Balmy days with the late Duchess

Stephen Brenkley recounts the history of a cricket fixture whose patron died last week
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SUMMERS, you knew, had begun when Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk's XI made its appearance at Arundel. It is hardly a long tradition but it has taken deep and comfortable root in the English game.

On what has usually been a blessedly balmy Sunday in late April or early May, the Duchess, who died last week at the age of 79, has been represented by an invitation team consisting variously of young tiros and old heroes. Nobody turns down the invitation. The opposition, in the shadow of castle and cathedral, is always the same: the season's tourists making their public bow.

It is country house cricket at its most evocative, the very names of the teams lending a haughty yet relaxed aura. Some of the greats have bowled up at Arundel deep in the Sussex countryside: Cowdrey, Lloyd, Richards, D'Oliveira, Greg Chappell, Underwood, Border, Sadiq have all played.

Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk's XI first took the field barely 20 years ago. Lavinia Norfolk was intent on continuing a custom established by her late husband, the 16th Duke of Norfolk, 20 years before that. "It is the perfect place to play cricket and a wonderful match to play in," the Sussex batsman Martin Speight said. Speight, three times a team member, may not be one of the legendary cricketers who have graced the ground, but he enshrined its beauty in a spellbinding painting, a photograph of which can be seen in his recent book depicting cricketing arenas.

He did the groundwork for the Arundel picture not while playing for the Duchess's team but during the first county championship match to be played there, in 1990. While Chris Smith was grinding out a century for Hampshire, Speight at square leg borrowed pencil and paper from the umpire to get the shadows right.

Not only does Arundel provide matches in a gorgeous setting but also the chance for thousands of young cricketers (100,000 so far) to be coached there. Nor are these privileged players but from inner-city schools.

Still, it is with the early-season game that the place has been associated. The invitation side first played there in 1956, Len Hutton going for a duck in the first over, when the Duke's side played the Australians. And in 1993 the ground, with 16,000 inside, was the centre of attention when Ian Botham's prospects of a Test recall were being discussed.

Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk's XI has probably played its last match - although the TCCB may decree that the present name is retained. But even if the name reverts to the Duke of Norfolk's XI, the tradition the Duchess fostered will continue.