During the last twelve months I have had at least two enlightening conversations about Cambridge cricket.
In the first, which took place following last September's National Knockout Final at Derby, Alan Hobbs, the manager of the very strong Cambridge Granta side, bemoaned the state of the college game. Teams which used to give his club's first or second team a decent match are now worthy of little more than a fifth string fixture, he said, and rarely arrive with the proper kit when they do turn up with eleven.
The son of a college groundsman - and also Sir Jack's great nephew - Hobbs has spent most of his life in and around Cambridge cricket, so he is in a good position to give an informed opinion. For my part, as someone who played a great deal of college cricket - admittedly at another ancient university located in the south midlands - I felt a little depressed when I had finished talking to him.
Yesterday afternoon I chatted to the Cambridge MCCU coach Chris Scott. He talked about how encouraging it was that he now had six decent bowlers in his side. It meant that counties coming to Fenner's were not going to feel they had wasted their time even if they were substantially stronger than their opponents. Scott was speaking about thirty yards away from the indooor school which had been built with the proceeds of selling some of Fenner's land to Hughes Hall. The new residential building is now just a few yards from the boundary.
The support of MCC and the retention of first-class status were crucial, though, said Scott. Without them, the supply of funds might dry up and the ground could not be maintained at its present magnificent standard. Some of these comments were echoed later in the day by the Durham MCCU coach and former Lancashire batsman Graeme Fowler as he sought to explain his team's collapse to 18 all out against the trio of Onions, Thorp and Stokes.
What are universities for? This is the title of a recently published book by Stefan Collini and a website tale such as this can barely scratch the surface of the surface of the topic. "To educate" is a stock reply, and it is often quickly followed by pious words about preparing the next decade's workforce for the challenges to come. Fair enough, perhaps, but education is a broad, deep ocean and one cannot explore it if one never leves the lecture-hall. I learned a great deal from my teachers at university but I learned a lot more from the lifelong friends I made there.
In his unfavourable review of Collini's book, Peter Conrad listed the many activities in which students engage. They included acting and playing sport, both of them valuable pursuits with a profound social significance. After all, nobody accuses Stephen Fry or Michael Atherton of making no contribution to the life of the nation. Conrad might also have added that undergraduates learn to manage their time, they mix with people of different nationalities and they discover how to live on their own in a diverse community. Not all undergraduates are immediately successful in these projects, which makes it all the more important that further attempts take place.
For some young, intelligent people, and for society as a whole, playing sport is a vital, worthwhile and lucrative pursuit. It is therefore right that universities cater for these interests. And, as people like Atherton or Ed Smith have proved, playing cricket need not prevent academic work taking place. As I watch the Cambridge openers attempt to cope with Saj Mahmood and Kyle Hogg in a damp, gloomy atmosphere, it would be comforting to think that their successors will be given similar opportunities on this wonderful ground.
Photo of Michael Atherton playing for Lancashire at Fenner's in 1990 (c) Jon Buckle/EMPICS Sport
Article (c) Lancashire CCC