Paul Edwards is at F.P. Fenner's ground in Cambridge to see Lancashire start their first-class season in England
It was easy to feel like a squaddie late on parade on Thursday morning. As the train hurtled down to Euston en route to Cambridge my laptop kept me in touch with the tumble of wickets on the first day of the LV= County Championship season. I imagined my colleagues, some affecting a little world-weariness, one or two others a trifle gruff perhaps, but all of them secretly delighted to be back in a press box to report on one of English sport's most treasured and undervalued competitions.
They had plenty to write about too. The opening day of the campaign may seem a little early for the rigours of a rewrite but I suspect that Trent Bridge was a lively location as 20 wickets fell in the game between Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire. In all, 82 batsmen were dismissed on the first day of the Championship season and the number was only that low because there was a late start at Taunton and plenty of Kentish resilience at Headingley.
But my first sight of Fenner's immediately assuaged my regrets at not being somewhere else. Though the weather was chilly - the blossom was falling on frost in Cherry Hinton this morning - there was no doubt that this was still one of English cricket's spiritual homes. It is a venue that has hosted the university since 1849, when the entrepreneurial skills of one Francis Fenner, cigar merchant, cricket stockist and grocer, provided the undergraduates with the new ground they needed in place of the picturesque but very public Parker's Piece.
Students were practising on the outfield yesterday afternoon too, although not all of them were from the ancient University. The reorganisation of student cricket now means that Oxford and Cambridge can draw on a wider pool of talent, thus enabling them to give professional players a more useful test of their ability. The scorecard for this match reveals that seven of the Cambridge MCC University attend ARU - Anglia Ruskin University. This is probably a wise strategy. The days when college admissions tutors considered athletic potential are long gone; indeed, it seems more likely that a young person's deep-seated commitment to a sport sometimes deters dons from giving the applicant a place.
None of which detracts from Fenner's appeal. The ground is now surrounded by modern buildings and one corner is occupied by the great grey arch of the indoor school, but the wicket offers as fair an examination of a cricketer's skill as ever it did, and maybe a little fairer than in the great Cyril Coote's heyday. Groundsman John Moden has won the University Groundsman of the Year award four times in the 21st century, and watching the bowlers test the Lancashire's batsmen this morning, there was no problem understanding why.
Alongside Moden's certificates are lists of university teams of the past and photographs of some of the tourists who played against them. Flanking Graeme Marsh in a two-team photo from The Parks in 1989 are the Lancastrians Michael Atherton and Mark Crawley, both of whom played in the Oxford and Cambridge side which took on the Ashes-winning Australians that summer.
Reach further back into the game's history and there is a smiling David Sheppard or a fresh-faced Gubby Allen. This heritage is preserved by the current servants of Cambridge cricket, all of whom offer journalists and players alike the warmest of welcomes. As Lancashire made their not untroubled way to a decent first-innings total this afternoon they were being watched by a decent crowd, some of whom, one suspects, had waited all winter for hours such as this.
The pavilion was thronged by old players and coaches, some of them muffled to the nines. The cricket talk was rich indeed. Zafar Ansari of Surrey bowled to Steven Croft. The Lancastrian pushed the ball into the off side to bring up his fifty. "We need a wicket," someone murmured to his friend and received a sage nod by way of reply. Other conversations bubbled on.
If university cricket is on its way out, it is taking an unconscionable time a-dying.
Photo of Fenner's (c) Stephen Pond/EMPICS Sport
Article (c) Lancashire CCC