Martin Johnson: the charm of the County Championship

I hadn’t been to Worcester for ages, and I was reminded that there is no more quintessentially English cricket ground than New Road when I drove through the gates and past four prime parking spaces reserved for the tea ladies. Four, no less. Mind you, this being a Saturday, four seemed a trifle excessive when they could barely have expected to sell half a dozen buttered scones and a couple of slices of lemon cheesecake.

The place had been packed the day before, apparently, so where does everyone disappear to on a Saturday? The supermarket? B&Q? However, not even all the empty seats detracted from the overall charm of the place, nor even the three-year-old pavilion, built in that modern way, and named after Graeme Hick. Putting Hick’s name on it seemed to be to be entirely appropriate – in that it’s wonderfully efficient, but not especially beautiful to look at.

Whenever I see bits of cricket grounds named after former players, I always think of Brisbane. Back in the late 80s, before the Gabba was re-designed by (presumably) the bloke who invented Lego, there was an old wooden hut, dispensing the kind of greasy grub you get from one of those lay-by caravans, which was called the ‘Wally Grout Snack Bar’. What an epitaph. On the other side of the ground the imposing pavilion had been named after Don Tallon, but here was Wally immortalised by a run-down old shack purveying meat pies and tinnies.

There are so many custom made carbuncles nowadays, largely soccer and rugby grounds with soul-less names like McAlpine and JJB, that it was a joy to spend a day at Worcester, not least because it was a gentle County Championship joust against their old rivals Warwickshire. The players were dressed in white, there was a merciful absence of pop music, and every time a player was given out, he made straight for the G Hick Pavilion.

After a winter spent watching the Ashes and the World Cup, I’d momentarily forgotten that there is no such thing as a referral system in the County Championship, and that when you’re out, you’re out. Not hanging around until a bloke in front of a TV set has trawled his way through 78 replays. The umpires’ decision is final, we used to say, and so it is in international cricket, just so long as it has first been referred to Hawkeye, Snicko, Hotspot, and before long, the European Court of Human Rights.

In the Championship, though, it’s a case of finger up, and off you go son. Appropriate, therefore, that I should bump into former umpire Ray Julian, perhaps the most deadly despatcher of batsmen since Sam Cook. Ye gods. If Cook and Julian had ever stood together, there wouldn’t have been any car parking spots for tea ladies, as no game would ever have made it as far as tea.

Ray was easy to spot in the crowd, as by and large there wasn’t one. Even so, those who were there were more animated than usual, as this was a local derby. “Owzat!” a Warwickshire bowler would shout. “Gerraway with ‘yer!” some bloke in a pair of baggy shorts and a Worcestershire sun hat would reply. “Yer can’t be caught if yer ain’t ‘it it!” The beauty of the Championship is that you can hear the individual spectators, as apposed to a bunch of beery Barmies sadly deluding themselves that the people want to know who they are and where they come from.

It’s the solitary barrackers, surrounded by empty seats, who add to the charm of the Championship. Years ago, when Eddie Hemmings played for Warwickshire, there was a self-appointed Eddie-baiter who sat in the Rae Bank Stand, and all he ever said, or shouted, was “Roobeesh ‘Emmings!” Sometimes before Eddie had even bowled a ball.

There was also a spectator at Old Trafford years ago who hated blockers. “Gerronwith it!” he’d yell. “Bloody hell. You’re still 8 not out in the Manchester Evening News!” Yorkshire spectators are even more passionate, and unique in that no one ever misses a ball. Years ago, at a game at Bradford, I worked out that if you went for lunch at one minute to one, you’d be first in the queue, because no one ever left their seat until the umpires had removed the bails.

The atmosphere at a County Championship game is so much nicer than at a limited-overs match, and spectators will often interrupt their gentle perambulation to put their heads round the press box door. “Do you think they’ll declare at tea?” “Why haven’t we given Bloggs a bowl?” “Have you seen the state of the members’ toilets?” You don’t get that sort of interaction at a Twenty20.

There have always been ‘characters’ at Championship matches. Come to think of it, admirable servant to Worcestershire though Hick was, why don’t they name parts of a ground after spectators? At Leicestershire, for example, there is the Milligan Road entrance, but if I was in charge I’d have it renamed the “Chris Wright Gate”, after an old member who never missed a game in the 1970s and 80s.

Chris, who went by the nickname ‘Foghorn’, used to live in Milligan Road, and each morning you could actually hear him leaving for the ground. “I’m on me way!” he’d shout, as he closed the front door, and five minutes later he’d be in the members’ bar to collect the pint of mild he never failed to take with him on one of his regular perambulations.

He spilt more than he drank, largely because he found it had to make his verbal observations with an accompanying hand signal. “Put Birkenshaw on!” he’d cry, as the Leicestershire seamers toiled away without reward. “Get a move on! It’s up to 5.3 an over now!” he’d shout.

This was usually a reference to the rate needed to secure the fourth batting point in the old days of 100-over restrictions, although it could equally well have applied to his pint consumption. He only once fell foul of the secretariat, when his bladder failed him before he could get back to the bar, and he urinated on the gate which really ought to bear his name.

International cricket is what pays the bills, although there’s so much of it now that all the profits will soon be eaten up by players’ medical expenses, but county cricket remains the bedrock of our national summer game.

Nowadays, you really couldn’t invent a game in which, as was the case at Worcestershire versus Warwickshire, the ground is almost full for days one, two and three, and yet virtually empty for its Saturday conclusion. However, it has a special quality all of its own and, with all due respect to Twenty20, there is something nobler about a form of the game which demands more of its followers than the attention span of a goldfish.

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3 Responses to Martin Johnson: the charm of the County Championship

  1. Paul Booth says:

    Lovely piece of writing as usual Martin. I went to Worcester on Sunday for the CB40 match against Middlesex and although the crowd was somewhat bigger than for the Championship game a similar sort of atmosphere prevailed. No intrusive bag searches at the entrance, every boundary acknowledged by the crowd (without the ubiquitous blare of pop music), plenty of humourous & inoffensive advice from the crowd and each batsmen applauded to and from the pavilion – Ben Scott the Middlesex w/k who was on loan at Worcs last season was given a generous ovation when he came out to bat, compare that to what happens when a footballer plays at his former club!

  2. david says:

    As a member at Notts, I feel that we have the best of all worlds. We have first rate facilities, a fair share of dedicated fans, (eccentrics) excellent and quirky features all around the ground and best of all good, approachable cricketers.
    The facilities are simply first class encompassing three new stands, The Radcliffe Road, Fox Road and New stands. Each has its own distinct character and architecture. Radcliffe Road has the style of a traditional cricket stand with all the features a modern facility needs. Fox Road is strictly for full on sun worshippers who enjoy basking in it all day. The New Stand is for the sun shy (vampires?) and hardy souls who shun the rays, These new facilities compliment the Grand Old Lady perfectly. The Members’ Pavilion and Long Room have stood the test of time and are still warm and friendly places to enjoy the cricket and the company of like-minded souls on County Days. One of the most enchanting features, for me at any rate, is the door furniture. The handles are round with a seam embossed along with the old county crest on either side of the seam. This is most apt for the county that produced Larwood and Voce.
    It’s that little touch with the old crest that I love, not the bats of heroes long gone or their caps and blazers. That stubborn link with the old crest rather than the new leaping stag, which to my mind appears to be the John Deere tractor logo. Perhaps the committee thought our players were lumbering chaps who nevertheless could go on all day
    Behind the pavilion lies on of Trend Bridge’s hidden gems. In the squash club area tucked well away from the casual observer, lies that haven of tranquillity that is the Library. Presiding over an extensive cricketing cornucopia of knowledge sits the Club Historian Peter Wynne -Thomas.
    The title Club Historian does little justice to this headmasterly writer and statistician who sits behind his overflowing desk garnering material for his latest project. Peter is always willing to help to locate that hard to find and often out of print volume for a cricket mad nephew.

    I hope I don’t upset anyone here, but some of the County Day crowd are wonderful. Mr. Willoughby who sits without fail by the Players’ Gate always has a word of either praise or a silence that screams volumes, as the moment requires. The steps are lined by people who ritually sit in the same seats and their absence is noticed by stewards and fellow Pavilion habitués.

    I wonder if a football manger would go on the pitch at half time and have a knock with his son?
    No, I don’t think so either. Yet yesterday and the day before, Mike Newell, our Director of Cricket did exactly that. The players are equally approachable and genuinely have time for us, the Members. Indeed last year my wife was literally left holding the baby, Ryan Sidebottom’s youngest, India.
    It’s that kind of atmosphere that is not replicated anywhere else, in my opinion. Long may County Days be the mainstay of the season.

  3. Tim says:

    Wonderful article. Thanks. I don’t know Worcester myself but what is described is truly what it is all about. Love the Grace road story!