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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In Search of the Crabble

Kent v Essex, County Championship, the Crabble Ground, Dover, 30 and 31 August 1967


I first went to the Crabble Ground in Dover 44 years ago, for the second (and, as it turned out, final) day of the Championship match between Kent and Essex. It was the first time I had watched cricket anywhere other than at the St Lawrence Ground.

Kent wrapped up a victory that took them to the top of the table, though everybody knew that it was too late; Yorkshire were in a strong position in a game in progress and had another fixture to come, wheras Kent's programme was now concluded, and Yorkshire duly became champions the next week. By that time, Kent held the Gillette Cup having defeated Somerset in the final on the Saturday following this game.

I still have the autograph book in which I collected signatures after the game had ended. Among compliant signers that day were Peter West, for four decades the face of BBC TV's cricket coverage but reporting for The Times that day, and Kent's match winner Norman Graham.

1967 was Graham's breakthrough season. A fringe player up to that point, his pinpoint medium-fast bowling, making full use of his six feet seven inches, took him to third place in the national bowling averages (Derek Underwood was top) with 104 wickets at 13.90. He remained a key member of the Kent attack for a further decade, his accuracy and extra bounce contributing significantly to the one-day glory years, even if his batting and fielding did not; he challenges Kevin Jarvis for the title of worst batsman that I have seen, but Jarvis takes it out.

Norman Graham was hugely popular with Kent supporters and was richly rewarded in his benefit season. Benefits have fallen into deserved disrepute now that county cricketers are well paid, but in the seventies they were justified reward for long-serving professionals. Graham, who was said to have visited a thousand pubs during his year, earned enough to buy several houses and, I hope, a nice car. He left the Crabble that day folded into a Triumph Herald, adopting a driving position not usually seen outside a dodgem track, but he had taken 12 for 80, so was smiling.

Of course, the Crabble pitch was not so much helpful to Graham and his colleagues as enslaved to them. There have not been too many unabbreviated matches which one team has one won comfortably having scored fewer than 200, as was the case in 1967. Pitch quality remained an issue there. Things came to a head in 1976 when Charles Rowe, batsman and occasional off spinner, took 11 for 71 against Derbyshire, almost a fifth of his total career haul for Kent. That was that. It was the last time county cricket was played at the ground, a shame because it was the most attractive of all the Kent grounds, though supporters of the Nevill at Tunbridge Wells will disagree.

Accompanied by my Blean correspondent, I went back there last week (I am in the old country for a month). The ground was hard to find, though this was more because of navigational issues than anything to do with the ground itself. I am always confused as to where the sun is when I change hemispheres and, except when I resume duties as his chauffeur, my correspondent relies on public transport to get him where he wants to go, so is untroubled by such concerns. We hit upon the idea of following a bus, as my correspondent had passed the ground while on such a conveyance at some unspecified point in the past. I recommend this as an aid to navigation, though we added the refinement of establishing where the bus was going later than we might have done. But Dover is on the coast, so we reasoned that we could only explore half the compass, and came upon the ground well before nightfall, a success by our own standards.
We were pleased with what we found. The Crabble is no longer a cricket ground, but has escaped the developers' grasp. It is home to Dover Rugby Club and instantly recognisable as the splendid venue it once was.

 It is situated in a valley at River (not all Kentish names are imaginative), with tall trees marking the extremity of the ground on three sides. Cut into the hill is a series of terraces, which used to accommodate seating, covered on the higher levels, with more trees above them. This is slightly reminiscent of the majestic Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, though on a much smaller scale. In the middle is the stone pavilion, run down and boarded up now, but stately in its day, brightly painted and decorated with flower baskets.
I have watched cricket from few better places than the higher terraces at the Crabble. It is to hoped that cricket can return to the ground one day; there is room enough, despite the floodlights around one of the two rugby pitches. New Zealand expertise in using the same piece of turf for a rugby pitch and cricket square would be useful.

We took a couple of turns around the ground and thought of the players who had batted and bowled with grace and style to match the surroundings. Ames and Leyland scored double hundreds here; Ames seven more centuries, Woolley the same number. Sobers scored a quickfire, match-winning hundred in 1968 described with awe by those who saw it, and he'd taken seven for 69 earlier in the same game. Yorkshiremen liked bowling here. Illingworth took 14 in a game in 1964, Verity nine in an innings in 1933, Trueman eight for 28 in 1954. And Kent's Freeman took seven or more on ten occasions.

The rustling of the trees is leftover applause for them all.