Another day at the cricket

August 13, 2021 0 Comments

This year there’s no county cricket at St Helen’s – dark rumours circulate that it may never return to Swansea – so C and I make the journey to Cardiff.  It’s my first time in Sophia Gardens since I lived in in the city in the 1980s.  At that time there was little more than a low pavilion and some ramshackle seating around the ground.  I remember crossing Bute Park to sit with my sandwiches on makeshift wooden benches, while Glamorgan toiled ineffectually, as they usually did, against some better equipped county.  Once I spotted John Arlott, portly and aging, making his laborious way up to the commentary box, which was perched at the top of a ladder.

Some things haven’t changed.  We cross Bute Park to get to the ground (even if we’ve forgotten where the footbridge across the river is), and the ground still has a homely feel, even though the buildings are more substantial and there are proper stands instead of benches.  One difference is that Glamorgan are doing a bit better these days.  They lead the table in the Royal London Cup, the current 50-over one-day competition.  Today they’re playing Yorkshire, so my allegiances are split.  Or they would be, if I hadn’t fallen out of love with Yorkshire long ago for their failure to take advantage of the many good Asian cricketers available to them in the county.  Their team today consists of eleven white men.

We meet J. and get to our seats around eleven o’clock, just as Yorkshire come out to bat.  The ground’s very far from full.  Indeed, large parts of it are roped off from use, maybe on account of Covid rules, and it’s not possible to walk all round the perimeter, as you always can at St Helen’s.  In front of us two very large people, probably man and wife, occupy four seats between them.  The woman has a large spiral-bound score book on her knees, in which she makes a pencilled note of every ball bowled, as I remember doing occasionally – though I was six or seven years old at the time, and she’s well in her fifties.  When she leaves to go to the toilet, she hands the book, pencil and scoring to her partner.  He accepts them with obvious reluctance.

It’s warm enough, but dark clouds roll over the ground, occasionally dropping very thin sheets of drizzle.  Most people wear hats, of every possible kind: baseball caps (a man in front of us has one labelled ‘West Indies’), Panamas, Australian bush-hats, white sunhats, and some odder headgear: a small group of people in fancy dress install themselves behind us and begin their beer-drinking early.

Yorkshire lose wickets regularly, but keep the score ticking over.  Glamorgan’s official scorer since 1982, Andrew Hignell, is also the announcer, and he’s kept busy heralding the arrival of new batsmen.  He has a distinctive voice, placing a curious emphatic high note on the penultimate syllable.  A late partnership between Tattersall and Waite pile on runs, and by the time they’re bowled out Yorkshire have a respectable, but overtakable, 230 runs.  The Glamorgan fielder closest to us is Billy Root, Joe Root’s younger brother.  He seems to have a fan base in the crowd, though other people boo him – possibly they are Yorkshire supporters who feel he’s betrayed his Sheffield roots by crossing Offa’s Dyke. [Note: J. has pointed out that the crowd wasn’t booing, but merely shouting ‘Rooooot’.]

I wander about in the lunch interval (this is well after two o’clock, so the sandwiches are already eaten).   I can’t help noticing that the average age of the spectators increases steadily from the Cathedral Road end, where there are youngsters and some families, towards the river end, where cricket fans of extreme age sit, almost as if they’re queuing up for the ferry ride across the Styx.

The Glamorgan openers, Rutherford and Selman, come out and make a solid but slow beginning to the innings.  The batsmen have the knack of stroking the ball directly towards fielders instead of bisecting them.  They spurn boundaries in favour of singles.  They lope unhurriedly between the wickets, as if they’ve forgotten that they’re playing a four-day and not a one-day match.  Both reach their fifties, and my neighbour in our row, who turns out to be a sports writer and journalist, claims that Glamorgan are ‘cruising to victory’.  Maybe the two openers can win the game all by themselves? The two of us take our eyes off the play and fall to discussing other things, including cricket writers, satirical poetry, the difficulties of getting published, and the many iniquities of Boris Johnson.

My Neighbour asks me to look round the ground and tell him what I see.  He means the advertising hoardings.  Almost all of them announce ‘The Hundred: every ball counts’.  ‘The Hundred’, a hundred-ball contest, is the cricket authorities’ latest wheeze for reviving the game, and more important, a source of income: having patented the format they aim to sell it round the world.  It bears little relationship to cricket, being a crude and short slogging match, laced with vulgar noise and fiery spectacle.  You can watch the whole sorry thing, it seems, on the BBC. Will it work, I ask?  Not a chance, replies My Neighbour. Everything about it’s artificial, including the teams (one’s called ‘Welsh Fire‘, though there’s nothing Welsh about it).  But The Hundred’s already having an effect, withdrawing the best players from real cricket and pushing four-day cricket to the extremes of the season.

Then, suddenly, My Neighbour’s ‘cruise’ becomes a crash.  Wickets fall quickly, and the average number of runs per over Glamorgan need to win, never healthy, climbs to formidable levels.  The bowling is tight, no batsman seems to be able to attack it, and Gary Ballance, the Yorkshire captain, has a talent for shrewd field placing, making runs hard to get.  Too late in the day, Glamorgan wake up to the urgency of their task and begin to heave at the ball.  More wickets fall.  The upshot is uncertain till the last ball of the game, but in the end Yorkshire prevail.

The Yorkshire supporters, mostly anonymous so far, reveal themselves and triumphantly hail their victory.  The rest of us, used to centuries of defeat, just shrug and shuffle towards the exits.  Probably, though, we’ll be back next year. As long as it’s not The Hundred.

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