Ashes Poetry - cricket

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David Fine, Ashes poet in residence in Australia 2006-7

England vs Australia.
Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney 2006-2007

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Grace Road, England vs India 1st Test

From Grace Road To Ikea.
England vs India 1st Women's Test, 3rd Day's Play.

Grace Road Leicester Thursday 10th August

Never been to Grace Road before. Virgin county venues in the mind’s eye are always places of faded grandeur – tall pavilions, old trees, rolling hills behind. Faded perhaps, but Grace Road nestles amongst red brick terraces and small family factories, far more like a lower division soccer ground. I wandered up a gravel path and almost walked past the entrance – no vast ornamental gates, just green iron sheeting, like the factories around. At the turnstile two blokes ask ‘Have you come to watch?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Are you going to pay?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Three quid.’ And I was in.

It explained the lack of double-parked cars, crowd burble, faint smell of old beer, burgers, crushed litter you usually associate with a test match ground three days in. A hundred, one-fifty watching – about the same number of people who came to my fiftieth birthday party, and a lot less noise.

The cricket’s good. Technically excellent. Straight bat, big feet movements front or back, bat-and-pad close together, playing through the vee, elbow over the ball, all along the ground. Steady scoring, and plenty of overs in the day. It was like watching cricket about forty years ago when one-day games were a curiosity, over-rates faster and scoring slower – must have reminded umpires Jesty and Lloyds of when they started out. Cricket how it used to be.

At a drinks interval umpire Jesty picks up one of the players’ bats and practices a few air shots; Lloyds turns over an arm. No one gives it a moment’s thought but it’d never happen with the men’s test side. Umpire Bucknor essays a late cut with Captain Strauss’s blade? I should cocoa.

There’s a sense of nurturing in this game. In his pick-up Jesty becomes a young boy, emulating others more famous, such as Jesty T E, Hampshire and England, as we all once did, playing pretend shots to become players we weren’t.

Laura Newton opens her shoulders, lofts it over mid-on and a three-bounce four. Perfect timing, middle of the bat, straight out of the screws. Like her namesake Isaac, Newton has the mechanics, just not enough power. A Flintoff or Pieterson would have had me ducking and the county secretary on the phone to the local glaziers.

India play on this. Plenty of men – women – back, restrict the run rate, just as they scored slowly, so slowly, the previous day heading for a draw. A scintilla above two an over, for those who decry how few are bowled in the modern game, it must have been like watching paint dry while it’s still in the tin. I’m glad I’ve caught Taylor and Newton opening the can to give it a bit of umpty.

It lacks steam. Easier to take a big stride forward, not get caught on the crease when Harmison makes you smell leather at ninety miles an hour. A lone West Indian barracker shouts encouragement, but even he is never going to yell ‘Gi’ ’er di throa’ ba’ , Mildred!’ Keenly contested, good to watch, you think it could be a varsity game or very well coached club cricketers until you hear the fielders’ higher pitched ‘Howzat!’ and realise these are women.

Imogen joins me. She’s communications for the ECB women’s game at Lords. Good views out of the office window. I ask about the crowds or their lack. Part is to do with India being well known for snatching draws from the yawning jaws of a draw. Partly because the Ashes effect, where the women also won them back last year, has dwindled in the women’s game.

Maybe it’s trying to be what it isn’t. On my way down I picked up tickets for the Melbourne Test from Bakewell sorting office. My three pound Grace Road number is all the colours of the rainbow with about ten sponsors’ logos, rinky-dinky design values, top dollar image. Does it sell?

Imogen looks at both tickets – which is the bigger game? Plain black print, zero design and zilch logos, one step up from a cloakroom ticket. Then the text. Melbourne 4th Test England vs Australia. 95,000 other people will have similar tickets to fill the MCG cloakroom. Half a million if England can’t finish it off inside five days. Rather more than here, my birthday party, or indeed the Queen’s. At tea-time two green-coated security guards patrol the square to watch the boundary in case there might be a crowd invasion. Laugh? There’s no one here to.

Perhaps they should market it as Cricket As It Used To Be. At a fiver a day with comfy chairs, and plenty of tea I’d take Rene my mother-in-law, who shares birthdays with Her Royal Highness. Bakewell receives the odd test match ticket and two million visitors a year (or four Melbourne sell-outs) each of whom seem to travel with the express purpose of getting up my nose, and if you’ve seen its size you realise they’ve achieved their allotted task in life with consummate ease and great elan.

Why not operate Wrinkly Cricket package tours – coach, tea, cakes and comfy seats, snooze in the afternoon. Ideal for those who found the Barmy Army Western Terrace at Headingley too much last week. You could have a farmer’s market, WI stalls and beer; proper beer in glasses, none of the plastic swill Grace Road served in plastic – sorry, Leicestershire County Cricket Club, the truth hurts. Young teenagers could pick up empties at a penny a time just like we did at the Cheltenham Festival. Bring schools to watch and learn the techniques; it’d be the College Ground, Cheltenham Spa in the sixties – except the toilets, which we won’t go into.

You think I’m joking? Isn’t a hundred or so watching top class cricket a joke too?

The women deserve more. I thank Imogen for her time, leave as England cruise past 200 for two, sun willing the old fox’s leap o’er the old weather vane atop the old clock of the old scoreboard next to the fading elegance of the George Geary stand. More or less as the world was before I came in. Driving down Grace Road past the 1950s purpose-built Childwell Clothing Company, inside full of happy employees whistling to wireless tunes on BBC Light Wave ‘Workers’ Playtime, their children wearing start-rite shoes, looking forward to a tea of potted meat and cucumber sandwiches, washed down withTizer the appetiser, the dream for a moment holds true till the roadworks onto the M1.

Perhaps I should stop here, leaving you all cosy and snug.

Turn off onto the A610 and realise I’m going past Ikea. Loz, our eleven year old daughter wants a Bladdra, which you all know is a set of metal arms on a pole to hang newspapers from (flat packs, thank God, don’t work on the radio) It’s my cunning plan for her attic bedroom as hanging space in lieu of a wardrobe. Ikea isn’t for me. I do it out of paternal duty. Reckoning a summer’s evening like this with England nearly 250 for 2 at close of play, the world and his – her - dog will be outside, and Ikea as empty as Grace Road.

It heaves. Shopping as a leisure activity – even for bats, balls, tools, or books – does not compute. I should have asked Imogen how women cricketers escape shopping, homemaking, housework, not why. Go down to Grace Road, enjoy quality live international sport for the price of a gut-full of swedish meatballs or knockdown flatpacks - and with a lot less heartburn or heartache: flatpacks don’t really work off the radio either.

There are thousands here, each getting up mine and each other’s noses, when all I or Loz wants is Bladdra. Lank boiled staff play the game of avoiding eye contact, replying ‘There’ accompanied by a vague arm-wave whenever asked for directions – no use their setting a field. I think of asking them for a product called Aaaargh. ‘Not sure what it’s for – someone told me to get one.’ Aaargh, they say, how do you spell it? AAAAARGH!

Ikea is cheap, practical and relatively honest – the Lidl of home interiors. What bugs me is the denial of independent thought by its evocation. It’s the sign that says ‘You are allowed to change your mind.’ They don’t mean literally. Ask one of the lank boiled to unscrew the top of your head and swop the unit inside for one of theirs off the shelf. At least I don’t think they meant it literally. It’d almost be better if they did.

Of course everyone can change their mind – assuming it’s in use in the first place. You can switch this off any time you like. In cricket the best run-outs are caused by changes of mind if not heart in mid-wicket. The world would be an easier if less intriguing place if people couldn’t change their minds. You are doomed to listen to this for eternity – long after I’ve finished.

It doesn’t need Ikea’s permission to think – although I have to say that a theology where God might and arguably should be a self-confessed anally retentive yet reformed alcoholic has its merits. It’d explain a worrying welter of otherwise inexplicable phenomena within our daily lives. For example, never mind you always find something you’re looking for in the last place you look, why is it never there in the first place?

Never been to Grace Road before.

Then the vision. How to get crowds into Grace Road. Women cricketers and men for that matter, play cricket inside Ikea. One of those foam balls, and Ikea bats called Bonk or Bonkers. The women rush round one way and the men the other, and the winners are the first to make a lank boiled smile and shoppers laugh – in Ikea no one ever does, do they, and life’s meant to be fun.

I stole one of their little pencils instead to write the next instalment.