Archive for September, 2011

With the cricket season finally over, perversely heralding the return of summer, my wife and I decided to resurrect our walking regime on Sunday.

Five miles west of Ashford, on the edge of the Greensand Ridge, lies the village of Pluckley which, despite a population of little more than a thousand, lays claim to two impressive titles – “the most haunted village in Britain”, home to between 12 and 14 ghosts, and the location for The Pop Larkin Chronicles written by H.E. Bates, who lived in a converted tithe barn in neighbouring Little Chart Forstal.  Set in the “never had it so good” nineteen fifties, the best known of those novels is The Darling Buds of May, which inspired a popular Sunday evening TV series in the nineties.  Pop Larkin’s sunny, optimistic disposition was never better characterised than in his catchword, “perfick”, a rural version of Del Boy’s “lovely jubbly” in Only Fools and Horses, fittingly both TV roles played memorably by David Jason.

The majority of this particular walk winds through apple orchards with pleasant views across the Weald.  It has been a vintage year for Kentish apples, and this is evident in the bulging crop tugging at the upper branches of the trees, urging them to kiss the ground which is equally well populated with “drops” of different varieties.  Our taste test reveals that they range from succulent to woody.  The overriding impression, however, is of their immense size.  Stacked boxes and short step ladders signify the advent of harvest.

Setting off from the car park of the 540 year old Black Horse pub, where furniture is said to rearrange itself from time to time, we head towards the adjoining villages of Little Chart and Little Chart Forstal.  The latter boasts a lovely and surprisingly large village green, and is bordered intermittently by neat and handsome  houses.

Now “it is a truth universally acknowledged” that any good walk culminates in well deserved refreshment at a hostelry.  The true glory of this particular walk is not, as might be imagined, the abundance of apples, but the fact that not only does it end at one pub, but another is thrown in for good measure at the half way point too!

So, on a warm late September morning, we rest our legs with “a half” (appropriately) and a coffee respectively in the garden of the friendly Swan at Little Chart, accompanied only by birdsong and the rustling of trees.  The food menu is eye-catchingly unpretentious (sausage, egg and chips rather than Sunday roast – Pop Larkin would have loved it), but, having already stocked up with a large breakfast at home, it is too soon to eat (so I’m told).

The stated length of the walk is 4 miles, but as we are out of practice and get lost periodically (beautiful though they might be, apple orchards do all tend to look the same), our legs insist that we have covered more like 6 miles.

Two and a half hours after we set off, we return to the village as the groundsman tends lovingly to the now redundant cricket square.  Seeking sustenance at the Black Horse, my rustiness in walk management is exposed when we discover to our disappointment that, despite the mouth-watering array of meals displayed on the blackboards, the pub only serves roast dinners on a Sunday.  Whilst the gargantuan yorkshire puddings scream “eat me”, we are only looking for a snack (so I’m told).

However, taking the country rather than motorway route home, salvation awaits at the delightful Village Tea Rooms in Headcorn, which doubles up as an attractive gift shop.  Here I am able to indulge my weakness for smoked salmon, which arrives in a toasted baguette whilst Janet, having initially dismissed the idea, tucks into a large and, to her mind, uncharacteristically moist and delicious, carrot cupcake.

Nothing left to say but……….perfick!

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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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If you read my earlier article entitled “A Short Trip to the Oval”, you will be aware that I cannot resist a tense last hour or so of a county championship cricket match.  So it was last week when, after just two days of the scheduled four day match between Kent and Essex at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, the visitors were 180 for 9, only 64 ahead of their hosts with one wicket left. With the weather set fair for the day and despite the fact that the pitch was later described as “poor” by the English Cricket Board (ECB), who imposed an eight point penalty upon Kent, the odds were very heavily on a third successive home win.

I arrived on the ground at 9.40 to find John Jamieson and Tony Pigott  from the English Cricket Board (ECB) still conducting what must have been approaching the longest pitch inspection in cricket history (Jamieson had been present at the ground since the start of the match 48 hours earlier).  The players from both sides were already going through their cricket related preparations before embarking upon the more popular – and dangerous – games of football, the Kent version of which proved the downfall of spinner James Tredwell who was unable to field on the resumption of play an hour later.

The popular book selling father and son partnership of David and Keith Summerfield were still on the ground, having been thwarted (at least initially) in their dash to Hove by a flat battery on their van.  The prompt attendance of the fourth emergency service, however, enabled them to get away with a sporting chance of reaching the south coast in time for the first ball of the day, although it meant that neither could we have our customary early morning discussion on the state of play in the match (and the world for that matter), nor could I purchase the two Neville Cardus books I had spied on the previous day.  Saved from myself I suppose – but there’s always next week!

The Club, to its credit, had let people in free, given the likelihood of the game finishing before lunch. It was a glorious morning, fit to adorn a full day’s cricket in front of what transpired to be a decent crowd, boosted by healthy hospitality numbers (the conclusion of the game on the previous evening, which had still been a distinct possibility in the late afternoon, would have been a financial and  promotional headache for the club’s Chief Executive, Jamie Clifford.

Unfortunately, Jonesy’s Kitchen in the newly and tastefully refurbished Leslie Ames Stand (which a few months before had been ripe for demolition) was only serving bacon rolls for breakfast, but an almost full lunch menu was on offer, although with the game finishing at 12.25, I doubt that many spectators would have stayed to enjoy it.

The entry of the Kent side, led by stand-in captain Geraint Jones, onto the field of play finally put paid to the pitch inspectors’ peering and scraping, and prompted the announcer to ask the “ladies and gentlemen” populating the outfield (actually two small boys and a young girl playing catch) to “vacate”.

David Balcombe, on loan from Hampshire, made short work of  Tom Craddock, inducing him to snick a wide, lifting delivery into the captain’s gloves to leave Kent with just 70 runs to win. James Foster, the Essex captain, remained unbeaten, one short of a deserved half century – he has, along with Joe Denly and Jones, looked the most accomplished batsman on show. With memories of David Masters’s recent eight wicket haul in the final innings at Southend fresh in their minds, Kent supporters were viewing the “chase”, if a run rate of  little over a third of a run per over could be called that, with expectation and anxiety in equal measure. Yet it was Graham Napier, whose contributions with both bat and ball on the first two days had been pitiful, bowling from the Nackington Road End where Balcombe had taken his ten wicket haul, who was the main threat, bowling with real pace and extracting considerable bounce. It was a short ball that claimed the wicket of the just 18 year old Daniel Bell-Drummond on his Championship debut, who played a hook far too early, resulting in the ball looping to cover for a simple catch. Little was expected of Sam Northeast and he lived down to those expectations by being caught plumb in front to a ball that kept rather low from Napier.

Replicating his recent form, Denly had looked comfortable, scoring 17 of the first 18 runs with two thumping fours and a Darren Stevens-like six over extra cover, before being adjudged lbw to another one that kept low, this time from Masters. 18 for 3 and alarm bells were ringing. To make matters worse, Martin van Jaarsveld almost immediately pulled up and called for a runner.

In view of the still small number of runs needed, it might have been wise for him to have left the field at this point, to return only if absolutely necessary – staying out there and playing a number of violent shots thereafter, one of which cleared the square leg boundary, cannot have helped the groin injury that had been sustained before his innings apparently.  He was also shortly afterwards hit on the helmet by another rising delivery from the fiery Napier. I suspect that his pride, and anxiety to finish the job, which, with the captain’s brilliant cameo, he did, took over at this point. Bell-Drummond, who had probably not even taken his pads off at this stage, returned to do van Jaarsveld’s running for him (not that he needed to do much). Stevens’s poor Championship season continued when he snicked Napier to Foster to leave the home side at 35-4.

But our increasing fears at this point were unfounded as Captain Jones, in keeping with the Corporal of the same name in Dad’s Army, did not panic, but rather played half a dozen crashing shots (five drives and a pull) to the boundary in, I think, just eight balls, to herald a six wicket victory. Now what had all the fuss been about? Brief as it was (just 14 balls), it was reminiscent of his sensational Canterbury Week century against Somerset last year. It is heartening that he has found some form at the back end of the season because he is such a popular and committed player. It is reported that he doesn’t want the captaincy, either in the one or four (did I say four?) day formats beyond the end of this season. As we know, he has demanding commitments off the field as well as on it, and his position is, therefore, understandable. But if, despite Director of Cricket, Paul Farbrace’s protestations to the contrary at the Club Forum on the previous evening, Rob Key does call it a day, either in one day only or all cricket, Jones would get my vote. But that’s for the future.

Don’t let the eight points deduction for a poor pitch detract from another impressive performance by a Kent side that had the odds stacked against them when Essex won the toss. The batting of Jones (in both innings), Denly and Tredwell was as good as it has been all year, and Balcombe bowled with genuine pace, bounce and accuracy – he would be an outstanding acquisition for next season, but perhaps existing contractual arrangements and the rise in his stock in the Hampshire and wider county scene that his loan spell at Kent has engendered, might prove too great an obstacle.

So at 12.25pm, with the blue sky and warm sun still smiling on the ground, we all went home – well, those of us who weren’t being wined and dined with no tiresome distractions such as cricket in the Harris Room and Leslie Ames Stand hospitality boxes.

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