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10th July 2020 Features

Marty’s Memories: The joy of outground cricket

“There were a few benches where people could sit and watch the game free. It was suggested by more than one Lancashire supporter those people were probably from Yorkshire!”

There are a number of things which combine to make a good outground experience. Probably number one is the weather. If the weather is decent it is a big help. The rain and electrical broadcasting equipment don’t tend to make good bedfellows. Being able to broadcast is obviously key. Added to that are the facilities and the view. You have to have a good view of proceedings to be able to tell people what is going on.

Behind the bowler is preferable. Being up high is certainly better than being at ground level. So, the top of the embankment at beautiful Arundel trumps ground level at the likes of Chesterfield or Sedbergh. But they are all nice venues and if the game is a good one it doesn’t really matter that much.

At Sedbergh in 2019 we were in a tent at the side of the pitch, next to the pavilion. The rain only really caused a problem one lunchtime when the wind blew it towards our position and we had to de-rig the kit for safety reasons. But it was only a minor issue and by days three and four it was shorts weather. So, we were very lucky in that game.

It’s the only match where I have been held up each morning by a herd of cows on their way to milking. One morning, while driving from my hotel in Ravenstonedale (pronounced Ravesdale) I encountered the herd heading along the lane with the farmer close by. I pulled my car to the side of the road and squeezed up against a hedge to make sure the cows could get by on the other side. They had plenty of room. But cows are not very bright. One of them decided to squeeze between the car and the hedge, nearly taking my wing mirror with it.

I had visions of the cow falling sideways and crushing the side of the car. And for a few worrying moments I held my breath. But as commutes go I don’t think there have been any prettier on the way to a day at the cricket. The game was a hard-fought draw. But it was the surroundings which made it so special. For views it knocks Arundel into the long grass.

All around us the fells of the Howgills. The grounds at Sedbergh School are stunning. At one end of the field there was a pathway which ran along the edge of the church yard. There were a few benches where people could sit and watch the game free. It was suggested by some Lancashire supporters those people were probably from Yorkshire!

Either side of the church were a number of the houses the students live in. Their long back gardens overlooked the grounds and each afternoon a large group gathered to watch the cricket as well. Having gone to a comprehensive school I have no idea what it must be like to attend such a boarding school. But I couldn’t help feeling those kids were rather lucky to be educated in such a beautiful environment.

Martin Speight, the former Durham wicket-keeper and my former co-commentator, is now a cricket coach at the school and played a big part in getting everything ready for the game. It was great to see him again. In the winter he coaches hockey and he is also good with a paint brush in his hand and a canvas to work on. And what a canvas Sedbergh provided that week.

My BBC Radio Lancashire colleague, Scott Read, managed to get a room in a house right next to the main gate of the school. The esteemed cricket writer Paul Edwards was also there. He looked quite worried the first morning: “I just want to make sure I do the occasion justice,” he said. And he did.

Former England and Lancashire player David Lloyd was also there. After his career ended he became England coach and then joined the Sky cricket commentary team. I suggested he could join us on air and true to his word he did. He came back for more on day two as well. He just loves cricket and immersed himself fully in the experience.

Because of the rural location finding a room was a bit tricky. I think the teams stayed over in Kendal. Every room in Sedbergh was taken. Jamie Bowman, who is one of the other Lancashire cricket writers, opted for a tent on a nearby farm! There were a few people who complained about the idea of the match being played in Cumbria. And in a small town formerly in Yorkshire. They were determined to do the occasion down but failed.

When the game ended and the crowds disappeared, there were just a few of us left to enjoy a quiet beer in the marquee before we all headed off home. The sun was shining and it was warm and still. It had been such an enjoyable week. I don’t think anybody wanted to leave. And on the journey back over the fells that night the sun caught the escarpment which rises out of the Eden Valley and heads north towards Scotland. It turned it bright yellow. I had to stop the car. I stood there at the side of the road soaking in the view. It was incredible. The sort of thing that could never be done justice in a photo.

WATCH OUT. FLYING BALLS ABOUT.

The tent we commentated in at Chesterfield was at ground level, just to the right of the pavilion. We commentated from long-on for a right hander facing the pavilion. Unlike Sedbergh, where our area was out of bounds to anyone but the press, there was a propensity for people to wander over for a chat at Chesterfield, or stand in front of us, completely unaware they were blocking the view. But a polite word or two from Dave Fletcher of BBC Radio Derby usually sorted out the issue.

I was once covering a T20 there when Gordon Muchall drove a four to the boundary on my right. It was a nice shot and daisy-cuttered towards the ropes at speed. To my horror I looked around to see my daughters and wife sitting right next to the rope where the ball was headed. They weren’t paying attention because they were deep in conversation. I tried shouting a warning to them, while also on air. They didn’t hear. The ball clipped the rope and flew up, just missing them by centimetres.

My friend Gary has a birthday the day after mine. He likes his cricket and in recent years we have managed to tie in a trip to an away game near our birthdays. At Chesterfield in 2017 we stayed in Matlock Bath. The weather was decent and one night after play we drove up to The Monsal Head pub for a pint. The pub sits at the top of a sharp hill which overlooks Monsal Dale.

The river Wyre winds through the dale and under the arches of the impressive railway viaduct. There aren’t many better views for a beer in the UK. The hill out of the dale and up to the pub is so severe it features in cycling hill climb championships every year.

We have enjoyed a couple of birthday trips to Arundel as well. Last year it was Sedbergh. And this year we should have been celebrating his 50th in Swansea.

THE HEAT IS ON

The game at Southport in 2016 was an absolute cracker. But in a world where 20’s plenty, it was far too hot for me that week. The cloud cover burned off by early afternoon each day and the sun was relentless. I was actually worried the kit would melt. I had to hide my iPad in a cardboard box to try and protect it and it eventually turned off because it got too hot.

We commentated on the steps of a tennis pavilion in the corner of the ground and it was factor 50 all the way. And long sleeves. I did try and use an umbrella for shade but there were too many people in the room behind us who couldn’t see, so that was abandoned. I know the scorers and the PA announcer were really struggling in their portable unit as the heat rose. It was no wonder most spectators positioned themselves over the far side of the ground under the shade of a huge tree. Similarly, trees offer a bit of respite from the sun in Arundel too.

The Southport game went right to the final session and was a real nail-biter. Durham won and then the players had a game of cricket with the local kids. The pictures were all over social media. What great PR for the club. Our car park was on the links at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. On the Sunday evening I sat in the car and listened to the final moments of The Open at Troon, which is the first place I went to watch The Open.

The crowd noises were incredible and there I was staring at the vast emptiness of Birkdale and its beautiful links course, on a lovely summer evening. A year later those scenes were being repeated right where I had been sitting.

The balcony at Cheltenham College in the stifling summer of 2018 was a real melting pot. We had a canvas cover over us and by mid-afternoon the heat had built up so much it was a job to try and stay awake. The temperature never dipped below 20C that week. Even at night.

I walked to the ground each day from my hotel. It was about a mile and a half. The sun was so severe I chose back lanes to try and keep in the shade. There was a bit of respite once we got to the ground. Me and Bob Hunt, the BBC’s Gloucestershire commentator, held a little question and answer session in the marquee each morning for a few of the spectators.

It was nice and cool in there. The cold drinks were always welcome too. Water, I must add. As the game drew on the crowd in the tent got bigger. It was a fun way to start the day. As Van Morrison once said “the craic was good”. I wonder if it would work in Chester-le-Street?

At the end of the week we were presented with lovely bottles of wine as a thank you. I gave mine to Mr and Mrs Collingwood who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I know, they don’t look old enough, do they? I hope they enjoyed it? I got to know them in my first season covering Durham for the BBC in 2000. They were at Old Trafford with Neil Killeen’s mam and dad. In fact I think I met Colly’s parents before I ever had a chat with him.

PEOPLE IN UNUSUAL PLACES

During my commentary career I have reported live from the back of a moving radio car at The Blaydon Races on a number of occasions. One year the car stalled just as the gun went off. Although we were a few yards from the start line I will never forget the looks on the faces of startled runners as they were forced to try and dart out the way of a van which shouldn’t have been there! One runner recognised me and started shouting through the window for us to get out of the way. It came across loud and clear on air.

I wasn’t driving. But it was a stressful moment for the person who was. Our driver eventually managed to pick his way through the mass of runners and get us out in front again.

I have filmed and commentated from the back of a convertible 4×4 during cycle races. Although that was in a previous life while in the infancy of my career and working as a cycling writer. Six laps of Quarrington Hill is an interesting prospect, especially with a professional rally driver at the wheel.

And one of the most memorable places I have covered a sporting event was from the side of an HGV in The Orkney Islands. Back in 2006 and 2007 I went to the Orkney Islands to commentate on the Inter Parish Cup Final. It’s a big event on the islands. People can only play for their particular parish football team if they were born there, or have lived there for a particular period.

If anyone moves to Orkney and is known to be a good player there is a battle among the local clergy to try to get them to come and live in their parish. As for the matches, some of the teams have to go away ties by boat!

The final was payed at Kirkwall Leisure Centre and attracted a few thousand spectators. Back in 2006 BBC Radio Orkney decided to cover the game on radio for the first time. But they had not covered a football match before and needed a commentator. So, they sent out an email to the mainland in the hope someone might be spare.

My football commentary career lasted from 1999 to 2003. I went everywhere following Sunderland during the highs of Peter Reid’s period as manager – and the subsequent lows like the season of 19 points. But by the summer of 2006 I was free to go to The Orkney Islands and flew up with my wife. Everywhere we went people knew who we were. Even at the airport people came over to say hello. We were treated like royalty.

My co-commentator was a local historian called Jockie Wood, who had just written a book about the history of the competition, called Birth, Blood and Boundaries. That was handy to have for reference purposes and the writing of match notes. But I think Jockie also knew everyone on the islands anyway.

During the first final a sea fret came in. The lights around the edge of the pitch pointed more towards the athletics track around it than onto the field. People started putting their car lights on to try and illuminate it. The final took place over County Show weekend in early August. The sun didn’t go down until after 10pm even in August. And it set in the north.

In 2007 we went back, along with our first child Abigail and had a few days on the islands as a mini holiday. By then they had erected a scaffolding gantry for us to commentate on. A policeman was the top-scorer that year. I remember the varying parishes were battling to get him to come and live in their area on hearing he was being posted to Orkney. That’s because he’d been a centre forward with Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

One of the lads who worked at BBC Radio Orkney later came to study for a media production degree at Sunderland University and ended up living near us in Roker. Rory Auskerry later got a job at BBC Radio Five Live in Salford and we linked up again when I spent six months working there as a weekend sports presenter in 2012 and 2013.

He also won Community Radio Presenter of the Year in 2014 for his work on a show in Stockport. He is a very talented lad and the last time I spoke to him his career was about to take off again. As a helicopter pilot.

His family took the surname Auskerry from the island they lived on. His father was a former manager of the well-known psychedelic blues band, Jethro Tull. But one day he decided he needed a bit of peace and quiet and bought a small-holding full of sheep instead.

By 2008 BBC Radio Orkney decided to cover the final themselves. With a bit of online help from me. I am not sure they could have justified flying me up there again. But I would like to think they are still doing it because the response we had in those first two years was incredible. I wonder if they play cricket in Orkney? That would be one hell of an away trip.

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