On a cold, drizzly Thursday, the the 2023 County Championship season got underway, while I was cycling up through St John’s Wood to Lord’s.
I was slightly late.
I had met a friend and her daughter at in Hyde Park. They had cycled all the way from their home in Tooting – a burgeoning yearly tradition for the first Middlesex game of the year, and one I hope to join from now on.
I joined them at Speakers’ corner for the last, easy leg up through Marylebone and Lisson Grove.
I have the intention of visiting every county ground this season. Will I manage it? A lot depends on money, time, and punctures. But this seemed as good a place as any to start.
There is decent provision for cyclists at Lord’s, unlike the Oval, where railings outside the gates often have to do.
We’re not talking John Major’s dismal vision of a departed England here, with its maids and vicars and warm beer and all the rest.
Bikes, like cricket, are a sustainable, joyful part of the past, present and, hopefully, future, and I’m glad we’re welcomed within the walls of the complex.
Predicting the demise of county cricket is as old as county cricket itself, so I won’t do any of that here. The Hundred, which now monopolises August, has pushed even Tests away from the height of summer.
The county championship starts in April and finishes, bemusingly, in the very last week of September. But it is very much still here and, in its own understated way, thriving.
Through radio commentaries, social media updates, and increasingly professional online live streams, the county season feels like an increasingly popular secret world, populated by hundreds of thousands who cannot necessarily be there in person, but are following nonetheless.
The history of cricket is the history of capitalism, and the history of capitalism is the history of enclosure. Lord’s were the first to put the fences up, and they have the trinkets and scrolls to prove it.
On a cold Thursday before the Easter weekend, it is only the hardiest of souls who have come out to a ground that is full to the rafters for internationals and short-form games.
Middlesex no longer exists in an administrative county sense, subsumed as it was into Greater London in 1965. In cricketing terms, they do, and play in the first division. Today, their opponents are Essex, whose team looks perfectly suited to another tilt at the title.
In county terms, it’s handy to have a lot of players who are almost but not quite good enough to play international cricket. Imagine if Premier League football clubs lost their top players to England et al for the majority of the season, and you start to get a sense at how strange this championship is.
Joe Root, England’s best player, is out in India, not even getting into his Indian Premier League starting XI.
Middlesex are forever in thrall to Marylebone Cricket Club, their landlords since 1877, and whose members put on their silly outfits and doze off after lunch for England matches. They are a rarer sight on days like these.
Middlesex didn’t have an office of their own until 1952: “a converted tea house at the back of the Pavilion next to the Harris Garden where it remains, alongside the club shop, to this day.”
They won’t thank me for saying it, but fans look on, enviously, at hated rivers-across-the-Thames Surrey, an increasingly well-run club, but one with the significant advantage of being in charge of its own financial destiny.
We spent a lot of the day in the Allen Stand, sheltering from the cold, and enjoying the subsidised teas and coffees. Behind the glass, you miss all the noises of ball on bat, the appeals, and the chatter of the fielders trying to stay warm and motivated.
I got chatting to one fan while my friend was finding her daughter chips.
He was in his fifties or early sixties – young, for this audience – and one of those men who do conversations via monologue, and are almost startled when you say something in response.
My dad’s generation in the pub do conversation like this. Rambling anecdote follows rambling, marginally related anecdote.
The topic here was cricket coaching. The man’s daughter, in her late teens, was a promising fast bowler – “plenty of chin music” – struck down by a mysterious shoulder injury. An obsessive of the game, she was now, like him, working her way through the coaching qualifications.
The passion he showed for the women’s game filled me with hope for the future of the sport.
Cricket is a lonely game, and its mental challenges are as demanding as its physical ones. Every wicket is a tiny death, and every extra hour in the field is one that must be put out of one’s mind when the time comes to bat.
In the middle, Dan Lawrence, of Essex, was on his way to a match-defining century. We moved around the ground to watch the action from different angles, taking advantage of the stands that had been opened for our pleasure. Through binoculars we enjoyed the young lad’s ability to whip the ball from off to leg in a manner that much be exceptionally annoying for opposing captains.
Bad light brought an early end to the day’s play, and we made it back as far as Hyde Park before the heavens opened.