Willow, Leather, Action

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‘Sir, I have reason to believe that you are trying to smuggle alcohol inside your camera,’ said the stern Surrey steward as I strolled up to The Oval for a T20 match against Somerset in July.

What the fuck, etc?

My camera lens might resemble the shape of a fun-sized tinnie of Special Brew, but booze it most certainly isn’t. If I wanted to break the strict Surrey prohibition law, then I could think of more manhood boosting opportunities in which to smuggle in a cheeky one.

I refused the offer of a camera search. The steward wasted no time in putting me in a forceful arm lock and frog-marching me out of the ground.

‘I suppose you won’t smile for a picture with my booze cam?’ I asked. The arm lock became tighter than a death bowling over from Surrey speedster Jade Dernbach.

Ouch. That bloody hurt. I need a drink. If only my camera was lager.

Three weeks later I was back watching Surrey. This time it was a road trip to Castle Park in Colchester as part of the Essex Festival of Cricket. The main claim to festival status was the laissez-faire approach to alcohol. The Essex T&C’s stated that four cans per spectator were permitted, which is just asking for a liberal interpretation. Twelve was the optimistic load placed inside my cooler bag. Even in the innovative world of modern photography, you’d be hard pushed to find a camera that looks like a M&S cooler bag that your Mum bought you for your birthday.

They shall not pass
They shall not pass

‘Good morning Sir!’ was the enthusiastic greeting from the good old Essex boy on the gate, clocking my XL cooler. ‘You’re going to enjoy your cricket today!’ he exclaimed, with a knowing nod and a wink.

I did ponder a Special Brew selfie with my new best friend. It was a wonderful welcome to the world of Festival Cricket.

The term Festival Cricket slightly oversells the spectacle. Even in an age where any old ropey covers band can stand on a trailer truck in a field and call it a festival, the cricketing version is slightly less sexy. It’s cricket’s equivalent of the old Radio 1 Roadshow. Each first class county hits the road for one Championship match per season, playing a home game at a ground that is not their home ground. It ticks the boxes in terms of community engagement, getting the team out into the county. After all, the team represents that county, and not the select few in the members’ bar at HQ.

Taking the top class game further afield gives the players the chance to play in a more relaxed environment. And, in the case of Surrey, see Guildford. Supporters get to see a first class game of cricket whilst sitting in a deckchair on the boundary. It’s multi-tasking par excellence.

At its best, then, you get to see the concentration that it takes to become a jobbing county cricketer in the outfield. At the other extreme of the game’s professionalism is the constant banter between players and spectators. Monty Panesar played the Archbishop of Banterbury at Castle Park and sadly it turned out to be Monty’s last stand as a Championship cricketer. The ex-England spinner had returned to his county side for the first time since April. ‘Off the field issues’ had kept him away. Off the field issues and the backchat with the travelling Surrey supporters may keep Monty away from the county circuit for some considerable time.

Monty holds it in
Monty holds it in

I raised a can to Monty, after all it’s not every day you get to joust with an England cricketer about the night they urinated on some bouncers. I then pondered my heavy-handed Oval experience with the sheer jouissance of watching the same team play in a North Essex public park.

Festivals of cricket are a world away from the corporate T20 experience back in South London. Indeed, Castle Park is a world away from South London, but that doesn’t make it any less of a worthy location in which to watch cricket.

It may be stating the obvious comparing the money machine of T20 and the romantic idealism of festival cricket. One is a cash cow for the bars around the ground, while the other sees the club reaching out to its county, playing to a crowd that appreciate the rare treat and generous BYOB regulations.

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Me neither

The separation of club from community is probably at its peak with T20 evenings that were designed to bring the crowds to The Oval. With tickets costing £25 a head, and pints at £4.80, it becomes a very expensive beer picnic. You often get the impression that you are gatecrashing a post-work conference party, rather than a sporting occasion – a grim disappointment.

Beer snakes – the stacking of plastic cups to form a giant snake-like empties beast – have been a constant at The Oval on T20 night for a number of years. In the land of the killjoy, this just won’t do. Surrey’s ploy to slay the snakes this season was to add a £1 deposit on the plastic beer glasses, thus killing one of England’s most deadly creatures whilst making a buck or two in the miserable process.

Back in Essex, I ended up enjoying four consecutive days of county cricket. Essex set a competitive first innings total of 369. Surrey more or less matched this with 346. There is no jumbo video screen replays in Castle Park and the run rate caused a few issues for the old fella hanging up the scores on the charming rickety wooden scoreboard.

After the liberation of half of my M&S cooler bag bounty, I took a gentle stroll around the boundary – try doing that on T20 night back at The Oval. And don’t even think of coming anywhere close to the Oval pitch carrying a tubular lens case. You could have anything in there.

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Howzat?

The declaration of 289 came from Essex on the final morning of play. Surrey thought fiddlesticks to this, and played out an innings that wouldn’t have looked out of place during a T20 slog back in South London. A brilliant 87 by Arun Harinath pushed the away team over the line, effectively sealing Surrey’s promotion to Division 1 of the County Championship.

The players then gathered for a post match pint with the supporters in front of the Castle Park pavilion. The closest we have come to this at The Oval is Kevin Pietersen having a slash on the proud old ground after an Ashes victory for England in 2013. (What is it about top class cricketers and public micturation?)

I’ve probably saw too much cricket at The Oval last season. The camera/beer farrago was the break I was looking for to search for a different Surrey experience. Then again, if I had watched a whole season of cricket at Castle Park perhaps the boundary bants would have bored me to death, if the booze didn’t get me first.

Festival Cricket: it comes around once a year as a reminder that change is good. And that Surrey should send their stewards out to Castle Park to remind them cricket is supposed to be enjoyed.

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