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26th June 2020 Features

Marty’s Memories: The Outgrounds

The wheels on the bus go round and round. And round and round some more. But the bus goes nowhere. Nowhere at all.

We all have our anxiety dreams. I have two. The first always comes along when I am on holiday. In the dream I have returned home early from that holiday. I know not why. And for some reason I am back working for a company I left more than 20 years ago.

In the dream I am sent to cover a news story somewhere remote. But I have to go by bus to keep costs down. I never get there. The bus just keeps going round and round the same housing estate. All day long.

The other dream is to do with working in radio. I am in a studio and none of the buttons work. A lot of presenters have that one. Or, I am covering a match but have no view of the action whatsoever.  And that is closer to reality than you could possibly imagine!

The first dream mixes two storylines together. Why it happens every time I am on holiday I have no idea. But the bus element must relate to a day when I was trying to get from South Tyneside College’s South Shields campus to one in Hebburn.

It was the first day of a two-year travel and tourism course. But because I didn’t want to do Spanish, I was told I must join a class in Hebburn which did an alternative module instead. The bus went through estate after estate after estate.

By the time I reached Hebburn I knew I couldn’t face the prospect of travelling there every day. Not if it was going to take that long. I got on the next bus back to South Shields and decided if I had to learn Spanish for the sake of my sanity then that is what I would do. After a few months the Hebburn group was sent to join us in South Shields anyway.

I am convinced a four-day spell in Stockton is responsible for dream two. Being at a game you can’t see. It sounds silly. But it happens. More of that later.

Outground cricket can be a fantastic adventure. The locations are more intimate than at the bigger headquarters. The atmosphere has more of a festival feel. It is a chance for different places and different audiences to see top class cricket.

Some grounds like Scarborough are used regularly and feel like a home from home. And the facilities are generally good. Yorkshire often have more than 5,000 in each day in Scarborough. At the smaller grounds a few hundred can feel like a few thousand.

At the test grounds we commentate from huge media centres. It is luxurious to what we used to have to cope with. Give me a nice room any day compared to a smelly shed on a roof covered in cobwebs. But the modern stadia can also leave you feeling a long way from the action. Particularly on the fourth floor at Edgbaston or the fifth floor at Headingley. Heading to smaller venues definitely has its charms. Nothing beats sitting in a gazebo on a nice day at Arundel. Or on the balcony at Cheltenham College.

My first trip for the BBC to an outground was in May 2000. It was the first season of two division championship cricket. Durham had to travel to Tunbridge Wells to play Kent in the Whit Week cricket festival. And as picturesque venues go it’s not bad at all.

The night before I set off we went to see a band called The Gangsters of Ska at a bar in East Boldon. They were so good we ended up hiring them to play at our wedding a year later. But I must have done something to my back that night while jumping around to the sounds of Madness and The Selector.

As such it was a long drive to Kent with a sore back. Once I got there I decided to join a colleague for a short run along the common to try and loosen things off.

We headed out past the golf club and saw a road which went downhill towards the town centre. Surely it would take us on a loop back to the hotel? It didn’t. We ended up running for miles through some woods instead. But I didn’t have to worry about a bad back anymore. My legs were killing me instead.

The next day at The Nevill Ground there were problems. Heavy rain the week before had left the match in doubt. Martin Speight, the Durham wicket-keeper batsman, wasn’t sure the game should go ahead at all. But it did.

Luckily my car was parked on a road nearby. But other members of the press corps parked in a field next to the cricket ground and their cars sank in the mud. I think a tractor had to be brought in to pull them clear.

Tunbridge Wells is quite a distance from Canterbury, so a lot of people attending the match stayed in the town rather than make the difficult commute across the county each day. That meant there were about eight reporters there as well. And that provided for plenty of company and entertainment on an evening. (These days there are sometimes only three of us at a game because the newspaper industry has unfortunately cut right back.)

The Pantiles seemed a nice place to while away the hours in Tunbridge Wells. There were people playing boule outside one pub. They had a proper sand pit too. Right in the middle of the town. It had quite a continental feel to it back then.

A number of the national newspaper writers had a competition that week. The winner was the one who could mention The Nevill Ground’s famous rhododendron bushes the most in their reports. They were in full flower at that time of the year. A mini Cragside.

We ate each lunchtime in the marquee next to the pavilion. I had to be quick though because I had to be on air to do an update during the break. The press box was up in the roof of the pavilion next to the main clock.

However, after one particularly long lunch, which included some free pints of a local real ale, one or two members of the written press were lured into their slumber by the tick tick tick of the clock.

I had to refrain from the real ale because I had to be on air. But I am absolutely convinced the noise of loud snoring could be heard during my afternoon updates that week. A wicket would normally wake them up, or an elbow slipping off a bench. Then there would be a frantic perusal of my scorecard and notebook to catch up on the action they’d missed.

My memories are of a low-scoring game which just scraped into day four. Kent batted and were bowled out for 177. A look at the scorecard shows John Wood took 5-36. He left Durham for Lancashire at the end of that season.

Durham were bowled out for just 81 as David Masters took a career-best 6-27. Nicky Peng top-scored with 21 while seven batsmen failed to get to double figures on a challenging wicket. Mark Ealham then made 72 in the Kent second innings and Durham were left with a target of 333.

Simon Katich made 41 but they lost by 190 runs. Despite the heavy nature of the defeat it remains one of my most enjoyable trips doing this job.

WHERE’S THE SCOREBOARD?

Whenever outgrounds come into the equation the same worries always surface for radio commentators. Where will we sit? Will it be dry? Will it be warm? How will we get on air? Will there be electricity? Will we have the internet? Will we be able to see the game?

Last year at Grantham we realised we had a big problem. The people who planned things for the Notts v Durham Royal London game had thought of nearly everything. We had satellite internet, believe it or not?

Me and my co-commentator Dave Bracegirdle, of BBC Radio Nottingham, were in our own tent. Thanks to his engineer we were on air. But as the toss took place in the drizzle it suddenly dawned on us: “Where’s the scoreboard?”

To the left of us Grantham Cricket Club had put up a lovely marquee for members. The pavilion was set aside for the teams only. But the marquee blocked our view of the scoreboard on that side of the field. And the other scoreboard was behind our tent!

It was a shame there was no cricket that day for those people who put so much effort in. But I couldn’t help thinking of the muddle we could have ended up in on air, especially when there weren’t any spare scorebooks to be had either.

This year Durham were due to play a one-day game at Darlington. I haven’t covered a match there since a championship victory over Derbyshire in 2000. BBC Radio Derby had the foresight to install a telephone line for their reports. I arrived with a mobile phone. It couldn’t get a signal. After a few attempts to file reports from a pay phone in the noisy pavilion, my bosses decided I too needed a phone line installing. A BT engineer was on site the following day.

At Kidderminster in 2001 we didn’t even have electricity in the tent we were in. Again the mobile drew a blank. I’m sure the bar was closed in the morning too. So, every hour I had to leave the ground and walk across the road to a phone box to do my live updates. On one occasion I caught the pocket of my new trousers on the corner of a table and ripped it off.

That was a long pocketless walk around the ground. The phone box plan only worked if somebody else hadn’t got there first as well. And you could guarantee a wicket would fall while across the road and with no view of the ground.

I have no idea how we would have got on air at Darlington this year. I was due to pay a visit with an engineer when lock down came. But technology has improved massively. Mobile phone networks are much better. We have equipment which lets us broadcast over the mobile network. It sounds almost as good as the ISDN lines we normally use at grounds.

At South Northumberland CC in recent years we have broadcast on broadband and I don’t think anyone could have been able to tell the difference. Darlington may well have been the same. Or we could have turned to the mini satellite van the BBC now uses.

It just needs a degree of planning. Something which was not always obvious to me a few years ago when mixing my cricket coverage with other duties. But now the cricket coverage is my responsibility I try to leave no stone unturned.

I also commentate on every game too, rather than provide just hourly reports. The booking of lines and planning of coverage is normally done well in advance compared to a few years ago. Sorting out hotels and travel arrangements is also something I look after.

After a few years on the circuit I have built up a good list of the places I like to stay in. And more importantly the ones to avoid.

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