My mum had made me plenty of pork luncheon meat sandwiches (Mother’s Pride bread of course) and I may have had a flask of tea – but I had no hat, no rehydrating bottle of water and no sunblock as I walked to Seaforth Sands to get the unfamiliar green corpy (that is, corporation) 61 bus from the start of its route to its terminus at Aigburth. My dad had taken me to the first day’s play on the Saturday, but he was at work for the second (on the Monday) and I was 12 now and perfectly capable of a day out on my own. The sun was up and there was nowhere, absolutely nowhere else I wanted to be.
A half-fare in 1975 was probably 4p and I doubt that I had more than a few two pence pieces for the phonebox and maybe 75p for entry, a bottle of pop and some wine gums on the way home. The whole day’s provisioning was stored in a tupperware container and in a Kwik Save carrier bag. It’s how things were not so very long ago.
But some things haven’t changed. Aigburth comes up on you unexpectedly, with no pylons to house floodlights giving away its location, no little signs pointing the way to the car parks, no tacky stands selling club favours. Once in, I sat on the grass, hoping, hoping, hoping to get a touch of the ball, as it sped over the so so smooth field, my feet occasionally, rakishly, rebelliously, resting over the rope to show just how cool I was.
You could get right up close to the players – but you had to scatter on the rare occasion that a fielder would chase a ball all the way to the rope and its wall of kids. Two years on from that first visit, I recall a gazelle-like, beautiful human being floating about in the covers, a man with the balance and grace of a ballet dancer – he was an as yet unknown David Gower, still a season away from swivelling pulling his first ball in Test cricket for four.
Back to 1975 again, my 20p or so on the gate bought me witness to a century from Barry Richards, supported by 60 from Gordon Greenidge and, on the Tuesday (of course, I went back the next day), a dazzling century from Clive Lloyd, as Lancashire failed to resist the extreme pace of Andy Roberts. Is it any wonder that the game had me hooked?
I played once at Aigburth (in 1981 on the same pitch bowling from the same end that Richard Hadlee had used to take 7-25 for Champions Notts – I got half that: the “for 25” half), but I played quite a few times at Southport, scene of another great day on an outground.
In 1981, Charles was marrying Diana on a glorious July morn and we all had a day off to watch it on the telly – except for the thousands who preferred Lancashire vs Middlesex at Trafalgar Road. At 9.00am, the queue stretched hundreds of yards – many didn’t get in and those who did drank the bar dry at 2.00pm. Big Clive was the big star again, blasting 91 to delight the (let’s be honest) 100% male crowd. Fewer were in the next day (though I was) to see Graham Barlow reply with 177 before Wayne Daniel’s five wickets delivered the points for the Londoners.
Neither of those two knocks were as good as Ken McEwan’s 128 for Essex three years earlier. The South African scored 99 of them before lunch on the first day – remarkable in itself, but more so when you know that only one other batsman crossed 50 in the match. McEwan oozed class at the crease and made 90 centuries, none for his country, his career coinciding with isolation. He was a mini-hero of mine.
To the end of the Metropolitan Line and Uxbridge station, the very heart of sweet suburbia. I’d braved that expedition to see the same teams I had seen at Southport ten years previously on Royal Wedding day, delightfully despatched to another outground. I had gone primarily to see Wasim Akram, who did not disappoint, taking 11 wickets in the match and scoring 78 runs for once out. I walked round the ground slowly (bumping into Phil Tufnell nervously pacing about with a fag on) as I tried to get the best angle to see the fabled fast arm. At no more than sixty paces distance, it was a blur from any vantage point on the boundary – I suspect things were hardly different at twenty yards distance.
I’ve seen a young Andrew Flintoff chatting amiably at Crosby, while I pushed my elder boy round in a buggy half-watching Lancashire IIs on another ground on which I had played (when I was Flintoff’s age). I’ve seen Jason Roy hit the very first ball of the match clean out of Whitgift’s little ground in Croydon and spent a couple of hours talking to Pat Pocock at the same venue during a four day game. I’ve even seen an ageing, ruddy-faced Darren Gough get into a row with a spectator at Guildford at the end of a Sunday match, the traffic roaring by oblivious just beyond the railings, Goughie being led away by teammates having given his all as usual with the ball.
When I can give up the day job and get a pensioner’s pass for the buses and trains, I shall seek out any remaining outground cricket and travel to watch this unique form of the greatest of games. I know of at least one fellow traveller who will join me – but we will be legion! That is, so long as the authorities haven’t consolidated, rationalised and – well, take your pick from the beancounters’ lexicon – I’ll use destroyed one of the English summer’s greatest joys. Long live North Marine Road and your little cousins scattered all over this land!