Arena: Day-dreams by the spires: Graeme Wright savours the timeless delight of a cricket ground that still has echoes of a bygone age

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The Independent Online
HARD to credit, I know, but the cricket season is upon us. Of late, the game has been more akin to a national tragedy played out in faraway places. But as surely as Walsh follows Ambrose, spring follows winter, and hard on the heels of daffodils and primroses, there are Wisdens in the bookshops.

On Wednesday, weather permitting, Oxford University take on Durham at The Parks and Cambridge play Nottinghamshire at Fenner's. If the sun is shining and the wind is not from the north- east, there are few better places for an Englishman to watch the noble game.

Of the two, Fenner's is the more modern cricket ground, guarded by gatemen, encompassed by walls and overlooked by some soulless buildings. Oxford's ground is somewhere you can happen on as you stroll through the University Parks, some 65 acres of city parkland bordered on the east by the River Cherwell.

There is nowhere for cars, so on a warm afternoon after a few beers (there's a tent or a caravan by the scoreboard), only the hemlines, the haircuts and the absence of the elms, which were once a magnificent backdrop to the cricket, remind you which century you are in.

For The Parks is essentially a timeless place, a refuge from town and gown. If it is also an anachronism, this is not because of the continuing tradition of students versus professional cricketers but because The Parks is the one first-class ground where spectators can watch cricket free of charge. There might be a collection box in the course of the day, but this is more a matter of conscience than commerce.

Atmosphere rather than architecture is the lasting impression of a place where first-class cricket has been played since 1881. But there is no denying Sir Thomas Graham Jackson's Victorian Gothic pavilion its place among the game's fine buildings. (At the other end of the pleasure scale, Jackson also designed the University's Examination Schools.) Approaching from Norham Gardens or Parks Road, you cannot help but be impressed by the cupola rising behind the central of three high gables. A verandah, one end appropriated by the press, runs along the front of the pavilion, and in front of that are benches for the members.

The Long Room, taking up all of the ground floor, is notable for its great roof trusses, which give the impression of a college dining hall, and for its oak-panelled walls on which the names of all Oxford cricket Blues since 1827 have been lettered in gold. Great names of cricket history are there: captains of counties and captains of countries. Warner, Jardine, Cowdrey and M J K Smith of England, South Africa's Alan Melville, A H Kardar and Imran Khan from Pakistan, and for India a pair of Pataudis. In 1963 'Tiger' Pataudi captained Oxford in a close-fought game against Worrell's West Indians and also managed a Fourth in Oriental Languages, a memorable double in that Oxford no longer awards Fourths and the likes of Pataudi are not seen at The Parks these days.

Upstairs in the pavilion there are window seats for day-dreamers and the scorebooks of seasons past for statisticians. Not for all seasons though. In the Second World War, when the pavilion was requisitioned by the Army, soldiers kept themselves warm by burning some of the scorebooks. Until recently there was a signed portrait of W G Grace on the wall, a reminder of the match in 1886 when W G took all 10 wickets for 49 in Oxford's sccond innings after knocking up a century in MCC's only innings. Such are the times in which we live that the painting now resides in a bunker with other Oxford treasures.

The great days of cricket at The Parks may be behind us now. But connoisseurs of the game should none the less relish the ground, because it boasts one of the best wickets in the country. In the past two years, the groundsman Richard Sula has won commendations in the TCCB's Groundsman of the Year awards, and it is no coincidence that 1993, the summer of Shane Warne, saw Sula's hard, bouncy pitches promote a leg-spinning blue in Patrick Trimby.

There are nine county games at The Parks this season, including two Benson and Hedges Cup games - a short programme for such a perfect setting. And it is not as if you wander by in the hope of a Minor County game later in the summer. Come the end of term, one of the loveliest cricket grounds in England is transformed into tennis courts for the pleasure of Oxford's dons.

(Photograph omitted)