Tuesday, 31 May 2011


the badger's sett, cropston

Four-day county cricket may get a bad rap from time to time – on account of such trifles as it not being profitable or attracting paying punters – but it is still, for better or for worse, the bedrock of the English game. That being so, it would seem odd that a lifelong cricketer and cricket-lover – albeit a shortish life (thus far) and (perhaps) an ex-player – had spent but a solitary day of his existence in attendance of County Championship cricket (at Derbyshire vs. Nottinghamshire, 1990, if you must know). This statistic wouldn’t exactly be suggestive of an enduring passion. Positively negligent, you might say. After all, I have donned the (incrementally expanding) whites on maybe seven- or eight-hundred occasions – which you simply don’t do as an uncommitted, toe-dipping dabbler – and I’ve always kept half an eye on the county scores, especially since t’Internet made them so readily accessible. However, as I say, up to 14 April 2011, I had only watched three measly sessions – long, tedious sessions at that – of our great County Championship.

a badger surveys the scene (© Nottingham Evening Post)
Thus it was with the kind of spring-heeled excitement that only the true, scorebook-keeping, wireless-hugging Badgers of the county circuit must regularly feel that I descended upon Nottinghamshire’s magnificent Trent Bridge ground to witness the opening day of their defence of the County Championship, a title secured on the final, belatedly sun-dappled afternoon of the season in Manchester, when nails were being chewed, dressing rooms paced, clocks and clouds and scoreboards from elsewhere scrutinized intently, and Notts sneaked home courtesy of having one more victory than Somerset, the still Championship-less rivals with whom they finished level on points. It was another ambitious southern Club they were welcoming today: arriviste underachievers Hampshire, whose Rose Bowl ground will this year become the ninth Test venue in England (and Wales), putting them in competition with Notts in both the paddock and the boardroom.

Collecting my Press Pass – text and elegant leaping stag logo in Lincoln green, of course – from the Ticket Collection Point on Bridgford Road, and only slightly regretting that this wasn’t the 1930s and that I didn’t need to slip this docket into the silk band of a natty grey trilby, I wandered through the main gates and round the back of where the old Parr Stand (now simply called the New Stand) once stood, emerging to see both sets of players going through their final warm-ups. The distinctive thwack of leather on willow echoed off the largely empty stands, a great contrast to the ambient hugger-mugger of a Test match morning, anticipatory hum and buzz fuelled by the oh-go-on-then, special-occasion abandon of those pre-opening hour, pre-toss fizzy looseners.

Making an anti-clockwise visual sweep of the ground through fingerprint-smeared specs, I took in the huge new electronic screen, the famous old Members’ Pavilion, the Hound and Fox Road Stands, floodlights, Nottinghamshire County Council’s the tower block (Trent Bridge House) looming over the old scoreboard, round to the well-appointed, functional, impressive sand-coloured Radcliffe Road Stand, whose first-floor would provide my home for the day. It was 10.40am and an announcement came over the tannoy that Notts had won the toss and would be bowling – still standard for Trent Bridge in April, despite this being far and away the balmiest curtain-raiser that any of the scribes could remember.

Everything was going swimmingly – too well, in fact. In an overly vigorous effort to remove the grease smudges from my lenses, I managed to push them straight out of the frames. The pair of stalwart Hampshire Badgers who had made their way up from Andover were split as to what I should do to rectify this emergency, although neither seemed particularly inclined either to look at, or talk to, me when proffering their suggestions, in that overly shouty way of the deranged. Reluctant to try and find a Lilliputian screwdriver to fix the frame back around the lens, I stomped back round to the cheery stewards at main gate, acquired a pass-out, and schlepped the five minutes up the road to West Bridgford High Street where a kindly assistant at Vision Express fixed me. By the time I was back at The Bridge, two overs had been bowled – enough time to lose a match, but not win it. 

Sweeping along the sun-starved bowels of the Radcliffe Road Stand, through the automatic doors, and up to the first floor, I entered the pristine and spacious 92-berth press box (a straw poll would later reveal that it was regarded as the best on the circuit among the pressmen), slipped into a chair at the back (it reminded me of many a lecture theatre, accessed this way, from the highest level), pulled out my laptop, connected it to the electricity juice machine, and got online, keeping a self-consciously low profile as I familiarized myself with my strange new milieu. It felt like my first day at school, without the wedgie.

room with a view 

Breezing in perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes after me (though with nothing like so apologetic a skulk), and bringing the number in the press box to a healthy and appropriate eleven, was David Hopps of The Guardian: bright of eye, earthy of wit, and with the gentle, slightly stooping gait of a veteran left-arm spinner, one apt to rub his hands in the dirt around the popping crease. Who did we – for we were most definitely a we, us pressmen – have in our XI?

Smack bang behind the bowler’s arm (early bird?), third row back, sat Matt Halfpenny of the Nottingham Evening Post and Simon, erm, just Simon from the Press Association, whose copy would be fired off to the ECB and to Ceefax, I discovered (perhaps in fluorescent blue pixellated font). To their left was Jon Culley of The Independent and Cricinfo; in front of him, binoculars in hand, sat The Telegraph’s Paul Bolton. To his right, in the central bank of desks, was the sartorially impeccable Richard Hobson of The Times, and further along from him in a Hampshire Hawks shirt, eschewing use of the desks for his laptop – into which were plugged all manner of USB devices – was another Simon, who I assumed must be Simon Walter of The Southern Daily Echo, someone who had interviewed me by phone a couple of times regarding a pair of former Moddershall professionals that I’d skippered, Imran Tahir and Rangana Herath, both of whom had joined Hampshire.

Behind Simon, to my left, was another local reporter from the south and, to his left , within stretching distance of the complimentary thermos jugs of coffee was a man at whom I had to take three long looks to make sure he wasn’t Sir Menzies Campbell. It turned out that he was a Scot, however: Mike Denness, former England captain and now an ECB pitch inspector.

Finally, Michael Temple, the Notts CCC Media and Communications Manager, was buzzing about, delivering the all-important lunch vouchers to these esteemed wordsmiths. I was looking for the first opportunity that presented itself to establish some sort of relationship in my strange, new environment (the Notts Press Officer, Chris Botherway, with whom I’d liaised to get my pass, was nowhere to be seen), so I followed Simon #2 over to grab a coffee.

“Are you Simon?” I asked, offering a handshake.

“Yes,” he replied, slightly bemused, the tone of apprehension that used when a policeman calls out of the blue.

“I’m Scott,” I now said, expecting that to clear everything up.

“Oh… right…” he answered, eyes and bodyweight shifting uneasily, the ellipsis evidently inviting me to clarify.

“Yeah, we’ve spoken a few times on the phone. About Imran and Rangana Herath.”

“Oh, okay” he replied, unconvincingly, unconvinced, whereupon I launched myself into a nervous, slightly fabricated tale of how Imran was doing after the World Cup, all the while wondering why he had been so stand-offish given our previous conversations and email exchanges.

The answer to my miffed bewilderment arrived less than ten minutes later, when a third Simon entered the box, nestling down alongside Halfpenny. This was a Simon from the Southern Echo, one whose face actually resembled – I now recalled – the by-line photo I’d seen in 2008. The ha’penny now dropped. Muppet! This was my old acquaintance, my mucker; I soon discovered that the other Simon was Simon Vincent, Hampshire’s Press and Media Officer – perhaps expert in the new media, judging from his tweets, but fairly inexpert in the old medium of conversation. Why not simply say: “Sorry, but I’ve never spoken to anyone called Scott about Imran Tahir”? Then again, I guess I could have asked him whether he was Simon Walter… 

Anyway, in my eagerness to discover how things worked in this alien environment – the etiquette, the pecking order, the jargon – I felt as must an anthropologist upon arriving in, say, deepest Gabon to study the kinship system of some ancient tribe or other; only, these tip-tapping typists were neither spearing animal bones through their scrotum, nor ingesting wildly psychotropic plants for the sake of sacred communion with the forest spirits. At least, I didn’t think they were… Indeed, as play unfolded and these grizzled reporters of the county circuit reacquainted themselves with one another after their off-seasons, a few snippets of gossip emerged. Other chitchat revolved around tweets from Michael Vaughan about Kevin Pietersen’s appetite to play for England, Twitter simultaneously providing good copy and the basis of scurrilous tittle-tattle. 

As the morning session ambled to its final half-hour, Hampshire still without loss on a bowler’s morning and very much in the ascendency, the press box became noticeably busier. Chris Botherway arrived, as did Chief Executive Derek Brewer, both here for lunch. In, too, came four or five of the snappers, busy uploading their shots and zapping them off to various press agencies and newsdesks. The experienced old hands among the scribes were already wiping errant gravy from their chins before the players had finished their session of cricket, a smart move, I discovered, when queuing up in the canteen across the carpeted concourse behind the box with the massed ranks of Members. Still, it wasn’t too long a wait and I did manage a brief chinwag with David Fulton, the former Kent opening batsman, now Sky Sports’ very own Roving Reporter, the Tim Abrahams of the ‘Champo’, looking sharp in his electric blue suit.

Dr Dre 

Fulton was eulogising over Andre Adams, leading wicket-taker in the County Championship (Div 1) last year, who had picked up where he left off in Manchester last September, nipping out two good wickets prior to lunch as each of the session’s last three deliveries produced wickets. “He’s just a yard quicker than he looks and doesn’t allow the batters to get any rhythm,” he synopsized in his syrupy TV voice. “He nips it both ways, moves around the crease and is always causing the batter problems.” I nodded in agreement, suppressing the massive temptation to tell him that I – the rotund, bald, bespectacled limper beside him – had scored a measured 41 from 71 balls against the same bowler only last June, clipping him for a boundary through square leg and getting away a back-foot punch through backward-point for four, too (I was eventually dismissed run out, duped into taking a third run by a crafty fielder, exiting ignominiously, covered in dust and with broken spectacles, damage that doubtless contributed to my earlier trip into Bridgford).


Sitting down for the afternoon session after what David Hopps had described on the Guardian blog as the “Samit Patel Chicken and Mushroom Pie”, I was delighted, overjoyed even, to have a hot dessert brought over to me from the canteen, as requested, just as I settled in to do some actual work (well, of sorts…). Glancing through Notts’ official magazines – a glossy A4 quarterly entitled Covered (£2.50), and a smaller companion, Extra Cover; no extra cover price but free to the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate – I started to compile a list of questions in preparation for my interview with Mick Newell, Notts’ Director of Cricket, for Nottingham’s premier cultural organ, Leftlion, the reason I was here lest I get carried away with my warm jam sponge and custard and other luxuries.

While putting together this list of questions, a first trick of the journalist’s trade became clear to me, one that I thought I might as well utilise. I had noted that some of the paragraphs from Extra Cover and Covered were appearing, practically verbatim, in the blogs and round-ups of my new ‘colleagues’. For instance, readers of all four national broadsheets would be learning by the following morning that Andre Adams had actually retired from the game in 2008 and was halfway up a mountain, on a skiing trip, when former teammate Lou Vincent called him to say that someone was interested in signing him; due to the poor mobile reception, ‘Dre’s reply of “not interested” was misheard and the next day he received a follow-up call from an agent bearing a concrete offer from Nottinghamshire, a county in which he had previously played club cricket for Kimberley Institute CC. This soon to be dog-eared tale was the not-short cover feature of Covered, being covered (or plagiarised, as it is more commonly known in academic circles) by my co-press-boxers. So this is how news is passed up the food-chain, from the county’s two-man PR and media apparatus to the national hacks and out into the world.

With fellow Stokie (fellow veteran) Dominic Cork managing – like, say, Dengue fever, or some other subcutaneous parasitic protozoan – to get himself under the not particularly thick skin of Notts’ seamer Luke Fletcher within minutes of arriving at the crease, and now, adrenalized, leading something of a fightback, I popped over to the Boot’s Ground at Lady Bay to catch up with a couple of former Moddershall and Wollaton teammates of mine – academy prospect Sam Kelsall and newly-contracted Scott Elstone, respectively – who were playing for Notts 2nd XI in a friendly against Cambridge University, before returning to the press box and reacquainting myself with the story of the game via Hopps’ County blog (and Hopps himself).

Hants had been skittled for 218, and the Notts’ openers – Franks and Wagh – negotiated a pair of overs before the afternoon gloom took the players from the field. Up in the press box, we twiddled our thumbs, me especially nervously as I awaited my maiden interview (giving, that is), still not 100% sure that I even knew how to operate the mp3 dictaphone that I’d purchased only the previous day (with money earned skivvying for Wollaton’s own high-profile Director of Cricket, Ed Savill). As it turned out, such know-how was redundant; for I didn’t actually get the interview (which I was under the impression would be arranged by the Press Officer). Evidently, I ought to have taken my cue from the other quote-seeking local reporters and made a bee-line for the pavilion at close of play, specifically requesting an audience with the usually accommodating Mr Newell. “Never mind,” I told Botherway, “I can come back tomorrow. Would you leave me a pass at the ticket office?” I asked, already slavering at the thought of tomorrow’s lunch.

As the press box emptied out, I button-holed David Hopps and asked if, tomorrow, he’d mind if I picked his brains about cricket writing and journalism in general. I emailed him a short piece I had written in hope of publication in The Wisden Cricketer (well, I actually pitched a full-length interview with Snape, but that was rejected on the basis that he’d written for them a fair bit in the past; so, desperate that the deputy editor didn’t hang up without me having etched myself on his consciousness, I pitched the piece about choking: ‘The C-word’) and he said he’d have a chat the following day.

So, having reached the end of what might be loosely described as “my working day”, I wandered up one flight of stairs in the vast Radcliffe Road Stand and got stuck in to an indoor net practice session in the Sobers Hall with the good folk of Wollaton CC, that night including the soon-to-be-retired veteran spinner and beguiling raconteur (perhaps beguiling spinner and veteran racaonteur), Gerry McMahon – father of an off-spinner who, in a parallel universe, might well have been out in the middle doing a job for Notts today (probably carrying drinks, mind, given the conditions and the coach’s fondness for a seamer).

Repairing to the Larwood and Voce for a post-net libation, Gerry mentioned a half-page photo that I had spotted, almost accidentally, in the April edition of The Wisden Cricketer. Much as I had been when first joining Wollaton in 2006, I had been struck initially by the quaintness of the pavilion in the shot, but had not yet realized where it was, nor who it featured. On closer inspection, the caption – “blue fingers: The Parks on the first day of the season, 2003” – revealed the location; closer inspection still revealed that there was an off-spinner bowling (judging by both the field and the delivery stride) for Oxford University, and I reckoned there was a good chance it was Paul.

So, I emailed him at work, seeking confirmation of this: “It’s 73 for 1, coming up to ten minutes to one, and there’s an off-spinner bowling toward the pavilion end. Looks like the delivery is going to rag. Is that you?” Consummate Badger himself, Paul remarked that it was “probably” him, upgraded to “definitely” when a scan was sent over and, presumably, the position of the right hip could be verified. Gerry was very keen to acquire a copy of the photo and asked me how he might go about it. I suggested writing to the magazine’s editor for the source of the image would be a good idea. “It’s probably Getty or Associated Press,” I proffered, affecting knowledgeability of ‘my’ new world...

Part 2 can be read here.

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