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Martin Johnson column – Haves and have nots in county ground pageant

I have managed, through the admittedly devious process of bribing a Lord’s cleaning lady to secrete a microphone in the handle of her floor mop, to obtain a recording of a recent England and Wales Cricket Board meeting, and am now releasing the following extract to reveal how the rulers of our game are facing up to the some of the weightier issues confronting the game today.

“Now then gentlemen, we’re all agreed then. Day-night Test cricket gets filed under non-urgent, and this business about city franchises to raise the profile of the T20 Blast can definitely be placed on the back burner. So let’s get straight to the nub of the biggest danger yet to this great game of ours. I refer, as you may already have guessed, to how we can keep the television cameras away from Wantage Road.”

It would require a fairly vivid imagination to describe the home of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club as one of the more attractive venues, only just shading Newport Pagnell Services as one of the region’s great beauty spots, but it’s a bit unfair if good looks are the criterion when it comes to getting a fair deal in the business of broadening the club’s appeal to both players and sponsors.

Northamptonshire have recently been making aggrieved noises about there being as much chance of sighting a sabre toothed tiger outside Wantage Road as a Sky TV van, pointing the finger more towards the ECB than the broadcaster. The inference being that when you want your product to look glamorous, using Northants to promote it is a bit like Vogue putting Nora Batty on its front cover.

There is, and always has been, an Upstairs Downstairs association with the various counties, with the likes of Surrey, Middlesex and Yorkshire taking the role of Lord Downton, and the trio of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire representing the below stairs staff assigned to the task of adjusting his lordship’s frilly cuffs before dinner.

The Unholy Trinity, you might call them, and yet some of us have a soft spot for the Championship’s most unfashionable clubs. In Northamptonshire’s case, it dates back to the time they shared the ground with the football club, when the cricket pavilion was so rickety that should a player manage to manage to safely negotiate the splinters in the wooden stairs that took him down from the dressing room to the mouldy old showers in the basement, he then had a fifty-fifty chance of missing the next match with fungal foot rot.

One of the quirks of playing there was having to hike their way past the football ground and into the nearby Abingdon pub for lunch, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the words Northants and glamour rarely crop up in the same sentence. They’ve tried various gimmicks without success, such as changing their nickname, but who in their right minds wants to chant: “Come on you Steelbacks?” For those of us who will always know them by their original moniker, it’s a load of Cobblers.

Not far up the M1 is another county, Leicestershire, with a ground that’s beautiful only in the eye of the beholder. And at Grace Road the number of beholders turning up to watch is so small that when a really big match is coming up, the caterers order an extra scotch egg.

The Bennett End of the ground was re-named after a local benefactor some years ago, although with the view from the pavilion consisting of rows of red brick houses it’s popular name remains the Coronation Street End. And when your eyes panned away in search of something more attractive, they alighted upon one of the great carbuncles of cricket ground architecture, the Meet.

The Meet resembles a dilapidated aircraft hanger, and is sited to afford the worst view of the cricket on the entire ground. I’ve not ventured in there for some time, so maybe someone can tell me whether they still have those tasteless Red Leicester cheese rolls wrapped in clingfilm. Many’s the time I unwrapped the clingfilm and ate the roll, only to wish I’d done it the other way round.

The old ground level Press box was the kind of structure that, had you housed your pet in it, would have attracted a summons from the RSPCA, and the door was designed to fly open at roughly 10-minute intervals.

Sometimes it would be the wind, and at other times a spectator. Asking: “What time do you think he’ll declare then?”

Or: “Have you seen the state of the members’ toilets?”

The box was run by an elderly agency man called Billy, and his wife Celia, whose only real function was to take the orders for tea – “was you the raspberry scone or the buttered tea cake?” – and generally exasperate Billy with vacant questions. His loudest snort came when Leicestershire were playing Surrey, and she leaned over and said: “Why does that Surrey batsman have a girl’s name Billy?” “What? Who?” said Billy. “Eunice Ahmed,” said Celia.

The Press box now is one of the best on the circuit, and the Meet even gets painted now and then, but Grace Road is still a long way from being one of the ‘Upstairs’ venues.

Unlike Canterbury, where the Grace Road sandwich tin and flask is upgraded to a cool box full of smoked salmon canapés and chilled white wine, and its cachet was once underlined by the doyen of cricket correspondents EW Swanton, abandoning all pretence at neutrality by reporting not from the Press box, but the Kent dressing-room balcony.

You might get the occasional glimpse of a VIP on the balcony at Northampton, Leicester or Derby, but more likely it will be draped with sweaty vests and socks, with the players all inside trying to keep warm. And one thing Northants have going for them, is that compared to the County Ground, Derby, Wantage Road looks like the Taj Mahal.

Reporting on a game at Derby many years ago, a chum told me he was coming along to watch, and perhaps we could meet up for lunch. He never showed, and when I saw him a few days later, I asked him why he hadn’t made it. “Oh, I made it all right,” he said.

“Even paid my money. But once I got through the gate, and took a look around, I came over all depressed and went straight back home again.”

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday August 26 2016

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