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May 3, 2000


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Call of the County

Sujata Prakash

On my recent visit to London last week, for the first time I feel interested enough to check out the county scene. And I'm glad I do. The current match-fixing drama, for all the brouhaha and rising temperatures, finally leaves me feeling terribly bored of the whole thing (do I have any takers?). It's time to escape the subcontinental soap opera for a bit and go about taking in a gentle game of cricket amongst people who treat the bribery scandal as a distant happening in a foreign land.

So I choose Canterbury as a good place to visit. Lancashire are playing home team Kent for a four-day match followed by a one-day game on Sunday. Perfect. I can get in at least three days of watching Ganguly play for Lancs and Dravid for Kent. Oh, and don't forget the Kent countryside!

The newspapers make it clear that a lot of hopes are resting on these two. Last year, Lancashire had a match winner in Murli and although Ganguly is not expected to be imbued with that quality (I think the English press know something we don't), people are looking forward to seeing his blistering left-handed attack on the bowling when the mood spurs him. On the other hand, Dravid, who is taking over from Aravinda de Silva, is expected to enthrall in equal measure with his batting.

I must make it clear that I hardly saw any cricket at all. Not enough to write about at least, due to the incessant rain. But I did have a charming experience taking in the local scene and mood when a match is going on. If only our domestic cricket could generate the same kind of national interest and involvement!

On the first day I persuade my reluctant better half to drive down to Canterbury. We arrive in pouring rain and biting cold. St. Lawrence grounds, quite empty and soggy by now, is situated bang in the center of the small town, so when a match starts the townsfolk just open their doors and trot out to the grounds. The out of towners meanwhile, duck into the pubs for much needed warmth and a pint.

I can heartily recommend the Phoenix Grill for the best fish and chips and friendliness behind the counter. Groups of men sit around and discuss cricket. The merits of Min Patel as a bowler and his weakness as a fielder; the terrible English weather; on why Crawley is a better choice as captain than Atherton; the chances of having any play today, etc..

The cheerful owner/cook/waitress asks me where I've come from and says what a bloody shame to travel half way across the globe only to get a dollop of rain for my pain. 'Cheer up,' she consoles me, 'there'll be play after lunch, I get my predictions right.' I reply with great wit, 'What say we bet on that, or has it been fixed?' She looks quiziccal but a young man lounging nearby grins. He's curious about my interest and I tell him there are two Indian players here. 'Oh yes, Dravid's playing for us.' He looks quite pleased and approving.

This sets off a discussion on the weak middle order of the Kent team. A portly Londoner, clearly not with it, wants to know which Aussie is playing today. I pitch in with 'as far as I know, none', which leads to suitably grave expressions. A couple of them remark that an Aussie would have been a comfort to both sides. It's so cheerful and cosy that the announcement on BBC that rain has called off play for all counties is not such a disappointment.

The next day is so sunny and bright that I pluck up the courage to take the train to Canterbury for the third day. The forecast says rain but I have a gut feeling that I will get to see some play. Ganguly had been out for a duck the previous day and the law of probabilities says Dravid should come good. I arrive in time to see Flintoff finish his innings of a 'brutal' 77 (so it is reported, but it really can't compare with the brutishness that batsmen display on docile Indian pitches) and intermittent rain. Play is stopped and I don't want to take the risk of hanging around to see whether Kent will bat or not. 'Bloody English weather', the gateman tells me cheerfully as I nod at him glumly.

In the event Kent did bat and reach 29, of which Dravid made 17 in 23. That was as far as the match could go.

I look forward to going there again in August and catching the fag end of it all. It's a welcome change from the frenetic, soulless and money-spinning affairs that the ODI's seem to have been reduced to in recent times.

The English domestic circuit is perhaps the prototype of what cricket should be all about. Beautifully kept green grounds and a well-informed public of the county teams, healthy bonhomie and domestic mixed with overseas players for that added zing. Most importantly the county teams are treated with as much respect as the national team. There's a lesson here for our own cricket administration.

Sujata Prakash

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