Tales from the Boundary
You Don't See That Very Often
Any self-respecting cricket enthusiast knows that the central section of the playing area is known as the 'square'; this, despite the fact that there is probably no ground on the professional circuit where this area is more square in shape than it is rectangular, such are the demands the modern game makes on its groundsmen to provide pitches a-plenty. Each county tends its square with a loving zeal and professionalism akin to that of a beautician preparing the bride for her big day. I exaggerate to make my point but so fiercely do groundsmen protect their surfaces from the risk of any gratuitous damage it is a wonder that they are prepared to allow six holes to be made in every pitch to accommodate the stumps.
As a steward at Chelmsford it usually falls to me to police the edge of the square during the lunch and tea intervals: the idea is for me to offer a degree of protection to the turf from the 'wayward' behaviour of those who come onto the outfield to enjoy an impromptu knock-about game of cricket or to carry out their own private pitch inspection. As balls fly in all directions it is quite impossible to prevent some of them from finding their way onto the protected area. These 'missiles' are sometimes returned by the guarding ground staff only grudgingly and anyone brazen enough to trespass beyond the imaginary barrier separating the outfield from the square is soon disabused of the notion.
It has occurred to my sense of the ridiculous that a visitor from Mars might have difficulty squaring such a protectionist approach to the welfare of the sward – when it is threatened by nothing more fearsome than a few tennis balls and the odd youngster, wearing trainers, in retrieval mode – with the wanton destruction of the surface by the participants throughout the hours of play, either by continuously smiting it with their bats or by scraping their spiked boots across the surface.
Contrast this scenario with my experience at Taunton when I went to see our Championship match with Somerset in August 2018. The only portion of the square that was protected during the intervals was the strip being used for the game: the remainder was available for the spectators to do what they liked on – and we did! Had that been the last match of the season it would have made a little more sense since any damage inflicted could have been safely repaired over the long winter months ahead; as it was there were still a couple of four-day matches to be played there. Of course, we all know that Somerset have attracted censure for the poor quality of some of the pitches prepared at Taunton in recent times and so it was that Essex's final match of last season, again at Taunton, was marred, not just by the weather, but also by a pitch that was described by one of our players as the worst he had ever encountered, including at Club level. When imposing the inevitable sanction that followed some weeks later the ECB announced that although the pitch had been unsuitable for first-class cricket they were not convinced that it had been so prepared on purpose. With that back-handed endorsement ringing in his ears the groundsman, as rumour had it, promptly defected to Hampshire: so, beware the Ageas Bowl – if we ever get started again!
As a footnote to this tale I would like to share this little snippet with you. That trip to Taunton in 2018 was my first visit to the ground and as I looked around the arena before the start of play something struck me as odd about the Ian Botham Stand on the opposite side of the ground. It came right out as far as the playing area and stretched as far back as the perimeter wall behind which the River Tone rippled along its merry way. At first sight there didn't appear to be a way for pedestrians to get from one side of the Stand to the other.
When I found myself in happy conversation with one of the stewards I mentioned this to him. He was quick to explain that along the back of the Stand there was a walkway which ran beneath the seating above. “There's no way round the Stand unless you fancy the watery route around the back,” suggested my friendly steward with an air of mischief in his tone. “Ah” said I, picking up on the humorous flavour of our discourse, “If you wanted to stay dry you would need to be able to walk on water and so far there has only been one person who's achieved that with any degree of success.” “Yes,” came the prompt reply, “Viv Richards.”