I love Arundel. Unashamedly so. I appreciate that such a view is probably something of a hackneyed cricketing cliché and that gushing words aplenty have been written about the West Sussex venue but I cannot help but concur with all those gushing words. Too often in this modern world, and ever more in cricket itself, actual reality cannot reach the heights of expectation generated by the hype and hysteria but the Castle Ground in Arundel genuinely does live up to all the fulsome praise lavished upon its magnificent existence.
One never tires of Arundel and its magnificent setting. Indeed, the planning of one’s spectating summer now partly revolves around what is being played at Arundel. It’s not a case of if I will visit Arundel during the season, but when. The club’s accommodation of fixtures such as the Aboriginal XI against the MCC only enhances such a sense. Today is my seventh visit to the ground. Only the Ageas Bowl, the most local ground to where I live, surpasses Arundel in terms of the number of personal visits.
As opined in previous blog pieces, Arundel’s lure and charm surrounds the sense that one is enjoying cricket in the back garden. The sweeping amphitheatre along the western flank, the curious gap in the trees that proffers a view across the Arun valley, the giant oak tree under which one can reside to avoid sunburn, the modest, ageing pavilion that seems to hunker into the trees rather than beg attention in the modern, narcissistic manner, the paradoxical sense of space generated by the sweeping surrounds opposed by the intimacy emanating from the lush, arboreal dominated borders. Yes, the facilities certainly are not on a par with other grounds but that is part of the charm.
Today’s contest is the penultimate of the season, involving Sussex Martlets and the Band of Brothers. Unlike the aforementioned Hogs, who are arguably something of a rarity in existing as a wandering club with its own home ground, their palatial residence at Warnford can be trumped by the de facto home, albeit on a sporadic basis, of the Sussex Martlets. Indeed, the present match is the sixth of such to be hosted by the famous venue.
Named after the heraldic bird that is a feature of the county’s coat of arms, the Martlets co-existed alongside their first-class brethren with many of the latter’s amateur players becoming Martlets. Able to attract players of considerable standard and fame, the club achieved something of a coup in the 1930’s when the then Duke of Norfolk was persuaded to become patron. Thus, a link with the beautiful Arundel Castle ground was forged; one which remains in place to the present day. Indeed, whilst the Martlets would never claim the famed venue to be their home they enjoy significant access to the castle ground, playing eight matches during the 2017 season in the small West Sussex town.
The club continued to grow to the point where one fixture list during the 1960’s included 106 matches! Famous names continued to don the famous blue and pink cap including David Sheppard, the Nawab of Pataudi and John Snow during what could be described as a halcyon era. The fixture list predictably regressed as league cricket took a hold on counties across the country but the club still maintains a schedule of about thirty matches each summer, the occasional tour and a popular golf society.
The Martlets’ opponents for this particular trip to Arundel are another of wandering cricket’s more illustrious teams in the form of the Band of Brothers. Second only to I Zingari and the Free Foresters in terms of age, the Kent based club enjoyed a similar growth and expansion during the early years of the twentieth century and almost claimed the scalp of the touring West Indian team, including Learie Constantine, during the 1923 summer. Famous Kent names such as Colin Cowdrey, Mark Benson, Richard Ellison and Matthew Fleming were involved with the club in some form during the latter part of the twentieth century. Similar to the Martlets, the Brothers fixture list is comprehensive and features matches against many an established wandering team including stellar names such as the Eton Ramblers, the Hurlingham Club, Stragglers of Asia, Hampshire Hogs, Free Foresters and I Zingari. Hence, today’s contest is very much one between wandering cricket royalty.
The hosts bat first on a pleasant, sunny morning and are soon well into their stride, reaching three figures after little more than twenty overs. Opener Peter Lamb collects a fine half century as the Martlets score rapidly, reaching lunch at 145-2 after 33 overs, Lamb unbeaten on 73.
Lunch appears to agree with the Brothers as the dangerous Lamb loses his off stump to a perfect delivery from Tom Pollington soon after the resumption in play. The dismissal appears to focus the visitors though and the scoring rate noticeably improves as the Martlets pass 200 in the 46th over with 7 wickets still remaining. Johnny Wills and George Read post a hasty fifty partnership and soon revert to one-day mode with a shot each delivery. Read perishes within sight of a half century but Wills reaches the landmark, the advent of which prompts a declaration from the Martlets’ skipper Josh Burrows with the team total standing at 258-5.
Set a challenging target, the Brothers begin well, reaching 61-1 at the tea interval. Post the beginning of the final session the Brothers increase the scoring rate, reaching three figures in the 22nd over, Marcus Pyke reaching his half century a few deliveries later.
Pyke is soon dismissed though and the wickets begin to tumble. As the contest enters the final hour the visitors are 121-5 and facing a declaration match stick or twist dilemma: chase quick runs in pursuit of victory but increase the chances of defeat or batten down the hatches in an attempt to salvage a draw. Attack is the preferred option courtesy of a fine cameo from Alex Norwood-Hill but his dismissal prompts another flurry of wickets, Martlets captain Josh Burrows enjoying a bounteous spell in collecting four wickets for just two runs in eleven deliveries as the hosts claim victory by 83 runs with a bit to spare.
Sat in a comfortable fold-out chair in the lee of the grand, sentinel tree that neighbours the Arundel scoreboard it is easy to forget the magnificent nature of the Castle Ground and the remarkable scenario that is being played out on the sward on this particular afternoon. Cricket at the venue is, naturally, fairly unremarkable but the presence of two amateur teams playing on the same turf as equivalents from the highest level of the domestic game is particularly extraordinary. One ponders whether such a scenario would be permitted to take place on a regular basis in other sports, particularly during the main season. Similarly of note is how amateur teams are able to muster such strong XI’s for a mid week match at the end of a long summer. Again, would such a scenario occur in other sports? At present there are a number of things wrong with English cricket but there are also many aspects that are gloriously unique and worth celebrating. This afternoon was one of those moments.