Not with a tear but in anger.
Hopes that the domestic cricket season would, as custom dictates, fade gently away in late summer sunshine at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury on 15th September 2011 were rudely dashed less than a week before the match when both Kent and visitors Glamorgan agreed to a “request” from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), on behalf of the International Cricket Council (ICC), to trial the use of a pink ball under floodlights, thereby altering the hours of play from 10.30am to 5.30pm to 2pm to 9pm.
Whilst it is not my intention here to report in detail on the game itself, this decision, which Kent CCC neither consulted its membership nor its players about, and which brought with it no additional revenue for the cash-strapped club, destroyed at a stroke the traditional end of season atmosphere of the final match.
After the first three days, all of which had stretched to the scheduled 9pm finish, one the courtesy of a lengthy rain break on the previous afternoon, Kent were once again staring an early and heavy defeat in the face, still 38 behind Glamorgan’s first innings total with just five second innings wickets remaining. An early finish, by lunchtime at 4pm (sic), seemed probable.
But, to the last, Kent contrived to frustrate their supporters by ruining any alternative plans they may have had for the afternoon and evening by providing some rare resistance that resulted in play being prolonged until almost 8pm.
For the third day running, a warm sun, accompanied by a brisk wind, smiled on the St Lawrence at 10.30am when the ground staff were the only people at work on the playing area. Three and a half hours later when play started, heavier cloud cover prevailed, although the strong winds that had kept temperatures cool throughout the match had receded, giving overdue respite to the swaying trees at the Nackington Road end.
As small groups of spectators expressed their views on the pink ball experiment or described their plans for the winter, many of which revolved around following non-league football teams such as the Tonbridge Angels, Folkestone Invicta and Whitstable Town, the debate that had begun beside the secondhand booksellers’ van on the first morning, that of the most appropriate words to describe the passing of the cricket season (“elegiac”, “wistful” and “russet” were front runners but “melancholic” is making a late move), was still in full flow.
As if aware that this was the final day, the seagulls that had mysteriously abandoned the ground on the first three days had returned, their screeching drowning the scraping of shovels in the area designated for the proposed administration block and retail outlet. However, the slow, silent extension of the floodlights in preparation for the evening session forced them to retreat to a safe distance to allow the “flannelled fools” to play out their farce before they reclaimed their territory for the next six months.
Fast forward to 4.35pm, five minutes before the end of the “lunch” interval and 59 overs remaining before the end of the season. The resistance primarily of stand in captain Geraint Jones and player of the year Azhar Mahmood has enabled Kent to acquire a lead of 40 runs with three wickets remaining, threatening an unlikely draw. Even the Glamorgan fielders, who had been eager and demonstrative earlier in the game, have caught the subdued mood of the ground.
Mottled clouds rest peacefully in a largely blue sky where an occasional light aeroplane drones across, rousing spectators momentarily from their slumbers. I start what might be my last full perambulation of the ground for this year.
The sole recreational game of cricket being played on the outfield relocates to the embankment in front of the Kent Academy building, where I am now passing. A few spectators shuffle among the recently built houses on the former practice net site, dreaming perhaps of waking up to the evocative sound of bat on ball next spring and those “silly seabirds” complaining that their residency is about to be challenged again.
School has been out for more than an hour now and a vigorous football match is underway on the all-weather pitch alongside the Academy building. The shouts of teenage boys sporting Premier league replica shirts occasionally interrupt the eerie silence. Committee men suddenly make themselves visible after a season of skulking in their bunker or not turning up at all.
The Cornwallis Room in the Colin Cowdrey Stand is reopened following an unpardonably arranged private function that has driven most of the regulars away, probably the first – and only – day of the season that they have not attended. As the catering staff prepare for the next function, an elderly Welsh couple wander into the room and settle into seats behind the large picture window to continue their respective crossword and sudoku puzzles, only occasionally looking up to remark on a change in the bowling. Beneath the window, the lone resident of the outside seating devours his second cheese and pickle sandwich.
I saunter into the Chiesman Pavilion where wall mounted televisions show the remainder of the domestic cricket season coming to its natural and more timely conclusion at Taunton where Lancashire clinch their first county championship outright since 1934. I join the booksellers who have already put their bookcases away for the last time in witnessing this welcome spectacle. Lancashire may be a “big club” with the advantages of a test match ground, but with few star players, their achievement has been borne out of teamwork and determination as much as talent, a lesson to other counties including my own.
I wonder how many in the paltry crowd are actually paying attention as the “run-stealers flicker to and fro” and a “ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost”. Kent are finally dismissed in their second innings for 312, leaving the Welsh county just 127 to win at around three runs per over.
The agony is prolonged further when, after just a handful of overs in the Glamorgan innings, the players shuffle off the field again for tea (or is it supper, I still haven’t quite worked out the new terminology spawned by this game). Any hopes of the game being washed out in the final session are dispelled as the evening is set fair and the floodlights show off their undoubted brilliance.
The inevitability of yet another crushing defeat in Kent’s worst season since the 1950s (finishing bottom of the county championship in 1995 was, at least, assuaged by winning the AXA Equity & Law Sunday League), sees more spectators drifting away whilst others on the Old Dover Road terracing turn to the bottle and gallows humour to keep out the cold. A lone soul, who has somehow mistaken the scene for a T20 game, lets out a mournful “Come on Kent”. Even the handful of dogs that have snoozed contentedly beneath their owners’ chairs all season, are shivering and casting sorrowful glances, denoting their desire to return to that nice cozy seat in the back of the car. They too wish the season would end now, at its customary time.
Escaping to the Leslie Ames Stand for warmth and a final cappuccino, I observe office and security staff, released from their labours, having an end of season drink at the bar, no doubt washing from their mouths both the dust that has pervaded the ground all summer and the sour taste that has been left by on and off field events.
As Glamorgan approach their target, I gravitate towards the “ladies annexe”, renamed the Underwood and Knott stand in Canterbury Week, for the last rites, though not before being afforded the “historic” privilege of fielding the pink ball as it hurdles the advertising boards and rests in my hands, as if mocking me for being so sad as to be here at all at this ungodly hour.
As the players, weary and a little bemused, leave the field at 8pm, there are around 50 spectators and officials to greet them with “soundless clapping”. One immaculately dressed elderly gentlemen, who only two days previously had told a packed members’ meeting with the Chairman and Chief Executive, that although he was a Yorkshireman, he was a lifelong Kent fan, shouts “well done Kent”, sentiments whilst no doubt heartfelt, would hardly be reciprocated by the large majority of Kent fans during this wretched season. As we shake hands he tells me excitedly that he fills the non-cricketing months of the year playing bowls and watching hockey. His enthusiasm and optimism only deepen my gloom.
And that is it – a cold, dark and deeply unsatisfactory ending. There is no time to prise onself slowly and reluctantly from the the scene, taking regular backward glances, as one would have done in the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon. No time to say a leisurely goodbye to friends that you will not see for another seven months. No time to have one final drink and contemplate the highlights of the season (yes, there were some). No time to savour that bittersweet feeling that always accompanies loss.
Only time to check those evening bus and train timetables or face a long drive home.
At least the seagulls will be happy.
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