Thursday, July 27, 2017

Time Travel To Trent Bridge


‘Cricket … was more than play; it was a worship in the summer sun.’

Those are the words of Edmund Blunden (1886-1974) (Figure 108.1), one of England’s greatest war poets, an Oxford professor, six times nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His book Cricket Country (Figure 108.2), written long after his playing days had ended, is a testament to his yearning to turn back time, to cricket matches gone but never forgotten, memories of which fade against one’s will, and blissful summer days which can never be recast. I wish I could have met the celebrated professor, preferably beside a cricket field and sharing a decent bottle of wine. His cricket recollections, coloured with humour and honest optimism, would have captivated me for sure.

Figure 108.1: Christ’s Hospital School XI. Edmund Blunden is seated on the left, in front of the umpire.

Copyright © 1914 The Edmund Blunden Library Estate

Figure 108.2: Edmund Blunden’s Cricket Country (1944) is, in my view, one of the most evocative and beautifully-written books describing any subject. ‘They vanish, these immortal players, and we suddenly realize with astonishment that years have passed since we heard passing mention of them. At one point, they seem as much a part of the permanent scheme of things as the sun which glows upon their faces and attitudes and the grass which makes the background for their portrait, and then, bless us, it is time for even them to go.’

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Today, I shall do what Blunden longed to do: travel back in time to revisit a childhood memory.

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Trent Bridge is one of the world’s loveliest cricket grounds. Home to Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, it has staged international ‘Test’ matches since 1899 (Figure 108.3). In that time, the ground’s appearance has changed profoundly, but its replacement architecture has, unlike at many other venues, never disrespected the original aesthetic. Evolution has, sensibly, triumphed over revolution. This makes my attempt at time travel just about possible.

Figure 108.3: Trent Bridge in 1890

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Forty years ago, almost to the day, England played Australia in the Third ‘Ashes’ Test of the summer. It is one of the most famous contests ever to grace Trent Bridge. I followed every ball bowled, mostly via the BBC, on television and on radio’s iconic Test Match Special programme, as an eleven-year-old with Blunden-esque devotion.

A pivotal incident, which took place on the second day, remains a talking point among cricket-lovers old enough to remember it – and, also, those too young, but who have studied the video footage online.

As I sit with my two sons in the newest section of the ground, the farthest corner looks more or less as it did when I was a boy (Figure 108.4).

Figure 108.4: The ground, as it would have appeared in 1977.

Copyright © 1998 John Sutton

Visualizing that immortal tableau, I can imagine the rest.

It is 1977 – Friday, 29th July. Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson runs to the wicket at the Radcliffe Road End, to my left. He bowls, from wide of the crease, a 90-mph delivery angling in at the body of England’s opening batsman, Geoff Boycott. Boycott plays the ball solidly, in orthodox fashion, back along the pitch and sets off for a run. Thomson is alert. He leaps across the pitch and attempts to field the ball with his right hand. His momentum is too great. He fumbles the ball and stops in his tracks. Thomson then turns 180 degrees and this time successfully picks it up. Boycott, however, keeps running. Derek Randall, the non-striking batsman, dare not leave his ground, as it would be easy for Thomson, with ball in hand, to run him out. As Boycott completes the run, Thomson, with a clever flick of his right hand, tosses the ball in the direction of wicket-keeper Rod Marsh. Randall, stranded, is left with no choice but to race the ball over 22 yards. Thomson’s throw is sharp and accurate. Marsh collects and demolishes the wicket (Figure 108.5). Randall, well short, knows he is run out – beaten by a combination of Boycott’s hasty judgement and Thomson’s quick thinking. It all happens in less than ten seconds. I glance at the old scoreboard: England are in trouble at 52 for 3. I have just relived history, in real time, forty years on.

Figure 108.5: One of the most infamous run outs in cricket history

Copyright © 1977 Getty Images

I explain the controversial event to my boys. They pose the usual questions. Why did Boycott even set off? Did he call for a run? Was there a fieldsman at mid-on? Why did Randall hesitate? Whose fault was it? Did England’s innings recover?

Having run out Randall – a Nottinghamshire player and local hero – Boycott made amends by scoring a watchful century and England a creditable 364. By the following Monday, England’s victory was complete, the winning runs scored by none other than Boycott and Randall in their second innings. Boycott had batted on all five days of the match, only the second player ever to have done so. The match also witnessed the Test debut of a raw 21-year-old, and fellow Wirralian, Ian Botham.

Trent Bridge has been renovated extensively since the glory days of Boycott, Randall and Botham. A £7.2-million cricket centre and new stand, situated at the Radcliffe Road End, was opened, by another Notts alumnus, the legendary West Indian, Sir Garfield Sobers, in the summer of 1998 (Figure 108.6). Four years later, a new £1.9-million Fox Road Stand was opened, by Ian Botham, and won the prestigious Civic Trust Award for its innovative design. The new Bridgford Road Stand, where we currently await this evening’s Twenty20 match between Notts and Worcestershire, opened in 2008.

Figure 108.6: The Trent Bridge Cricket Centre can be seen on this aerial photograph on the top right side of the ground.

Copyright © 2017 Experience Nottinghamshire

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Beneath a clear blue, late afternoon sky, wisps of cirrus cloud are now drifting eastward from over my left shoulder, across the wide expanse of green, high above the new scoreboard, beyond Fox Road and along the meandering course of the River Trent.

The Notts faithful, male and female, young and old, soak up both the sunshine and the English summer game in its latest embodiment. An elderly gentleman, wearing sensible navy-blue trousers and a crazy, bright-yellow hat, walks past, carrying a pint of beer in each hand. My elder son remarks about field-placings, batsmen’s strokes and bowlers’ run-ups and actions. His younger brother bashes me over the head with an inflatable bat every time the ball reaches the boundary. He hits me harder still whenever a wicket falls. I watch the play and, at the end of each over, scan the panorama from left to right and back again, seeing action from cherished matches played long ago. The unique charm of Trent Bridge remains sublimely intact.

Worcestershire score an impressive 208 for 8 (Figure 108.7). The sun descends behind the Radcliffe Road Stand. Six magnificent new floodlights compensate for the dimming of the evening light. Notts make a valiant attempt to chase victory, England international Alex Hales striking a rapid 63, but they fall, thirteen runs short, at 9:16 p.m.

Figure 108.7: In addition to the new Fox Road Stand (pictured right), a hi-tech scoreboard has replaced the famous old one (pictured in Figure 108.4), in front of the same T-shaped office block.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The three of us leave the ground, cross the bridge and walk back, under the bright city lights, to our hotel in Nottingham’s historic Lace Market.

As Blunden himself once reflected: ‘The game which made me write at all, is not terminated at the boundary, but is reflected beyond, is echoed and varied out there among the gardens and the barns, the dells and the thickets, and belongs to some wider field.’

It really does – in both space and time.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

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