“The umpires are on their way to the middle. Would spectators please clear the playing area.”
I can still hear the disembodied voice of the man on the Tannoy as we would make our way down the steps and out onto the grass of the outfield at Northlands Road, home of Hampshire cricket back in the 1970s, as the crowd, which had been milling about during the lunch or tea interval, slowly dispersed and took up their seats behind the boundary rope. Depending on the size of the crowd, it might take some time for the last stragglers, usually young boys unwilling to curtail their game of cricket, were chased off but by the time the umpire called “Play” the ground was clear and county cricket resumed its timeless routine. We would look out from our dressing room window, cups of tea and plates of sandwiches and cakes to hand, watching the spectating public filling their time during the interval. There would be innumerable impromptu games taking place, often merging into one another with tennis balls mainly, but sometimes hard cricket balls, flying about all over the place. And these games would by no means be solely populated by the young; the strenuous and unathletic exertions of middle-aged fathers who ought to have known better would bring wry smiles to our faces. Other middle-aged men – always men but sometimes accompanied by reluctant wives - would do the circuit of the outfield, stretching their legs and their news and their gossip, all the while keeping an eye out for stray, airborne balls. Some would always make a beeline to inspect the pitch, as close as the busy groundsmen, sweeping and tidying, repairing and painting, would allow, nodding in that preoccupied, knowing way that always mystified us. “Yes, it’s 22 yards long,” would growl Butch White, Hampshire’s world-weary fast bowler, “Same as yesterday and same as tomorrow.”
“Would spectators please return to their seats. Play is about to get underway.”
Was this another disembodied voice from the past? The tone was suitably well-modulated and polite but hang on just a minute. The fielding side were in a huddle and the two batsmen were passing them without a sideways glance, intent on their own form of limbering up, all whirling arms and hurried sprints on the spot. And what’s this…..they’re wearing what looks like crash helmets on their heads. And everybody – surely not – has a number on his back. This is no dream; this is the here and now. New Road in Worcester, no less, and it’s 2017. I thought spectators were not allowed anywhere near the playing area these days. PA announcements continually warned against any such incursions, with reminders of the dire consequences should anyone be foolish enough to ignore them. And a belt of security guards in high-vis jackets would be standing ten yards inside the boundary, facing outwards, arms folded and eyes narrowed…..just in case. But no such restrictions were in place here, at the home of Worcestershire cricket. Everybody retired dutifully behind the advertising boards, the umpire called “Play” and no-one had died, as far as I could see.
Most of us can remember the boisterous, unruly and frankly sometimes terrifying pitch invasions at the end of a Test match in the 1970s. Nobody wants to go back to the days when the players turned and fled for the safety of the dressing room as the last wicket fell, just ahead of the marauding hordes. Now the post-match courtesies and formalities can be conducted in relative peace and safety, the crowd kept back at a suitably respectful distance. In any case, in an era when violent protest and possible terrorism is sadly a fact of life wherever large crowds congregate, it makes sense that certain precautions are taken. But a county match is not a Test match. As the genial and peaceful Worcestershire faithful gently perambulated around the outfield at New Road on a gloriously sunny and warm August Bank Holiday, the only hint of trouble was that the sponge cakes in the Ladies Pavilion might run out. I fail to see why other counties do not follow Worcestershire’s example to allow spectators onto the grass during intervals. What harm can possibly accrue? And if the argument encompasses public safety from possible terrorist attack, then the madmen from Al Qaeda, Taliban and Isis have surely won.