Three More Wickets & I Can Put My Feet Up For The Day

If you’ve never been to watch a county game then you really should go. I’d recommend one of the ‘out-grounds’. Ideally a festival, such as Scarborough, Colwyn Bay or Cheltenham. They are great occasions with plenty of stalls alongside the cricket action which wouldn’t normally be found at the home ground of the county. These days cricket grounds resemble stadia more akin to rugby or football, as county Chairmen feel the need to provide a ‘multi-purpose’ structure which may cater for more activities and boost the meagre coffers enough to keep the game going at the grassroots level. There used to be festivals all over the country, but they’ve been gradually declining and with the impending doom of the spectre of Twenty20 cricket, they are not heading for a renaissance any time soon.

Traditional county grounds are really only fit for one thing, cricket. There’s rarely seating all the way round, and in the case of Cheltenham all of it is brought in simply for the festival. Cheltenham is the place I go to most, living in that part of the world.

Me and my Father-in-Law pack up a cool-bag each full of vittles and comestibles, haul our foldable chairs over our shoulders and march off there at least once a year. We stake our pitch close to the boundary boards and sit all day putting the game, the world, and the people in it to rights. Safe in the knowledge no one else knows what we’ve talked about. He’ll regale me with tales of cricket from way-back-when which mainly consists of his visits to Canterbury as a young man, and I will mention my forays to Guildford and The Oval and away we go for hours on end. Chat will be interspersed with mention of the game before us that day. I’ll come out with the odd stat about a certain player, and he will reach for his trusty Playfair Annual to check the validity of my claims.

Often we’ll decry how the game at county level seems to be left to wither on the vine by the authorities. Or at least the four-day game, whilst the yobs, drunkards, blaggards and ne’er-do-wells populate the shorter format where they can drink and sing themselves stupid for a few hours after work, safe in the knowledge they’ll never get thrown out as they would do in any other establishment.

If you’ve never been to Cheltenham then you really should go. It is a beautiful setting in the grounds of Cheltenham College. Cricket is one of those odd pastimes in that many think it is still full of class values where ‘members’ can sit in complete luxury whilst the ‘hoi polloi’ look enviously on. Yet to attend grounds such as Lord’s, The Oval or Sydney Cricket Ground, for example, gives the great unwashed the fortune of being able to admire the very glorious structure those aforementioned members are sat in. It’s all very well enjoying the comfort of a Bentley but the beauty is often on the outside and so those looking in get the best view. Fortune has a weird way of repaying sometimes.

One such visit to Cheltenham presented us with one of our favourite incidents, as both of us share a humour which bows its head at the altar of irony.

Gloucestershire were playing host to Hampshire, bedecked with English talent such as John ‘Creepy’ Crawley, Dimi Mascarenhas (Hey, Mascarenhas), Shaun Udal, who made his test debut at the age of 36 taking the wicket of one Sachin Tendulkar, no less, as well as international talent along the lines of Australians Shane Watson, the walking reviewer, and Andy Bichel. Gloucs were captained by their own international talent in the shape of former Kiwi opener, Craig Spearman, and also boasted West Indian star, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Sri Lankan leg-spinner Herath Mudiyanselage Charitha Malinga Bandara. Who one would like to think was referred to as simply ‘HM’ but there is little evidence of this. Their home-grown talent consisted of Jon ‘Never Knowlingly Under-Bowled’ Lewis, Alex Gidman and a young firey red-haired fast bowler, Steve Kirby.

Kirby was a recent acquisition from Yorkshire where he had gained an interesting reputation and been selected for an England A team in 2003. Despite being born in Lancashire, he had burst onto the scene at Headingley replacing Matthew Hoggard and taking7-50 on debut. His third match of his career saw him claim 12-72 in a match against Leicestershire, who had cast him aside at the start of his career. Kirby had a reputation for bowling and talking, both of which he did as fast and as loud as he could. On one occasion he greeted former England captain, Michael Atherton, with the astonishing claim “I’ve seen better players in my fridge”, although he insists it was fish and chip shop rather than fridge, but sometimes fiction can be far more entertaining than fact, and the idea Kirby had a fridge stocked with players he was going to consume for lunch conjures up a far more exotic image than the idea of them queuing for haddock, chips and curry sauce.

Anyway, this is the summer of 2005. Yes that glorious time when English cricket finally came of age and banished those pesky Aussies to regain the much heralded ‘little Urn’. When bleary-eyed Freddie and bleach-haired Pietersen tried their best to act sober in Tony Blair’s back garden, alongside Michael Vaughan and the starch-collared Andrew Strauss who continued to pinch themselves that all of London had come out to cheer a bunch of cricketers as if they were rock stars or returning Olympians.

This was August 3rd, the day before Glenn McGrath trod on a cricket ball at Edgbaston, Ricky Ponting turned gambling hipster and England’s Ashes fortunes immediately changed for the better. This was Division One cricket and the two teams were at opposite ends of the table. Hampshire had seen off their opponents in the reverse fixture back in April when Shane Warne captained them to victory. But with ‘Warney’ now bamboozling England, Hampshire were desperately trying to overhaul Notts at the top, as Gloucester were hanging on at the foot of the table having just escaped with draws against Surrey and Sussex.

On a beautiful, sunny, yet slightly dewy morning, Hampshire captain Udal elected to bat first. After a maiden from Lewis, our hero for the day, Steve Kirby soon got into the action as he bowled Chris Benham for a duck. John Crawley came to the wicket and soon got into his stride with a couple of boundaries before Kirby had him trapped in front, 12-2. Michael Brown, at the other end, had been batting for over half an hour for just a single when Lewis put him out of his misery giving umpire Peter Hartley a decision to make, 12-3. Young South African born, Jono McLean, lasted eight balls before Lewis got him too without troubling the scorers, 16-4.

Shane Watson was then joined in the middle by the Hampshire keeper, Nick Pothas. Pothas, another South African, was a hard-hitting middle-order batsman and the two put on 47 before Watson became Kirby’s third victim of the morning for 26, 63-5. Twenty-five minutes later Sean Ervine was bowled by Bandara and Hampshire were tottering at 81-6. Poor old Mascarenhas only lasted one ball as Bandara struck again and now they were 81-7.

By this time Kirby was fielding down by us and was clearly cock-a-hoop at the progress of his team against the more-fancied posturers from the ‘Sarf-East’. After the Mascarenhas wicket when Bandara just failed to get his hat-trick, he looked to us and those around us and uttered, the now legendary phrase (legendary at our lunch table anyway), whilst metaphorically rubbing his hands in a Fagin-type pocket-picking way;

“Three more wickets and I can put me feet oop for rest of t’day”

Oh how we smiled, some chortled and others were just warming their toes in the tranquil waters of the river of gloating.

In walked Queensland’s Andy Bichel, his blond locks flowing out from under his helmet. Bichel’s international career had been abruptly ended the year before, but not before he’d thwarted England in Port Elizabeth in the 2003 World Cup. Hampshire now had two capable, belligerent, yet equally fallible batsmen to try and see them to at least three figures. Our boy, Kirbs, was floating on an air of dominance, dreaming of shutting his eyes, resting his feet and tucking into an early lunch believing his batting colleagues would make hay for the rest of the day.

81-7 at about 12.30pm. The next wicket didn’t fall till nearly 5.00pm. Bichel (138) and Pothas (139) both hit tons as they put on a 257-run partnership, a record for the 8th wicket at Cheltenham. Batting had become so comfortable, and the bowling so tired and laboured, even Udal thumped three sixes to take the score along. Kirby, by now visibily steaming from the inside, finally wrapped up the innings by bowling James Bruce, who’d helped add 40 for the final wicket without actually contributing to the score himself.

With the sun beginning to wane, the shadows lengthening, Gloucester openers Spearman and Philip Weston strode out to bat for a period few batsmen look forward to. Twenty-five minutes in and Bichel turned his form with the bat into his bowling and bowled the home skipper. Gloucester were 14-1, still 371 behind and needing 221 to avoid the follow-on. With only time for a few overs in the day, a nightwatchman was called for. So who did they plump for?  Oh yes, you couldn’t make it up. Out plodded our illustrious hero, Steve Kirby.

Five hours after he stated he was looking forward to putting his feet up, and after he had to spend those hours pounding the outfield and the wicket desperately trying to earn his rest, he’d actually sat in the pavilion for just six overs, and now he was walking to the wicket to face the might of Bichel and Bruce in full flow. He lasted eight balls before Bruce had him LBW for 8, and off he walked.

We chuckled. We were already laughing when he walked to the wicket, but we did find some level of compassion as he cast a sorry figure trudging off with the knowledge he wouldn’t have to bat again in the morning, probably offering him cold comfort at that time.

Gloucester did almost get ahead of their opponents in the days which followed as Alex Gidman hit a century to leave Hampshire with a lead of just 22. In their second innings Kirby again had Hampshire in trouble at 23-3 but they rallied thanks to an elegant ton from Crawley (120) and another 54* from Pothas. They declared to leave the hosts needing 411 and Shaun Udal helped himself to 6-61 as the visitors ran out winners by 178 runs.

Hampshire missed out on the title by just two and a half points. Gloucestershire were relegated and have never tasted Division One cricket since.

We’ve seen some good cricket at Cheltenham. Tickets were sold out in advance when a certain Kevin Pietersen swelled the coffers when he turned up with Surrey, spending nearly all of his time in the field on the boundary signing anything handed to him by gleeful supporters. So much for the selfish, self-centred egotist some like to paint him. We used to enjoy going to Gloucester School too but the county binned that festival as they needed to pay for the main ground at Bristol.

So get yourself down to a ground this season. Perhaps find one where you take your own seat. Where you can walk round the boundary, admiring the play, the tranquillity of the occasion and listen to the quiet murmuring of the crowd. You can grab a beer, an ice cream, in fact you can take your own food and eat all day if you’re that way inclined. County cricket needs supporters and sometimes you need space, time and peace to consider your navel and reflect on the world, before coming back to earth with its noise, speed, volatility and stress.