ICC World Cup 2019: Crossword & cricket on the corner of a foreign field
Cheshire versus Wiltshire, a fixture in England’s Minor Counties Championships—a tournament that is played under the shadow of County cricket, which itself is ongoing in this country in the margins of the ICC World Cup.Updated: Jun 26, 2019 07:56 IST
The spectator looks up from the folds of his newspaper and eyes the commotion, peering over the rim of his glasses. On the field, the loud appeal for caught behind is turned down by the umpire. And even before the fast bowler can get over his disappointment, the spectator’s eyes are back on the Chester Standard’s daily crossword; eight across, a six-letter word for ‘new recruit’. His name is Andy Burgess, a 68-year old resident of Chester, and he has been a Cheshire County Cricket Club faithful since his teens.
“Not quite the IPL, is it?” Burgess tells me, all the while erasing letters pencilled into the daily. “But those of us who watch this are just as ardent about it as you good folks are about the IPL. There aren’t too many of us, like you can see. But we sure care.” Including Burgess and I, there are 12 spectators and what we’re watching on this rare balmy morning is Cheshire versus Wiltshire, a fixture in England’s Minor Counties Championships—a tournament that is played under the shadow of County cricket, which itself is ongoing in this country in the margins of the ICC World Cup.
We’re seated on one of only two wooden benches dotting this field of play, the Boughton Hall Cricket Club, which is more a levelled meadow than it is a cricket ground. A meadow cordoned off by white picket fences on one side and the traces of a boundary rope. The other spectators are either seated on the bonnet of their cars parked by the rope or in the bar by midwicket, which doubles up as the players’ dressing rooms and the clubhouse for the officials. One of those officials is John Petch, the secretary of Cheshire CCC and he is circumnavigating the rope and personally handing out cards printed with Cheshire’s schedule for the 2019 season.
“Not quite the IPL, is it?” Petch tells me, and when I tell him that Burgess said the exact same thing a few moments ago they share a laugh. Just then a Labrador retriever runs on to the playing field and the Cheshire fielder at long-on yells at ‘Waffles’, by name, to go back out. Waffles tilts his head at the fielder and does just that, now wagging his tail as his master runs towards him whistling. “Mr Adams should be reminded not to let Waffles off the leash during play,” says Petch, more to himself than anyone else. Then he turns to me and says: “Do join us at the bar when the players break for lunch.”
Burgess and I do, and the Cheshire and Wiltshire players are there too, buying their chips and sodas. When I ask Petch about it, he explains the nuts, bolts and workings of Minor Counties to me; and just why I too have been invited to the bar. “Unlike County cricketers, Minor County teams are made up of amateur players who don’t get paid for their services. Heck, Cheshire CCC doesn’t even have its own ground,” says Petch. “So, the way it works is, one of the grounds in our county of Cheshire, like Boughton today, allows us to play our home games for free, in the hope that enough spectators show up and use their lunch and drinks service at the bar.”
To sustain a living, then, all Minor Counties players who aren’t still in college have full-time jobs, such as Cheshire’s 38-year-old captain Danny Leech. When he isn’t playing cricket, he is a carpenter and runs a small-time wood-flooring business just outside Chester. Leech gives me his business card during lunch and I notice the emblem on his Cheshire jersey—it is chaff of wheat, apt for a salt-of-the-earth club in a salt-of-the-earth tournament.
“There was a time when I hoped that a County team would notice my talent and sign me up,” says Leech, a left-handed opener in the Graeme Smith mould. “But now, nearly 40, I have carried on playing to give back to the community and to give back to Cheshire cricket. Hopefully one of these college kids will gain from my experience and make it as a professional in one of the County teams.”
That does tend to happen, once in a while, when a kid is destined for greatness. But what happens far more often is an ex-County cricketer playing out the evening of his career in the Minor Counties.
Lunch over, we stay back at the pub (every little contribution counts and all that) as Leech and his players return to the Boughton field, one that is studded with adverts such as “Cullimore & Dutton Solicitors” and “Cheshire Builders—Approved Architects”. And almost immediately Wiltshire’s top-scorer, Jacob Lintott, falls for 59, dismissed by Cheshire’s left-arm spinner David Wainwright, an ex-County player.
“Wainwright is the only professional in this team, having played in the past for County teams such as Derbyshire and Yorkshire. So, he is the only one who is paid to play cricket in Cheshire,” says Burgess. When I ask Petch how much that amount is, Cheshire’s secretary hems and haws for a bit, before divulging a ball-park figure. “A few hundred pounds for a three-day game.”
The difference in quality is evident, for Wainwright finishes with four scalps, including that of the wildly swinging Wiltshire tail-ender who even managed to crash a six into the front door of House No.32 (the ball was returned by the resident) during his essay of 49 runs. When the tail-ender returns to the dressing room below the bar, the gin-sipping lady next to us leans over the railing and tells him that he is a ‘cop out’ and the tail-ender smiles. “She’s right,” says Burgess, laughing. “We in Cheshire have a term for those who get out on 49—‘jug avoidance’—because if you get a fifty, you have to buy the evening jug of beer in the bar. That boy just saved himself a few quid.”
There’s no jug-avoidance for me at the end of day’s play as Burgess, his crossword and I head into central Chester, a town known for three things: Horse-racing, the birthplace of footballer Michael Owen and the hometown of actor Daniel Craig. The incumbent James Bond is said to unwind at a pub called Brewery Tap when he is here, so at Brewery Tap we are too.
“Chester is home to about 100,000 residents. But during the races, like the one that was held last weekend, there are another 100,000 well-dressed humans among us,” says Burgess, a pint of ale placed besides his daily. What about for the cricket, I ask, even as some of the Cheshire cricketers file into Brewery Tap and queue up by the bartender. “About 15 every time Cheshire hosts a cricket match,” he says. “And may I add that they all belong to the opposition’s cricket team?”