lân: it’s quite possible they’ve not seen a single ball bowled. On the very last ball, well after six o’clock, an apparent slip catch is disallowed by the umpire. This is by some way the most dramatic moment of the day, but many people have already drifted away. We who remain stand and clap the batsmen and fielders politely as they leave the field to climb the pavilion steps, and slowly we stroll out of the ground.
And that was my day at St Helen’s. Not much happened. It happened with extreme slowness. No one became in the least excited, from start to finish. From time to time I came across friends, and we chatted, or sat side by side, mainly in silence. Time passed imperceptibly. I felt a sense of infinite choice, of so many different possible ways of occupying the time. I could study the field placings or bowling changes, or overhear cricketing stories of long ago, or try another crossword clue, or watch the cirrus cloud formations change – or just let the mind glide away into a thought-free trance, relieved of all diurnal anxiety.
No other sport, to my knowledge, offers anything similar to the non-participant. And of course not all forms of cricket will do. Limited over stuff is too fast, crude and raucous. Test cricket is over-commercial and overexciting. Only loss-making county cricket gives you a dependable way of escaping from the real world and entering any number of others. Physicists, or at least some of them, assure us that their calculations lead to the conclusion that other universes must exist, different from and parallel to our own. It’s time they looked at county cricket as an exemplar. Before its dwindling crowds and sagging finances consign it to the oblivion of deep space-time.