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The Groundsman’s Story

July 25, 2016

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I’m sitting on a chair on a sloping area; it’s a grassy mound now – at one time it was terraced tarmac.

Behind me is the scorebox, still the same outward shape, but electrified since my time. There were two things you had to remember here in the 1960s when you had ambitions of being a scorer: the screws on the right hand winding mechanism were loose, so the handles were very difficult to turn, and, whatever you did, you should never put up 13 for A.D. Bunting – leave it at 12 and then move on to 14 – otherwise, if he was out, he was liable to come charging round the boundary to remonstrate.

You had to climb a rickety ladder to the number winding area; below you was the scorer’s seat in front of the big open windows, at a sloping wooden desk the style of which would have been familiar to Bob Cratchit.

Eventually I made it to scorer for the Sunday X1, fascinated by the dots, the crosses, and the responsibility, and the chance to be part of it all, not to mention the two shillings and the free tea.

It’s a great view from here at third man, especially since I’ve graduated from sitting on the grass at the boundary, to a spot half way up the slope. I’m surrounded by (mostly) men of a certain age, in a selection of sports and casual wear, with rucksacks and holdalls, battered by years of use, containing receptacles for sandwiches, cans of beer, cameras, spectacles, sunglasses, floppy hats, outmoded transistor radios, mobile phones, and notes from their better halves imploring them: “Don’t forget to….”

The talk is easy and desultory – about cricket, politics, family life and the old days. Like me, most of these guys sat next to these same folk fifty years ago at school. A contented air floats over the rows of seats.

The field looks great – lush from a rainy summer, and for all their modern, polyestered, numbered styles, the whites of the players against the green of the surface is restful on the eye.

I love this place.

From here I can watch my childhood.

The pavilion on the far side is long and low: I was at its opening in 1965, a young boy, hovering at the edge of the membership, as I did for most of my time here, impressed by the bar, the snooker room, the committee room, and the changing rooms. The old pavilion had been wooden and 19th century, but this was a modern marvel. I would eventually change in those dressing rooms and sit on the balcony, seeking nonchalance before going out to bat – but I’d never look as relaxed as the many Test stars who would eventually change there, not when I think of Rohan Kanhai fast asleep before going out to face Statham, Lever and Higgs.

Just to the right is where, at my first ever cricket match, Geoff Pullar smilingly signed his autograph and set me off on a lifetime of devotion to the game. In the bar was the spot where I approached Ted Dexter for an autograph, only to be shooed away by the Club Chairman, and recalled by Lord Ted, who signed happily. And there’s the beer taps where they poured pints of the best cold shandy after net practice – never bettered anywhere.

Away to the right is what used to be the Ladies Pavilion – with big hats and mysterious cocktails, and then the indoor cricket school which used to be the tea room. I was pulled up by the local police one Friday night when running to winter nets in the snow. When I told them I was “going to play cricket” they nearly arrested me.

The tea room, and the groundsman’s hut behind, were the site of my cricket education.

As an eleven year old I met the groundsman, Peter Dury. He was a lovely man, and patiently put up with a few of us haunting the ground every day in the school holidays, winter and summer, following him around, and asking questions. We got to “assist” him, carrying around his apparatus; we got rides on the heavy roller and helped him mow the square. We got to know Brian Robertson, his assistant, as well. At 11 o’clock we would all go and have a cup of tea with Peter in the tearoom kitchen, and, sitting round the old battered table, he’d share his sandwiches and cricket knowledge, and, without realising it, we would all be drawn into that hinterland of knowledge and tradition which makes cricket such a wonderful game.

Sometimes we played French cricket, with local rules, on the concrete hardstanding in front of his hut: if the ball went into the shed – with its wonderful aroma of grass cuttings, creosote and diesel – it was out, as was a hit into the upturned seat of the motor mower.

Peter had been on the books at Notts CCC and often played on Sundays. He got a century against Jabisco (Jacobs Biscuits Factory team) one week, and we cheered ourselves silly when he came out between innings to brush the wicket!

Great success came his way – as head of Playing Fields at Nottingham, and as an advisor for many football clubs and the ECB. Though devoted to his grass pitches, he was also instrumental in the development of Astroturf to performance level. He was a good guy who reached the top of his profession.

He had integrity, expertise, and knowledge – but most importantly for we youngsters, his love of cricket set us up for a life of engagement and enjoyment of the summer game. He was a kindly and wise, an inspirational figure in his own way, with no side to him, and a willingness to withstand our childish inquisitiveness and persistence.

Nowadays, of course, health and safety and child protection regulations would make such an introduction to the game well nigh impossible. I’m just glad I was lucky enough to spend time with him and develop an understanding of the game and a lifelong respect for groundsmen. I owe him that love of cricket

So, last weekend, sitting on that slope, at Southport and Birkdale CC, with my childhood memories before me, my school pals next to me, and Lancashire playing Durham out on the ground, I was in cricket paradise, remembering 1962, and thinking of Peter Dury.

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