When I visited the County Ground at Nevil Road in Bristol, the home of Gloucestershire CCC, at the end of June 2010, for a County Championship Division Two game between Gloucestershire and Middlesex, my overwhelming impression was of an arena, and a game, and two clubs, which had seen much better days. And the reminders of this were everywhere to be seen.
If you were thinking about rating the most picturesque arenas in world cricket, Gloucestershire’s County Ground, in the mundane suburbs of northern Bristol, would come well down anyone’s list. No Cathedral spire to enhance the view, few trees to provide shade from the sun, and, on a warm Tuesday in late June, with the schools still in and the new age of austerity well under way, a scattering of spectators for the second day of a County Championship Division Two game between the home county and Middlesex. An atmosphere heavy with the pervasive air of long faded grandeur, aptly exemplified by the names – undeniably glorious but oh so old – used to distinguish different parts of the ground: Grace, Jessop, Hammond.
Twenty years ago, when a team containing Gatting, Haynes, Ramprakash, Emburey and Tufnell used to dominate the county game, I’d follow Middlesex around the country. The hot summer of 1990 saw me watch them at Derby, at The Oval, at Uxbridge on a killing day when the temperature was nudging thirty degrees by ten in the morning and Jimmy Cook batted long, and, finally, as autumn drew in, winning the title at Hove. A few months later I moved to Devon, and, after some transitional years when I held a torch for the Seaxes, settled for life in the outer at Taunton.
There are still times, though, when you feel like going back.
But the county game has changed for ever and the gap between the two divisions has long since started to bite. At Bristol the county’s current side, an uneasy mixture of bitter experience and callow youth, struggled through the day with an insipid combination of bland bowling and often shoddy fielding as two exiled Kiwis, Hamish Marshall and James Franklin, and an under-rated Englishman, Alex Gidman, put them to the sword. In the mid-afternoon heat, with the game rapidly going away from his side, I found myself wondering about the thoughts of Owais Shah; less than a year ago a member of the England side, and now reduced to this.
When we left the game wasn’t over, but the next afternoon saw it to a close, Gloucestershire – a moderate side themselves, in truth – winning by ten wickets and condemning Middlesex to the bottom of the table.
Despite some signs of promise in the limited over game, one of the heroes of 1990, Angus Fraser, now the county’s Director of Cricket, has a job of work harder than many of his thankless Test spells on his hands if he is to restore the club to its former eminence.
It was that type of day. Throughout the escapist netherworld that is the English county game the resounding echoes of former glories are a commonplace.
Sometimes, though, they resonate just as loudly on the pitch as in the stands.
Different Shades of Green, 3rd July 2010