A closer look – Lord’s September 12, 2021

After the angst and disappointment for everyone following the cancellation/postponement/forfeiture (delete as appropriate) of the last test in Manchester, a little light relief today with Middlesex playing Worcestershire at Lord’s in Division Three.

So with 18 wickets falling in one day for 270+ runs, you’d think there’s a lot to write about but no! This blog is more picture centred as this could be my last visit of the season to Lord’s

Suffice to say when it comes to the match – it’s clear why each side is in Division Three; the early September start and the ball swinging round corners, plus variable bounce, lack of footwork and application all contributed to the situation.

But I would say the bowling by Murtagh and Bamber in particular was something to behold! These two were almost unplayable. Not a sight you see every day!

So, let’s take a look at a few more obscure sights of Lord’s – enhanced or not (you decide) with a few photographic ‘tricks’.

Let’s start with one of the best views in world cricket
Sunshine and warmth to start the day
Bamber in full flight
Murtagh with the most stretchable flannels known to man!
Roderick managed to avoid this one!
Fish eye view of the new Edrich stand
Surprising how the slips can look with the odd trick shot
Wouldn’t look to fly in this plane!🤣
But finally bad light caught up with proceedings

An angel in Chelmsford

At the County Ground, Gloucestershire needed more than an angel or other supplication to overcome a rampant Essex side who won by an innings and 3 runs in just over two days play. On each day, and even today’s morning session, the over rate was exemplary – only extending play by 20 mins across the two days and each day’s quota being more than a Test match day. But I’ll leave my thoughts on over rates to another time.

Every knife from off the streets and blunted to make this statue

With extra spare time, I decided to take a look at the Knife Angel sculpture which is touring the UK and is currently being hosted by Chelmsford. The following photos say more than I can except that over 100,000 knives from 43 constabularies were taken off the streets and made into this statue.

The light plays magnificently across the statue showing that there is always light and violence never solved anything.

Would recommend all of my Essex readers to come and take a look.

And the peace of downtown Chelmsford

Normality restored!

After close on two months (46 days to be precise) first class, four day county cricket (or red ball as some like to call it) returns. And with the start of ‘super-September’ as the marketeers would have us believe, so did the start of autumn or something that more closely resembled winter!

A more obscure corner of Lord’s!

And to top it all, it’s August Bank Holiday when there should be some semblance of summer left!

In Division Three Middlesex are playing Derbyshire at Lords with crowds for the first time in nearly two years (the last such match in 2019 was against Derbyshire so that’s a bit of a coincidence), and with overcast and cold conditions (it’s been sunnier and warmer on New Years Day here in the UK).

This strange cricket season now enters the phase of four rounds of county cricket to determine the Championship. In this phase the top two teams in each of the first half groupings form the first division, the third and fourth the second and so forth (try and keep up you at the back! I’ll be asking questions later!)

But what do they have to play for? In Divisions 2 and 3, there’s no prizes available just pride and a bit of cash; so I’m not clear how ‘super’ September will be for those 12 teams!

It’s clear that after such a break, and loads of one day or shorter games, players are rusty, out of form etc. Wickets are falling all over the land at fast rates and I doubt at this stage (part way through day one as I write this) many matches will need day 4 unless it rains. Forty two wickets across eight matches by mid-afternoon Day 1!

And so it is at Lord’s. Middlesex (new signing of Stoneman from Surrey opening with a three ball duck) manage to lose three wickets for 14 in twenty minutes, four for 52 before you can blink but lunch at 85/4 with White and Andersson showing some resistance. All four wickets leg before (two at each end) showing a lack of nimble footwork and a seaming ball in perfect bowling conditions!

Slowly…playing and missing became assured scoring shots!

I managed to convince two spectators (one Aussie, one American) as we chatted that matches at Lord’s are won in part by the excellence of the players lunch. Sides have often had a very poor afternoon and to see which side over-indulged on the pud after lunch!

Clearly Derbyshire, as they had to toil for over 90 minutes before Andersson fell for 53 after a stand of 105 with White. An early tea/bad light sees Middlesex at 173/5 with White 84no. He clearly has the temperament and talent for bigger and better things but with an England side where it is easier to be dropped than picked…then, of course with so many of the current side, the wrong side of 30, he could have a chance.

White acknowledges his 50 with the crowd!

The light improved after tea in time for a prompt restart and in 45 minutes before the light deteriorated again, Middlesex progressed to 218/5 with White making his first first class hundred. It’s clear why Derbyshire are here in the lowest division – the bowling lacks penetration and consistency, not enough maidens (less than 15%) to create pressure. This morning’s efforts to create havoc if not panic were not followed through.

On the other hand Middlesex showed character and resolve from their youngsters and I suppose if the batting comes off as it should, and the middle order prosper then there’s a good side brewing. Add in promising young fast bowlers and the odd spinner, then things should get better.

In other words, return to normal for Middlesex, Derbyshire and others just as the day showed that life is returning to what was ‘normal’.

Levelling up or dumbing down? Which way for the Royal London Cup?

With one day cricket seeming to be the main constituent of live cricket at the moment and has seemed so for longer than I care to remember, it does draw to a conclusion (50 over-wise) in the next week or so and for me with today’s visit to Chelmsford to witness Essex v Sussex. Essex need to force a win to stand a chance of progressing to ‘finals week’ – such is the denouement of the tournament!

With stars of the game being called into the national squad or into the T20-lite thrash, there always was a risk that this cup would dumb down – in fact, the ECB (just like Orwell’s Ministry of Truth) claimed that it would become a development tournament for better things.

Sussex have lost 12 of their squad, Essex two – so that doesn’t seem fair – either to spectators or sponsors – as they face up. Luckily only one match (so far) has succumbed to issues from the pandemic but it has never been too far from the surface.

In parts – so far as I’m drafting this in the innings break – this has been just what the ECB intended. Two youngsters from Essex – Rymmel and Khushi – have both rescued the innings and guided it towards safety. Losing both Cook and Westley for 50, in next to no time, they then added over 100 runs; both got out when established (inexperience showed) but a robust 50 from Wheater saw Essex to 321/8.

Youngsters showing how it’s done!

It will be interesting to see how this green top dries out in the sun and wind and how much purchase Harmer can gain. His doubting the umpire who gave him out leg before may not have the umpire super-disposed to Simon’s wiles! But we shall see.

At times the Sussex bowling looked to be holding its own but again inexperience showed and it was more lambs to the slaughter than it should have been. Sussex only have two well-known players (Wiese and Head) and of international standard.

Plon sprinkling magic dust for a boundary?

As time moved on, the Sussex innings, as expected, never got going although 38 from Travis Head (last seen in these blogs smashing NSW bowlers all over the Adelaide Oval in 2019) brought some hope but the challenge was just too much for a young and inexperienced Sussex who succumbed with under 100 needed!

One thing you can always rely on Sussex for…is hairstyles!

Look closely for the two-tone look!
Wiese has gone for the lockdown hairstyle!

But getting back to the competition as a whole…the format works; four home and away games each; plentiful crowds; the concept of a ‘finals’ week needs tweaking but introducing or giving debuts to 102 new players so far (that’s about six per county) is a significant level of ‘development’ being introduced.

How about limiting the number of ‘development’ players (ok, so we’re going to need a definition – say, players with less than 20 50-over matches) to provide a better balance than what we’ve seen this season? Or limiting ‘experienced’ players?

The drive for this will come when the sponsorship is due for renewal – but with limited (if not zero) media coverage or interest, who would want to bid?

That’s for the future – so far, the idea is beginning to work but the pressures of the fixture list and so many competitions and formats lead me to think, its days could be numbered.

The plan to end 50 over one day cricket – or perhaps a few counties!

Three of the past four days have seen me get to grips with the revised 50 over Royal London one day cup. Two visits to Fortress Chelmsford and one to the Oval give me cause for concern.

Patience needed when the weather’s like this! This cloud had passed but not before…

With the advent of the Hundred franchise competition, the ECB in its wisdom and strategic foresight decided to play the long form one day cricket in parallel to their new format. With so many county players contracted to the new competition the ECB regards the 50 over competition as a ‘development’ tournament for up and coming young players alongside seasoned old professionals who are probably disgruntled on missing out on the new cash flow!

Take away any TV coverage (ok, not free to air anyway) and the sponsors must be deliriously happy especially when there is next to no media coverage or reporting other than in the odd corners of the internet.

And decide to do this just as England become world champions in this format! Who thought this up? And why didn’t someone take them aside and kept watch over them until these thoughts subsided?

But as you will see, I think this is part of the grand plan to end county cricket as we know it!

Firstly at Chelmsford, Worcestershire cranked up over 330 with Haynes and D’Oliveira (names of old but only the latter is related) each scoring hundreds against what can only be regarded as some of the worst Essex bowling seen in many a year. Proper and consistent length was non-existent. ‘Twas men against boys!

Before the matches I saw in person, scores were either low or excessively high and only the odd game saw any type of close or thrilling contest.

Essex under lights then compound the felony by batting as if they’d never seen electric lights and rolled over like rabbits in headlights. Mind you, I’ve never seen a rabbit in headlights so I’ve no idea if they roll over or not – more likely are run over.

In full flow

So one sided, the match ended over 90 minutes in advance and is the worst ever result for Essex in 50 over competitions!

How many overs left ump? The scoreboard is useless!

One thing I had forgotten during the past year, is the sheer silence of the Essex ‘faithful’ whenever the opposition do well. Not a sound – even the musak mad DJ shuts up – I feel inclined to start applauding at excellent cricket but fear I run the risk of the ‘wrath of the faithful’ – perhaps the four day game will be better?

Taking myself off to the Oval for Surrey v Northants – had not seen the latter in years due to the divisional structure – turned out to be an exercise in patience. The forecast had been promising but was completely wrong and the match called off with just 5.3 overs completed.

The last in this little trilogy was the visit of Kent to Chelmsford. Oh, for the Kent of old! But this side had the ‘old’ Darren Stevens and the rest were youngsters with little or no one day experience. And it showed!

Bundled out for just 158 in next to no time meant an Essex charge to win by 9 wickets with 20 overs – and another 90 minutes to spare. But this wasn’t the first match to be completed – Notts despatched Leicestershire in even shorter time!

Unusual bowling action from Kent’s James Logan

Spectators will not flock to watch poor quality games and sponsors will walk away or just not bother, especially if they don’t get any media or marketing coverage. So, is this the next stage in the ECBs plan to dispense with counties?

The Championship is played at the ends of the season, this 50 over is in direct competition with a glitzy glamourised newcomer, the T20 brings in beer sales and crowds for the counties and this season has less coverage.

So what’s left? Tests and the Hundred – that’s all they need! And even with the ECB handout, counties will struggle to survive financially. The likes of Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Northants, Kent and perhaps Worcestershire could be the first to go – and when one or more does, the ECB will fold the rest into franchises and…

But let’s hope not! One small change to encourage supporters especially at Chelmsford is to address the stewarding and learn from others!

The North Korean style at Essex involves creating a ring of steel around the playing area towards the end of the innings! What are they expecting? A mass pitch invasion?

Given the demographic of these matches – the average age is closer to retirement than any other – means they are more likely to overdose on Sanatogen or Wintergreeen than anything else. And as for the energy and suppleness required to vault the boundary boards…well, Max Whitlock is not here to show us how!

Sanatogen is/was a ‘tonic’ wine to help give old people energy and vigour and Wintergreen – have never seen it so, dear reader perhaps you can tell me, can you still get it and do you eat it, drink it, rub it in, smell it or smoke it?

Stretching – muscles and minds

Mid July sees the end of the first part of the County Championship before it gets really complicated in late August and beyond and sees me rock up to the Oval for days 3 and 4 of Surrey v Somerset. The latter seem assured on a place in the top tier whilst Surrey need a good win and for results elsewhere to go in their favour in a big (and I mean BIG) way

Day 3 sees Surrey start their reply to Somerset’s 429 begins in earnest and they reach shy of 100 before lunch and the loss of their first wicket as the inner bell for lunch rang. Batting looked reasonably straight forward with few alarms.

Jack Leach in full cry

The prospect of three spinners in each side – Ashwin in his only game for Surrey (before heading to the India test side ‘thanks for the practice/heads up guys’) and Leach are the world class spinners on show. Close fields, prodding and stretching are going to be the order of the day!

Stoneman has to stretch
Just not quite sure of the bounce!

Silly impatient shots resonated for the rest of the day as Surrey slump from 136/1 to 239/8 by the close and risk following on. Leach looked unplayable at times and the value of Ashwin’s contribution was to date (1/99 and golden duck) was the talking point for the Surrey faithful.

Day 4 dawned brighter weather wise but Surrey soon succumbed to Leach and Surrey are back in the hutch before the morning coffee had got cold. There then followed one of the most bizarre days of cricket I have seen for some time.

One of the delights and mysteries of cricket is trying to understand the strategy of each side across all scenarios over a number of days. With Surrey batting badly, their brains scrambled you would have thought that enforcing the follow on with a lead of 189 would have been a no-brainer.

But no! Somerset bat again! So the thinking changed…rattle up a quick hundred in 90 min or until just after lunch and then declare. Two sessions and 60+ overs to bowl them out and win.

So, the extremely slow start and pace of the innings show that thinking to be rubbish. One wicket falls, then a second and a third and before you know it 60/7 at lunch. Ashwin taking five wickets with such ease and the demeanour of a man having a gentle net session throw any doubts about his value out of the window. Somerset still lead by over 240…so will they declare is the question over lunch as I take the opportunity to look over the new stand at the Oval and find my name on the honours board of members in Surrey’s 175th year.

Hildreth squared up and lbw!
Ashwin weaves his magic
Virdi stretches too but with no reward

But on they bat but not for long since within the half hour Surrey are chasing 244 to win in just under two sessions. Ashwin took 6/27 – and a good quiz question (name the Surrey player who scored no runs in two innings and took 1/99 and 6/27 in his only appearance for the club?)

Lammonby stretches even further

Burns and Stoneman start at pace with a clear intention of a good run chase. However both are back resting with the score at 25/2 which soon becomes 40/3 and Somerset back in the hunt.

And Stoneman lobs to Green

But then another change of strategy – fields set to stop the runs, not take wickets; the pressure eases as Amla and Smith take their time. They’re behind the run rate and the match is going nowhere unless…

I should stress that in both sessions before tea, all we saw was spinner after spinner – a refreshing change from the usual diet of speed, swing and seam! Various theories abound as to the strategies on show – Somerset don’t need to push for the win as they can still come second and qualify; spinners too tired; Leach restricted by ECB regulation about his workload; Surrey building a score using Amla as the anchor before launching a one day style attack?

Well, all came to nowt as the hour after tea was played out without concerns. Green tried his medium pacers but the Somerset quicks were clearly having a day off. On the stroke of 5, as the results from elsewhere were announced the teams shook on a draw.

Baffling and bizarre to say the least, poor captaincy in evidence, all results possible as the day developed and swung one way and then the other and back again but overall one for the cognoscenti and a sheer delight to watch unfold.

It wasn’t just the batsmen who had to stretch, our minds were filled with belief, disbelief, incredulity and sheer bafflement but that’s why lovers of the longer game just love it!

No more county championship mind-stretching until late August…but can’t wait!

Rhythm, routine and naked pitch invasion – ways to well-being!

Regular readers will know my blog centres on my life as a self-employed cricket watcher – so it’s my views on cricket and my travels, with a few photos thrown in for those who find cricket ‘boring’! I know there are a few people who think that!

But today to start with…a reflection on coming out of the other side of the pandemic and general well-being. I thought that I had handled lockdowns one, two and three quite well, didn’t feel unduly upset (after all we were all in it together) and managed to get by, better than some, but that’s just luck and circumstances I suppose.

What has struck me last week and this, is how much I missed the rhythm and routine of cricket watching! The preparation, the travel to and from the match, the pace of the game, the rhythm of the day, the events unfolding in front of me, the weather – cold, warm, sunny and wet in equal measure, the winning, the losing, the players and spectators and so on.

But now I’m back into the swing of things again (until an enforced break in the fixtures) it’s made me realise how we took our past lives ‘for granted’ – I haven’t felt this relaxed and at ease in months! It’s said what you don’t have you don’t miss but when your ‘old life’ returns you really do appreciate what you have.

Today, through happy circumstance I find myself at the CloudFM County Ground in Chelmsford for the first time in ages. It’s day three of a four day match (but actually day 2 due to rain) between Essex and Nottinghamshire.

Fortress Chelmsford in all its summer glory

The first hurdle of today’s routine was dealing with the stewards! A lucky 200 members are allowed in to watch but we have strict arrival time slots, told to bring an umbrella in case it rains but then not allowed to bring one in. Cameras are disliked (been coming here for 35+ years and never been told that before!) – hence today’s poor photos – but what is really frightening is the sheer number of stewards for 200 people. I’ve counted over 20 so far and all watching our every move. There were even two stewards to oversee my short walk to the toilet! I suppose the shape of things to come as I reach my dotage!

None of them seem to have any idea or knowledge of the game – walking in front of sightscreens, walking around mid-over. They are experts in watching what you do. As you can imagine, the mature, double vaccinated Essex members are not impressed; some threatening not to renew for next season.

It’s costing Essex £ 15,000 per day (!) to have 200 spectators but I’d like to know what they’re spending that on! The match however seems to be meandering to a draw – even at the start of play. Nottinghamshire take their second batting point early in the day but then seem to stop. Essex take wickets after about an hour and it seems that neither side wants to make an effort.

Perhaps a naked pitch invasion by a hundred or more over-60 Essex members would brighten things up! But they’d need to dodge the army of stewards first!

No need! Nottinghamshire have a final fling and reach 293 giving Essex half an hour before lunch to start their innings. The new ball brought a change in the feel of the match as Essex succumb to 15/3 at lunch – somewhat typical of their season so far!

By tea time Essex reach 81/4 so the session was evenly balanced; Westley taking the lead in reaching 35no. Once the shine goes off the new ball batting gets easier – never easy – and Notts can’t get it to reverse.

The main interest however has been the collapse of the cashless pay system – it ‘reached its limit for what it can take in a day’ which means tea/coffee are free but beer is off! Symptomatic of what Essex CCC off the field has become – trying to be something special but failing to do the basics right!

Sharp take by Moores

By the close Essex had struggled to 180/7. Westley making 71 in just under four hours held the innings together. No one else really settled. Wheater was out the next ball to an amazing boundary catch looking straight into the evening sun by Ben Compton (yes…another branch of Denis’ family). The Nottinghamshire reaction summed up the day – they have the desire, drive and momentum at the moment; Essex have Plan A but no Plan B or any real desire to win…or so it seems.

Fletcher bends his back

But back to the stewards; they really have taken the edge off the day. They’re supposed to make us feel safe, but I feel intimidated – it’s heavy-handed over-stewarding!

The Lord’s pavilion stewards have a fierce reputation but at least they’re polite. Those at the Oval are warm and welcoming. Other test venues across the world all make you feel welcome and you’re greeted with a smile and a friendly word.

Here at Fortress Chelmsford it’s as if they don’t want you!

But I suppose it’s part of life’s rich pattern and was the same before the pandemic – it may have been so but making paying spectators feel uncomfortable will not get them coming back. Am I being curmudgeonly or is this one of the things I’d conveniently forgotten during lockdown?

It’s something I need to get back into my own rhythm and routine for visits to the Fortress! And perhaps a mass streak by the over-80s members would give the stewards something to really get to grips with as opposed to watching spectators watch cricket!

What do I know? Chess on legs?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again but the more you watch cricket the less you understand so goodness knows what will happen to the new fans when the Hundred arrives!

Virdi in action
This would really annoy me – why can’t they all be facing the same way?

Pace seemed to be the order of the day here – Day 3 of Surrey v Gloucestershire – but clearly others know better as spin had the upper hand after the quicks toiled without success in the first hour. It seemed like Surrey could not buy a wicket for love nor money as the morning cloud cover burnt off.

From a steady 84/1 a frantic 30 minutes saw the Gloucestershire innings on the rocks at 89/5 and whilst better before lunch called at 113/7. (BTW…The new Surrey fish shop does a nice line in batter and chips 🍟). All the wickets to date to the new Surrey spin twins of Virdi and Moriarty!

Throughout all this Miles Hammond (he of the hairy bandanna) took the Amla role of patient innings building. Others however continued to fall around him (Taylor did take an hour or more over his well crafted 12) but once the third Surrey spin twin (or are they now triplets?) of Jacks got in on the act taking his first first class wicket, Miles ran out of road (and patience) and was last out for 77 in trying to farm the strike. Gloucestershire subsided to 158 ao – some 315 behind.

Moriarty nearly captures Hammond
Twice in two balls!
Taylor crafting his measured 12

Moriarty ended with 6-60, Virdi 3-47 and Jacks 1-7…so when I looked at the team sheet on Thursday and wondered why have Surrey gone with two spinners and an occasional third and thought…that’s a waste of a pace bowlers place, I now know my level of ignorance has reached new heights !

Virdi – spin twin
Will Jacks – spin twin
Dan Moriarty – spin twin…or should they be triplets?

What will the next session bring?

And now it’s time for the quicks to take their turn. Half an hour of spin with the new ball before tea lowers the deficit by 28 but three wickets for 16 in the space of 40 minutes looks to spell doom for Gloucestershire. And so it proved. Wickets fell at regular intervals as the sun shone, the temperature rose, acres of bare flesh exposed (when the owners should know better), and the beer flowed.

The acoustics of the new Peter May stand are something to behold as an excellent crowd enjoyed the cricket – even though numbers were restricted, there’s proof that the Championship does have followers in large numbers and still trying to learn how this game is played.

And no one wants Championship cricket? Excellent turnout …even if numbers are restricted

‘Chess on legs’ I’ve been told – if only it were that simple!

Hair raising patience whilst fire stops play!

Criminal by Moriarty playing down the wrong line (but probably the best photo I’ve taken lately!)

The arrival of a dry day in May – and some sunshine and warmth for a change – meant compulsory testing the quality of cake at the Oval and the lemon and basil did not disappoint.

All three elements – sun, cake and cricket – make for the most tremendous day and full of joy after all that we’ve been through.

So, this match is Surrey against Gloucestershire – the latter being one of the leaders in this part of the Championship, whilst Surrey have been struggling.

One wonders if Gloucestershire’s success to date is a Sampson like strength gained from a collective growing of hair during lockdown? Their number of mullets, bandannas and shoulder length hair must fill the hairdressers of Gloucester with dread at the prospect of hours of cutting and styling. I’ve never seen so much head hair in one team before.

Just a few of the hairstyles on display

Win the toss and bat on a greenish pitch (but with warm – dare one say ‘hot’ – weather forecast it will dry out) was Surrey’s choice. By mid-afternoon Day 1, the plan looked a bit off at 133/4 and with, on paper, a weak batting line up towards the end, received wisdom was that 200 would be a good score. However, Amla had other ideas, dropped anchor while the pitch dried, encouraging others to keep the score rumbling onwards. Joined by Overton just before tea…this looked hopeful at best, fanciful at least. But what do I know!

Amla reached his 100 and Overton his 50 just before close of play at 285/5.

Day 2 was cooler and increasingly cloudy which should have suggested Glosters quicks would flourish. They did after one ball sending Overton back but Sean Abbott (Surrey debut of the Aussie all rounder), Ricki Clarke and Amla decided otherwise.

Dan Worrall in full flow
Amla also in full flow

Amla ended an excellent innings of 173 mid afternoon – full of elegance, cover drives of such sumptuous nature you can’t believe, the occasional play and miss but overall great patience and letting everyone around him play. But not before one of the oddest reasons for play stopping – ‘a fire in the building’ booms a disembodied voice across the ground. Play halts for 5 minutes; players, umpires, stewards and crowd stayed where they were. We assume it’s ok since we’re still here but the odds are on a over-zealous builder somewhere in the new development which is slowly taking shape!

Once 400 and then 450 had been reached, you wonder why bat on – but a quick slog from Clarke and tail end antics from Virdi (dancing as if he’s got a new tune in his head) and Moriarty (playing the villain of the piece in not scoring) saw Surrey end at 473 on the stroke of tea.

Virdi dancing down the pitch even before the ball is half way there!

How will this match play out…with a drying pitch, getting flatter and good weather, I can’t see Gloucestershire rolling over twice by Sunday evening but with scoreboard pressure and the need to win to maintain their season…who knows?

Well, the pitch was drying until they decided to play after tea in poor light and increasing rainfall. It suddenly looked like a different pitch with two spinners in tandem to keep play going. Abbott looks very lively and could be a handful tomorrow and with scoreboard pressure Gloucestershire resume in the morning on 45/1.

Perhaps they need some hair restoring overnight?

I’m so chuffed with this photo of mine…I’ve got to show it twice!

534 days, points failure and cat litter

It’s been 534 days since I last saw a live cricket match in person (December 3, 2019 NZ v England Seddon Park Hamilton to be precise) so as we enter the latest phase of the plan to return to ‘normality’ I grabbed the chance to go to a County Championship match – Surrey v Middlesex at The Oval. But what has changed?

In a way, everything but then in a way nothing. Back then – 500+ days ago – the last match I saw rain bring a premature end to the Test and the cricketing world was full of expectation. Tour planned to Sri Lanka, summer at home with great Tests in prospect, a new competition, building on the success of the 2019 Ashes series and one-day World Cup wonders. Full of expectation!

This all came to nought as we all know; new words and terminology entered the lexicon of life and our lives changed dramatically. Back then we had only heard of ‘furlough’ in old literary works, ‘test and trace’ seemed like something from a CSI drama series, ‘lockdowns’ happened in pubs after hours, international borders were only closed during conflict and wars, ‘social distancing’ was never heard of (unless it was someone to be avoided at the office Christmas party), ‘R-numbers’ probably something in algebra lessons of yesteryear, ‘bubbles’ were blown or sung for West Ham and so forth.

Lives changed – home working, schools closed, sanitation breaks, masks…We know, we lived through it. But also many tragically did not. Estimates of worldwide deaths range from 7,000,000 to 13,000,000 (I’ve written it out in full as ‘millions’ just distracts from the sheer scale of loss). Every one a tragedy, a family in sadness and grief; many more lives changed beyond imagination. And most of those tragedies in less-developed areas of the world; first world countries health systems coped (and creaked) but those elsewhere…beyond imagination.

So, life as we know it changed but as we wake from this enforced type of ‘hibernation’, a lot hasn’t. Rich countries are able to vaccinate their way to ‘recovery’ and ‘normality’ but others are not.

Today’s effort to wake from this hibernation saw me take myself off to the Oval for the self-affirming inner glow a cricket match can provide (well, for me, anyway). One change has been the new fleet of trains on our local line – I know, sad isn’t it, but if you used the old ones, you’d know why this is ‘exciting’. But no sooner said than done when a points failure delayed the journey and the ‘old way’s returned!

When you have travelled/commuted into/worked in London as many times as I have (at least 10,000 times for me), it was a surprise (and delight) to see that many areas of infrastructure has been cleaned or spruced up during the pandemic lockdown. Stairs and stairwells freshly painted and cleaned, seats cleaned and buffed up, H&S signs refreshed. But also many shops/offices closed and run down but then new fresh areas springing up. Change is all around. What we need to do now is go out and see what’s changed, how and why!

But I digress from the purpose – to see live cricket in person! Neither Surrey nor Middlesex have covered themselves in glory so far this season (started well over a month ago) so whilst they may not have that great a chance at glory or prizes this season…it’s live cricket!!

Systems and processes for pandemic-secure watching/attending were simple and effective. Although one steward did ask if I was Peter May but I replied that the great English and Surrey batsman passed away several years ago! He was asking if my seat was in the Peter May Stand – but the chance of levity could not be ignored!

Probably the first time ever that opposing captains have such great mullets! Would never happen in May’s days!

The weather was more March than May (although April in the UK was more like June and May has been more like April) but today was windy – blowing a gale in some parts of the ground by the end of the day; and cold! Cold like you’ve never experienced before! Well, you have actually but not at this time of the year!

From my allocated seat, the pitch was someway into the far distance (probably close to London Bridge than in Kennington) and from the first ball, everything was restored to what I know and love!

The green pitch and overcast conditions suggested an early fall of wickets but Surrey stuck to their task well and reached 95-0 at lunch with both Burns and Stoneman approaching their 50s and the Middlesex bowlers striving but not succeeding.

A short shower over lunch meant a delayed restart and something had changed in the collective Surrey ‘brain’ – the next two runs took 30 minutes – and in the Middlesex ‘brain’ too – much tighter bowling but then it was more overcast by then.

Both openers reached their half-centuries and at 135/0 looked well set to build a large score, bat once, bat Middlesex out of the game (weather forecast for tomorrow is even more grim than today) but, as we’ve seen before, one wicket brings two. But for Surrey it was even worse – two wickets became three, and then four, and don’t take your eye off the game…five and even six! Yes, six wickets in no time for 11 runs – 135/0 became 146/6 in the blink of an eye.

Blame can be attached to the Surrey batsmen – perhaps they wanted to stay in the warmth of the pavilion rather than go outside – but let’s not overlook the Middlesex bowlers who stuck to their task but the inspired change to bring Andersson back (yes, Middlesex have their own ‘Anderson’ but with two ‘s’) brought the breakthrough and the collapse.

But at tea, rain came to the Surrey rescue (for the day at least) and play was abandoned well before the scheduled end. Tomorrow’s prospects look bleak (weather-wise) and for Surrey but at least they have the compensation that Middlesex’ batting this season has been brittle beyond belief and Middlesex are experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

So really, nothing has changed – cricket in the cold and rain, teams doing well and then badly and vice versa – but then everything has changed (and the famous old ground has a new development which looks very swish – and a warm, dry refuge from the rain/cold).

And one really odd thing – there are reports that New Zealand batsmen in the UK for a test series against England and the World Test Championship against India – are scattering cat litter across the net pitches (on a good length) to help them practice against the spin bowling that India excel at! Full of expectation (still!)

All very strange but then some things don’t change and others do – that’s life, I suppose!