The very best in any walk of life make it look effortless, natural, easy – think of David Gower’s cover drive, of Viv Richards’ walk to the crease, of Michael Holding… well, just being Michael Holding. But there’s always an exception to every rule, and the great exception to this one is the early season county cricket fan. These rare beasts do not make it look easy, rejoice in the sheer effortfulness of being there and are anything but natural, presenting under layer upon layer of man-made fabric and giving every impression of hating the thing they most love. But they are masters of their art – The Art of Watching County Cricket in April.
Of course, those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail, so the person you see sitting at the ground as the first ball of the season is creakingly delivered (wide of off-stump, no stroke required) is swaddled in woolly hat, scarf, fingerless gloves, coat, heavyweight trousers, long socks and shoes so sensible they should have their own jaunty show on daytime TV. This is not the result of a 30 minute makeover – this is the product of many months of meticulous planning and preparation.
It starts in the depths of winter (when, if truth be told, it was probably warmer than April) with the publication of the fixture list and the careful reading thereof, partly to plan a few favourite trips to outgrounds, but mainly to see if there are any day/night one-dayers in Durham or Leeds followed the very next day by an 11.00am start at whatever they’re calling Hove this year. You can enjoy the pain that’ll cause to both the players (always whinging about too many matches when all you can see are yawning gaps in the fixture list when the only thing to look forward to when the alarm goes off at 7.00am is Rachel Riley on Countdown) and the completists, who insist on seeing every ball bowled by their team because, because… well, you tell me.
Midwinter is also a good time to read the specialist cricket media to find out the name of the report which led to this mess of a season because you will want to drop that into the conversation very early come April. (In fact, the name of any report will do, as nobody has ever read them – in fact, any name at all will do: “The Presley Report”; “The Sinatra Report”; “The Martin Report”. Just bluff if anyone challenges – but nobody will).
Around January, a reminder to renew your membership arrives on the doormat with pictures of star players trying to look happy after an hour or so in the indoor nets fending off bouncers from the bowling machine. They’re wearing this season’s new Twenty20 kit, which you can’t tell is any different to last season’s (or was that 2005’s?) and there seems to be a new sponsor too (or are they the same – you still can’t tell). There’s also a bafflingly complex range of types of membership offering guaranteed tickets for international matches, guaranteed places on the waiting list for tickets for international matches and guaranteed places in the queue for a beer at international matches. Your eyes glaze over and you tick the one that says “County Membership” and grimace a little to see that it’s up another tenner on last year and send it off.
In March a huge parcel arrives with all manner of brochures, goodies and, and, and… there it is! The Membership Card – Mr Wonka’s Golden Ticket! You put the card in your wallet and throw the rest in the recycling and start counting the days.
The week before the first fixture of the season is critical. You must scour the outer reaches of Cricinfo to find scorecards of your county’s pre-season matches in agreeable locations you’ll never visit like Cape Town, St Vincent and Dubai to allow you to pronounce on the players even before a ball has been bowled in anger. “I see x still can’t get it off the square. Three hours to get 52 with the boundaries they have at Basseterre, and off that attack? Looks like the bowlers will have their work cut out getting the twenty wickets – again”. The form of the overseas pro can also be detailed to anyone who’ll listen (and anyone who won’t listen as well). “Averaged 45 in the Shield, which wasn’t bad really as only Ponting and that lad Northants had a couple of years ago who kept getting out for 30-odd, averaged more. Mind you, he’ll need to be averaging over 50 if he’s to get those bonus payments I’ve heard are in his contract.”
It’s also highly advisable to get an early sight of Wisden too – if necessary, just ”browsing” in a bookshop if you can find one– and opine a little about how it’s not what it used to be. Read only a short article at least 300 pages in and one obituary (anyone after the letter R will do) and talk about those to give the impression that you’ve read the whole thing already and not just the free sample online and the Five Cricketers of the Year piece in the Telegraph.
When the glorious day dawns and, glory be, it’s only light drizzle, wrap up like Captain Oates and set off to the ground stocked with thermoses, a pork pie, spam sandwiches and, most important of all, a bitter grievance that they’re going to put you through it all again only to disappoint come the dog days of August and September.
And there’s nowhere else on earth that you would rather be.