21 May 2008

At the home of cricket

On Saturday and Sunday I went with friends to Lord's, the home of cricket, to watch the third and fourth day of the first test match between England and New Zealand. On Saturday I went with a large bunch of friends who were scattered around the lower Compton Stand, which is an area of cheaper seating in the northern corner of the ground. Tickets there cost a mere ₤40 (!) as opposed to the general ticket price of ₤60 in most of the other seats.

There's a reason for the price - the grey craggy bulk of the Compton stands looms close overhead cutting out any sunlight and creating a wind-tunnel effect that sends icy blasts whistling in from the Nursery Ground. But while the overall effect is akin to watching cricket from the vantage point of a 1950s East German bus depot, there's certainly nothing to complain about when you look at the view across the pitch - clear, unobstructed sightlines from third man with a good angle on the wicket.

It's soon obvious that this is not your typical New Zealand cricket ground either. The place is heaving with the monied scions of Eton, many of whom sport designer suits in fawn or brown with matching socks, while the older patrons who have outlived the 18 year waiting list to become a member of the MCC (founded in 1787) sport its garish circus-tent colours on blazers, ties and sometimes even trousers; for the particularly proud members it's even socially acceptable to wear all three, thereby necessitating dark glasses for any passers-by to avoid temporary blindness.

The polite and patient stewards have a hard time reminding some patrons that the ground has a different set of rules to most venues. For a start, no-one's allowed to re-take their seats during an over, so an orderly queue forms at the back of the stand and hopes that the bloody bowler gets it through quickly and doesn't bowl any no-balls. And in a pleasing glimpse of Luddite refusenik thinking, talking on mobile phones is barred from the stands. You can text if you like as long as the beeping doesn't disturb anyone, but Lord's is one of the few places in England where the all-conquering mobile phone conversation has yet to stamp its irritating authority.

As for the game itself, Saturday proved to be a damp squib. A happy gaggle of ex-Wellingtonians mustered for the occasion: Richard, Steve, Fiona, Felix and Gavin. Commencing the day's play on 68/0 in response to New Zealand's first innings total of 277, England were only able to bat for 53 balls - less than ten overs - in the first session before rain and poor light washed the rest of the day out, leaving the score at 89/0. For we spectators it proved to be a rather grim day of shivering underneath the Compton stand hoping against hope that the weather would clear up enough for play to resume. In the end perhaps it was fortunate that it didn't, because under the MCC's rules ticket-holders are entitled to a full refund if there is less than ten overs bowled during a day's play. So despite the miserable cold - breath condensing in front of our faces - and the lack of play, at least those who attended were able to soak up a little of the atmosphere of the famous ground without the irritation of being substantially out of pocket.

NZ sighting of the day: Former Speaker of the House Doug Kidd, waiting outside St John's Wood tube

England's openers, Cook and Strauss, emerge from the Pavilion at the start of play

New Zealand's Chris Martin returns to field at third man

Umpires Taufel and Bucknor confer with ground staff at 4pm. No play.

Sunday, the fourth day of the test, was much clearer and a full day's play was possible. It was still cold under the Compton though, rest assured. I was joined by former CC colleague Greg, who worked in the Parliamentary Library when I was in the SCO, and his brother Jarrod. For both of them it was their first time at Lord's.

As the day progressed New Zealand broke the England opening stand at 121 and then proceeded to chip away at the home side's batting, whittling down the opposition so that at one point with England 208/6 a first innings lead looked possible. But Vaughan knuckled down and played some fine strokes to make his 18th test century. When he perished for 106 going for a boundary, England had made 319 - a lead of 42 runs but it had taken England a long time to accumulate. Vettori had led the bowling attack from the front by taking 69/5, his 14th five-wicket bag in tests. Then the New Zealand openers were put under pressure in the remaining overs before stumps, but emerged unscathed with the New Zealand second innings score at 40/0.

NZ sighting of the day: Former NZ bowling star Gavin Larsen (wearing a Black Caps shirt), who I walked into the ground behind.

The New Zealanders emerge at the start of Day 4

19-year-old New Zealand bowler Tim Southee

Celebrating the wicket of Strauss (lbw bowled Oram for 63)

Vettori waxes lyrical

The bookie's odds for the afternoon session

The next and final day How would compile 68 and Oram would go on to collect 101 runs, his fifth test century, which saved the match and earned New Zealand a fighting draw, despite early predictions in the English media that it would be a walkover for the home side. England failed to assert control over the match and their statistically superior quality seldom emerged.

Despite the weather and the lack of play on Saturday, it was a real treat to have been able to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the civilised environs better known to the rich and famous (Mick Jagger was there on Day 1). Now all we need is some sunshine in the remaining matches and it will turn out to be an exciting series! And for the most optimistic of New Zealand supporters, an unlikely test win in one of the remaining two matches would be the answer to all our hopes.

Cricinfo: Scorecard & reports

p.s. Just in case you were wondering and getting a bit het up about it, there's definitely an apostrophe in "Lord's" - it's named after its founder, Thomas Lord.
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