Five hundred and forty is the magic number for the 2017 first class county season. Weather and match vicissitudes permitting, five hundred and forty is the number of days cricket that will constitute the 2017 first class summer. Understandably, just under ninety-eight percent of those days will require supporters to pay an entrance fee in order to witness proceedings. Curiously, twelve of those days will require no such admission fee. Even in the current climate where every pound is important, some first class matches are still free to watch.
Admittedly, they will not be days at Lords, Old Trafford or Edgbaston and will not be days featured in the county championship but these dozen anomalous opportunities will feature teams from the county championship and are deemed as first class, whilst there is an opportunity to view potential stars of the future. The matches involving the MCC Universities teams may not be the most prestigious of the county summer but they are something of an institution in the domestic game and provide an opportunity to watch gratis first class cricket due to some matches taking place at university grounds which are open to the public. Fenners in Cambridge and The Parks in Oxford have served as the traditional university match homes for decades; the latter playing host to Surrey during the last week of March.
Ordinarily, driving to a cricket venue is normally the best course of action, particularly one where the number of spectators is likely to be small. However, Oxford possesses a notorious reputation for being rather loathing of the car so one’s options are either drive and park in one of the suburban park and ride schemes, including waiting for the bus to actually arrive and then endure its rather ambling journey into the town centre, or take the train. The latter proves a rather pleasant thought so, post dumping one’s car in the multi-storey car park adjacent to the train station, I am stood on the platform of Southampton Airport Parkway awaiting the service that will disgorge me in Oxford just before eleven o’clock. Driving may seem quicker and more direct but the train does provide the opportunity to switch off, take in the countryside scenery, indulge in ten minutes snooze and possibly read a few pages of a cherished tome en route. (Had I not forgotten said tome) In essence, arriving via such a mode of transport permits one the opportunity to relax and replenish one’s mental faculties as opposed to tiring them courtesy of an hour behind the steering wheel. And at the conclusion of the train journey there is the opportunity for a brisk walk into the centre of Oxford to blow away any cobwebs.
Post leaving the train station I undertake a detour from the quickest route to The Parks under the auspices of enjoying a meander around some of Oxford’s more famous locales. Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the city is its almost schizophrenic personality courtesy of the hackneyed town versus gown split. The walk from Oxford station into the centre itself possesses the urban similarities to any other town or city centre in the country but once one ventures across onto Broad Street (known in the local vernacular simply as ‘the Broad’) the atmosphere changes dramatically as the city’s association with academia becomes readily apparent. One is afforded glimpses through the gates at the lush, clipped lawns of Balliol and Trinity Colleges before stumbling upon the familiar structures of the Sheldonian Theatre’s semi-circular frontage and the colonnade equivalent of the Clarendon building. Just a short wander from the humdrum nature of city life a sense of grandeur has taken over, the buildings dominated by the sandstone coloured brickwork that is such a feature of this part of Oxford.
Somewhat disappointingly, the Sheldonian is not open to the public on this particular day, prompting a continued wander. From the theatre the most logical route would be to head up Parks Road toward the eponymous cricket grounds but the naturally inquisitive side of one’s character dictates a bimble across the courtyard behind the Clarendon and a journey down under Hertford College’s famous bridge. (The one erroneously nicknamed the Bridge of Sighs despite its appearance being more in keeping with Venice’s Rialto Bridge) The somewhat angular route then takes one on a meander along the walled, intimate environs of Queen’s Lane and the eponymous college before disgorging any walkers back onto the hubbub and noise of Oxford’s High Street. Wander along said road and one eventually arrives at Carfax; the junction of four roads and famed for its tower. No building in Oxford is permitted to be higher than the tower. The junction was also the subject of a most memorable line from the prequel series Endeavour: “I just saw an angel crossing Carfax.”
The spot doesn’t really permit too much time for mulling over though due to the hurly-burly nature of its position in the city centre. Nevertheless, solace is but a quick amble away as one turns off of the main thoroughfare onto Turl Street and into Brasenose Lane. In truth, Brasenose Lane is nothing spectacular but it is one of those sections of the city made famous by the various televisual visits to Oxford. The black road signs with white lettering also evoke memories of certain streets portrayed in certain broadcasts.
The lane disgorges one into Radcliffe Square where the famous Camera of the same name stands sentry, its familiar faded blue spire stretching into the ether. In many respects this building, and its style of architecture, is what develops in one’s mind when talk of the city emanates.
Providing a border to the northern flank of the Camera is the world famous Bodleian; the Library’s Library. Only the British Library can boast a bigger collection of tomes. For a Bibliophile in town to enjoy that most bookish of sports, the Bod (again, to use local vernacular) seems a very apt touchstone.
Such a wander proves a particularly refreshing and anomalous precursor to a day’s cricket spectating. One particularly surprising aspect of such a wander is how many of the famous landmarks are located in such a small area. Using Radcliffe Square as a fulcrum the Camera, the Bod, the Sheldonian, the Clarendon, the erroneously named Bridge of Sighs and half a dozen colleges reside within ninety second walk. Somewhat disappointingly, The Parks reside in excess of half a mile from Radcliffe Square so any further ambling is curtailed by a need to reach the venue du jour.
Despite rarely visiting Oxford, there is a sense of familiarity about the city. Years of watching the television crime dramas Morse, Lewis and Endeavour have provided plenty of backdrops featuring the architectural delights of central Oxford whilst the suburbs of Jericho and Summertown have become all too familiar. Thus, wandering along the Broad and up Parks Road whilst peering through the arched doorway and iron gates of the various colleges one half-expects to witness Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox (Lewis and Hathaway to the uninitiated) deliberating over their latest case in the grassed courtyard. Such thespian issues aside, the bimble from the town centre does provide a glorious glimpse of the stunning architecture that forms the majority of the university buildings.
The Parks may sound a somewhat all-encompassing, understated, expansive name for a cricket ground but such an appellation is because the location of Oxford MCCU’s famed ground is just that: residing in the University Parks. There are no entrance gates, no advertising hoardings, no dividers keeping interlopers from the outfield. The cricket pitch is simply a well manicured section of a seventy acre verdant area of the city and one is able to wander in off the street all the way up to the square without hindrance.
For the students such surroundings are nothing out of the ordinary but one wonders what the county pros make of it all, particularly the cosy inner sanctum of the very attractive, two tier pavilion. The latest first class county to enjoy the back to basics experience are Surrey, post a quick journey up the M40. One of the perennial ponderings regarding the MCCU versus county matches is the strength of the team proffered by the first class county. Surrey’s strongest XI would likely include members of England’s previous winter tours in Zafar Ansari and Gareth Batty, erstwhile Sri Lankan star Kumar Sangakkara, current England limited overs exponent Jason Roy, precocious talents such as Dominic Sibley, Ben Foakes, Curran brothers Tom and Sam and former England performers in Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker. Reality, often dictates otherwise but, rather pleasingly, Surrey name a strong squad including all of the aforementioned apart from Sangakkara, Foakes, Tom Curran and Roy.
Oh the joy of a season’s first sally forth! Surely there is nothing to compare to the first adventure of a cricket season. Unlike the Football equivalent, which witnesses its genesis during the sultry, airless afternoons of late August, the cricket season follows the four seasons as spring undertakes its slow metamorphosis into summer. The English County Championship season officially begins just a few moments after the turn of the financial year but this late March date proves rather accommodating for the cricket observer. Fresh, cool breezes may confirm the early season nature of a contest but there is a special, unique quality to spectating at a match staged during the late spring climes. Winter’s last vestiges may still present themselves on occasion but the promise of summer bounds quickly from the horizon. Almost overnight the trees have begun there metamorphosis from frail, skeletal waifs into lush, verdant, bounteous, fecund, grand specimens. But it is those arboreal equivalents that proffer the beguilingly gorgeous and striking pinks and whites of blossom that provide a certain joie de vivre to the day. Whether the vibrant buds are witnessed en route to the ground or from the boundary’s edge matters little; the simple sight of said blossom is enough to instigate an ephemeral sense of mild euphoria.
Surrey win the toss and bat first, scoring rapidly as the genesis of the contest unfolds with a litany of left-handers to the fore; Jack Grundy and Alex Wilkinson bowling for Oxford against fellow southpaws Rory Burns, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick of Surrey’s top three. The students peg back their guests with a couple of leg-before wicket dismissals but Borthwick bats with calm assurance as Surrey continue at a brisk pace into three figures. Indeed, they appear set for a sizeable total but a beautifully flighted off-break from Jack McIver turns away from Borthwick’s defensive push, catches the left-hander’s glove and deflects into the waiting gauntlets of the alert Ed Ellis. One avid, dandy supporter of the students eschews his scorecard and lustily applauds the dismissal as the players make their way to the pavilion.
During the morning’s session the perimeter of the playing area is dotted with a sizeable crowd of spectators, probably numbering between 200 and 300, some lazing on the sward, others enjoying a pew on one of the wooden seats which are sporadically located around the boundary edge. Various denizens of Oxford amble through the Parks and offer a curious glance at the spectacle taking place a few metres away from their route. They witness a pace of play that is an iota quicker than the equivalent during other first-class matches. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent sense of transience about some of the spectators around the perimeter of the playing area. A few stay for a while and take a pew, others stop and peruse on their way through the park; the ephemeral, impromptu nature of their attendance highlighting cricket’s timeless quality of encouraging passers-by to stop and watch a non-descript passage of play, no matter the teams, no matter the standard.
Another southpaw, in the form of Zafar Ansari, joins the fray post the lunch interval and, whilst the students stem the flow of runs, Ansari and Dominic Sibley progress comfortably; Ansari compact and concise in a manner not too dissimilar to former Surrey favourite Graham Thorpe whilst Sibley bats with increasing confidence. The sun warms the impressive attendance with frequent appearances but a freshening breeze chases clouds across the sky. Sibley reaches his half-century but Ansari is beaten by a drifting delivery from McIver. The students sense a crucial breakthrough but Sam Curran proves a watchful partner for Sibley and Surrey reach tea just shy of 250 runs.
As with the lunch time cessation, the number of spectators dwindles before increasing again throughout the session. Charging to watch cricket at the Parks would be nigh on impossible in such circumstances, but also extremely churlish. There is a varied cross section of people watching throughout the afternoon with a heavy mix of cricket die-hards and curious park wanderers. To charge the latter group of spectators for a quick perusal really would be a cricketing crime and threaten to stymie potential, embryonic interest. Somewhat amusingly, an impromptu game of croquet breaks out on an adjacent pitch to the main cricket ground. This is Oxford after all.
Cricket in such palatial surrounds is very much for purists and connoisseurs. Sporadic wooden seating resides in amongst the trees but the logistical facilities that are almost inevitable at the modern first-class cricket venue are not present at the Parks. For instance, the scoreboard next to the pavilion may provide an ample explanation of the match but there is no public address system to announce the change in bowler or the incoming batsman whilst food and drink, a staple of an afternoon’s cricket, need to be purchased prior to entering the Parks. In essence, watching first class cricket at the Parks is a simple, elemental, minimalist experience; one player attempting to dismiss another in one of five main methods, the other attempting to hit the ball as far as possible in order to score a run or four.
Sam Curran exits to a miss-timed pull shot soon after the restart but Sibley bats with more assurance as his innings heads toward three figures. Wicket-keeper Ollie Pope plays an attacking cameo as the visitors look to increase their scoring rate again; Sibley recording an opening day century with a rapid canter through the 90’s, reaching the landmark with a classic push through the covers for a single.
Post Sibley’s century Surrey amble along at a dawdling rate; the quick wickets of Pope and Gareth Batty prompting the latter to declare the innings closed at 335/7. The students are left with seven overs to negotiate before the close and the opening pair of Dan Wells and David Scott reach stumps without being dismissed despite some testing bowling from Jade Dernbach and Sam Curran.
Strolling through any town centre at approaching six o’clock on a Tuesday evening would prove a busy venture but Oxford appears to operate at a slightly slower, relaxed pace than most towns. It would be incorrect to describe the locale as a one-horse town, but many aspects of Oxford life inevitably gravitate towards its world renowned university. Fourteen percent of the city’s population are students, many of which reside in and around the city centre. Maybe such an existence affects the hackneyed rush hour, slowing the pace a little.
In some respects, cricket in Oxford seemingly operates under the same illusion. In reality, the pace is no slower than at any other first-class contest, but the ambient, ethereal atmosphere of the Parks and the ambling, lackadaisical, easy-going nature of the transient visitors to the Parks, combined with the smattering of genuine enthusiasts, engender a sense of the contest unfolding at 33RPM.
Perhaps it is the lack of vast, empty stands, food stalls and other such fripperies that create such an illusion. This is cricket at its bucolic (another illusion) English best; a world away from the hubbub and hoopla of the modern day contest at the highest levels with their myriad of distractions, accompaniments and hangers-on. And yet, a few yards away on the square, is a team that will perform on many of English domestic cricket’s great stages during the summer. In essence, the Parks experience is cricket for the soul, cricket for the enthusiast, cricket for the watcher. No distractions, no massive television screens, no overpriced food and drink stalls, no incongruous, long-lensed cameras, no flotilla of advertising hoardings. In many respects, it is cricket from a bygone era.