Cricket Diary: Hampshire back to the scene of the bucolic frolic

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ENGLISH cricket was built on grounds like Dean Park. In the mind's eye and often in reality as well it was always filled with elderly men in straw hats who were clutching half-drunk pints of warm beer while watching Phil Mead compile a century. It was intimate and bucolic and most of all it was forever there.

Then, suddenly, six years ago it wasn't. Hampshire upped sticks from Dean Park, Bournemouth and took their bat home to the rather more (well, actually, lots more) prosaic Northlands Road, Southampton. It was not the most amicable of partings but somehow English cricket survived. The only certain outcome of the whole shenanigans was that Hampshire would never return. Well, on Wednesday they do.

The fates, or at least whoever conducts the draw for the first round of the NatWest Trophy, have ensured that the county have been drawn away to play Dorset. When Hampshire left the old Bournemouth ground it was Dorset who took over the playing of cricket there. It is also available these days to clubs wishing to hire it in the hope that some Mead may, so to speak, rub off on them.

In truth, Dorset have more right to be playing at Dean Park than Hampshire. When local government boundaries were re-organised in 1974 Bournemouth was shifted to the minor county from the first-class one, so that for 18 years Hampshire played away. They departed when they could reach no agreement with the owners, Cooper Dean Estates.

"It was financially impossible for us to stay," said Hampshire's chief executive, Tony Baker, last week. "Until then we were actually paying for the upkeep and maintenance of two grounds. We tried various ways to get a partner but unfortunately it didn't happen. We didn't want to move from Bournemouth but in the end we had no choice. It was costing us between pounds 40,000 and pounds 50,000 a year."

Still, it has not been the same and if the thoughts of the players do not look back for moment (players being what they are) many observers will reflect on the old days when it was always summer. There will be a realistic chance for a Hampshire player to replace Tony Middleton as the last Hampshire batsman to score a century on the ground. But above there will be a chance to see if the beer is still warm.

IT is the fashion when English bowlers do well (so you will understand it is not that fashionable) for them to say that they hit their straps. During the winter, Gus Fraser was forever hitting his straps and on Thursday Nasser Hussain was saying that since Dominic Cork did so well in the First Test the other bowlers would be anxious to hit their straps.

They may have a clue what it means but any uninitiated listener's reaction would probably be that they should concentrate on hitting a decent length first and then work on these straps. It seems, as in mulligrubber which was mentioned here the other week, that the phrase is Australian in origin and has nothing to do with cricket.

Put simply, hitting your straps means to decamp. Itinerant workers in the bush would get up in the morning ready to move out and strap up their swagbag, or hit the straps. "Taking it a stage a further, therefore, it could mean that someone's away as in he's up and running," said Eleanor Rands, a senior assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Sounds about right and cricketers are obviously more imaginative than other sportsmen. Anyway, everybody else was strapped for an explanation.

THESE have been uncertain days for the Kent and England fast bowler Martin McCague. At the start of the season he was expressing a hope that with an amended run-up he might be able to reclaim his place in the national side. Instead, it has sometimes looked this summer as though the word "former" might not only prefix England.

He has been out of favour of Kent, the run-up not as smooth as he hoped and has been in the first XI usually only because of the absences (on England duty, as it happens) of Mark Ealham and Dean Headley. Indeed, far from England he has been turning out for the club side Ashford. There, instead of being paid more than pounds 3,000 for appearing he has been handing over pounds 7 a match for the privilege of selection.

BOOK MARK

"The world's best fast bowlers have always thrived on a deep-seated hatred of opposing batsmen. Nothing personal I assure you ...but does anything so far produced by [Andy] Caddick and Dean Headley or a whole host of England pacemen suggest they possess the same fire in their hearts when they run up to bowl? The measure of a good Test team is its ability to deal with ill-fortune and to come back hard after taking the blows. Sadly these were the two qualities they most sorely lacked. In truth, they are the two qualities England have lacked for years. And no- one need look any further than the discredited domestic structure...I have nothing against Atherton's successor... Matthew Maynard would have been my choice. But to be brutally honest, David Graveney and his mates might as well have appointed Captain Scarlett...Will the last one out please turn off the lights."

From The Botham Report by the great man himself in hard-hitting, trenchant and rational form in the updated paperback version published this week.

Silly Point

WHEN Michael Atherton and Stephen James opened the batting in the Second Test it seemed redolent of cricket as it used to be. Two tall, dashing chaps from Cambridge University walking through the Long Room ready to bat all day. Wasn't it ever thus? Actually, no. Atherton and James were only the third pair both from Cambridge to have opened. The last were D S Sheppard and T E Bailey against Pakistan at Old Traford in 1954. Last century A J L Hill and C W Wright did it in Cape Town, also against South Africa. James and Atherton are exclusive for another reason: they played in the same Cambridge side. James made 571 runs at 41.07, Atherton 417 at 29.78 in 1989.

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