“I felt tired in my soul”. It’s not the kind of sentence you’d expect to come across anywhere outside a Conrad novel. But I’m sure that’s what the man to the right of me was saying at one point during the afternoon session of Middlesex v Hampshire. His remarkably high-flown but elusive monologue to his companions also contained sentences such as “They’re comfortable with their place in Spanish mythology”, a brief history of the Romans’ imperial dominion along the Atlantic littoral and, at one point, the redundant confession that “I’m such an intense kind of person…” At that several heads turned and eyebrows arched in his direction.
The play had become a little becalmed, with Malan and Voges scoring freely (both went on to make hundreds), which was perhaps also why the men to my left had fallen to discussing the storminess of the sea in the Bay of Biscay. The straw-hatted man in front of us turned round and inquired whether they’d ever been to the Algarve? “Sea’s freezing there,” he informed them. “Specially for swimming. Well, it’s right on the Atlantic.” I seemed to have sat myself in a small pocket of south-west Europe, as well as on the cover boundary when the bowling was from the Lake end.
I wasn’t tired in my soul. It was a lovely afternoon: the first genuinely pleasurable day at the cricket since the start of the season. Hove for its opening home match had been bright but bone-cold, despite three fleeces, the Oval a grey midweek afternoon in a hollow stadium, and the cricket colourless at both. Today, however, was Merchant Taylors’ School at Northwood, the newest venue for first-class cricket in England – only since 2012 – and surely one of the most idyllic, up there near Arundel and Tunbridge Wells. You leave Moor Park Met line station along a path through the woods, and enter the truly vast playing fields along an avenue of magnificent red horse chestnut trees, at this time of year thick with puce blossom, and there is the wide Thirties frontage of the school ahead. The county cricket arena, with its wisteria-draped pavilion, is but one of eleven full-size cricket pitches – each time I thought I’d counted them I then realised there was another beyond, with the very furthest match a sprinkling of tiny white figures. A red kite banking in the air above the oaks; a herd of deer would not have been out of place under one of them.
Last year, with the visit of Somerset, the first day had been glorious sunshine from the start; this year play began under very murky skies, to the extent that, peering to pick up the ball as the West Indian Test bowler Tino Best hurtled in, I thought, I wouldn’t like to face him in this light, even in a helmet. I was slightly surprised the umpires had let play commence. The dank cold soon saw a queue for the coffee van a dozen strong through to lunchtime, and around the three distant pitches where Middlesex Youth Cricket was staging a T20 competition there were many plaid car rugs over parents’ legs.
But if the weather steadily brightened up, and warmed up, the cricket, right across this huge parkland, had been bright from the start. Here was a West Indian Test bowler, bowling on a flat club wicket, pummelling the air with glee when he got his first and only wicket of the day, greeting every four off him with a furious “Shit!” and sprinting in for 15, 16 overs before the close of play. And Best against Voges, two top Test players, was a rare and absorbing contest of the kind that thirty years ago used to be commonplace at little festival grounds like these. Meanwhile, every so often a chorus of exultant high-pitched “Yeees!”s would float over from one of the youth matches as a diminutive batsman was sent on his way. It may have been T20, but when I wandered over to watch during the luncheon interval I saw none of these young batsmen swiping cross-batted smears or winding up to cart every ball into the trees: I saw crisp cover drives with head over the ball, followed by scampering running, and a deliberate forward-defensive technique to a good delivery. The only thing they seemed to have learned from their adult forebears was the mid-wicket fist-bump after every decent stroke.
I’d come away from Hove that day chilled into pessimism. Since the previous season the old club shop alongside the Sussex Cricketer pub had been re-let as what appeared to be industrial lock-ups. At the Cromwell Road end the grassy bank that had always run the length of the field was now truncated where the cricket bookseller had always parked his van and set out his stall, by a maze of new Portakabin offices and satiny tarmac parking spaces. I’m sure it is indeed “building revenue streams”, to quote the club website, but, thinking of the hi-rise blocks now circling the county ground at Bristol and soon to loom over Chelmsford, the Premier Inn at Worcester, and the Sainsbury’s convenience store, housing and – soon – retirement flats that have all been slicing away at Canterbury’s sylvan St Lawrence Ground, I suddenly had a vision of the county cricket ground of the future as reduced to a kind of garden feature at the centre of a trading estate or residential quarter, rather like the old pitch has become at what used to be Arsenal’s Highbury.
But I left Merchant Taylors’ yesterday re-enthused by a different vision, and one actually laid out around me in that amazing parkland: at one end the final overs of a keenly fought day’s play of county cricket between two teams featuring international players who were genuine draws, and beyond them, in match after match after match, receding to the horizon, the cricketers of tomorrow, playing with far more culture and class than some of the highly paid adult exponents of the sport’s more commercialised formats. Let them grow up, and join the Middlesex first team, and then this place still bring them here to play, and us to sit in the sun and watch.