On a baking early August day I took in my first day’s play of Kent second XI cricket for many years against Glamorgan at Mote Park in Maidstone. It was an equally belated return to “the Mote” which, since 2005 when the county was, unjustly, deducted eight points by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for a sub-standard pitch, had not hosted first class cricket. My sense of anticipation was twofold – an opportunity to see a number of highly regarded young Kent players in action for the first time, and to reacquaint myself with the ground that has always been second only to the Nevill at Tunbridge Wells in my affections.
As I walked up Mote Road, with my right shoulder creaking under the weight of my new holdall bulging with laptop, notebooks, Kent CCC annuals and food, but rendered even heavier by the purchase of three cricket books in the Oxfam bookshop in town, I was saddened, if not altogether surprised, to see that The Cricketers pub was up for sale, a shame as it had often been a handy retreat during the lunch intervals in the past.
My initial impression on entering the ground was that it seemed in remarkably good health (it is still the home to cricket, rugby and squash clubs). The lovely two-storey pavilion, a recent centenarian, looked resplendant with its tiled roof and handsome black and white gable, hanging baskets and recent paint job. On closer inspection, however, the facilities inside clearly needed substantial upgrading to meet the demands of the modern professional game.
Alongside the pavilion stands “the Tabernacle”, described by George Plumptre in his book, Homes of Cricket – the First-Class Cricket Grounds of England and Wales as “one of the most delightful curiosities to be found on any county ground”.
It had been built by the Mote’s most prominent patron, (Sir) Marcus Samuel in the style of “an ornamental cottage with herringbone pattern brickwork and a covered verandah in front”. Originally Marcus’s private pavilion in which to entertain his well connected friends, it had latterly become a temporary office for the county club during the traditional week, as well as a suitably imposing structure from which “the brethren” the Band of Brothers Cricket Club could sit and watch the game.
Today, it was a dusty shell, though it was heartening to note from the contractors’ awning that a significant makeover was imminent, perhaps a further indication that the local authority and club were making necessary ground improvements in preparation for the resumption of county cricket in the next few years, a “consummation devoutly to be wished” by this supporter.
The mature trees, primarily oaks, encircling the ground were magnificent as always and the new fence at the bottom end, whilst plain and rustic, gave it a neat appearance.
Entering the pavilion in pursuit of a scorecard, I saw a sight I wasn’t expecting – Daniel Bell-Drummond helping himself to a fruit juice. A dashing opening batsman, the 17 year old from Millfield School is being touted as a star of the future, and had already been scoring attractive runs in the England Under 19 team. It had not been expected that he would be released from an international boot camp to play today, so this was a pleasant surprise.
Salivating at the prospect of watching him and 18 year old Fabian Cowdrey, the latest in the distinguished Kentish cricketing dynasty, open the innings and rattle up 150 before lunch, the news from Daniel that Glamorgan had won the toss and elected to bat was deflating – my hopes raised and ruthlessly dashed in the space of thirty seconds!
Although Kent sported an experienced attack, it already felt like it would be a day of toil for Kent players and spectators alike, which it subsequently proved (Glamorgan were 287 for 5 at tea when the combination of heat and desultory action persuaded me to leave).
The outstanding moment from the Kent perspective was a stunning leg side stumping by 20 year old Sam Billings off Simon Cook. Billings is yet another prospect in what might (everything is crossed) develop into a “golden generation” for the county. Already being “billed” as Kent’s best wicketkeeper since the mercurial Alan Knott, he also proved the chief cheerleader in a side that was vocally encouraging of each other all day, impressive given the humd conditions and very different from the deathly hush that falls over the first team for long intervals in the field.
The size of the crowd, a number of whom appeared to follow the second XI to the exclusion of the full county side, probably did not reach 100, with smatterings in the pavilion, alongside the tabernacle, under the great oak tree and on the top of the ground, many sitting in their parked cars in chairs bought from the local garden centre.
I had not known what to expect when I arrived, particularly as far as catering was concerned. Whilst I had bought my own food I was worried whether I would be able to get a drink at all, hence my delight, half an hour after play had commenced, to see the bar open and the Shepherd Neame Whitstable Bay handpump hove into view. A couple of gorgeous pints of that helped to counteract the stifling heat.
There was a quaintness about proceedings that belied the intense endeavour of young men striving in stifling heat to use their undoubted talent to forge a career in the game. This was epitomised by the hilarious sight, every half an hour or so when the umpires called for a drinks break, of two small boys, the sons of the former Kent player and now part-time coach, Mark Ealham, with a combined age of no more than the number on the back of Kent captain Alex Blake’s shirt (10), bounding onto the field carrying hefty trays of cold concoctions that must have weighed at least as much as their bearers. Priceless!
It is a pity that there are now no more home second XI games this season because I think I’m hooked! Oh, and I do hope that the club and the local council can get their act together and bring first team county cricket to this beautiful ground that was, after all, Colin Cowdrey’s favourite.