Little England ready for the big boys

Norman Harris visits the village which, next Tuesday, hosts the NatWest Trophy first-round game between Minor Counties and Michael Atherton's Lancashire
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The Independent Online
They remember the umpire who took a doggy bag with him when he left; and who asked for directions home, was told to turn right out of ground, and instead went left...

Yes, the memories are are still vivid of the NatWest match they staged two years ago at Aston Rowant, a village ground at the foot of the Chilterns. It is true that some may also recall two fast bowlers named Van Troost and Caddick, who looked very quick against Minor County tail-end batsmen. But most of all they remember Dickie Bird.

The umpires next Tuesday will be comparatively minor stars in the umpiring galaxy, Messrs Clarkson and Spencer. The weather, too, may be much different from 1994. And the Lancashire team who will occupy the "away" dressing- room include none other than England's captain. So everything is upbeat. But one cannot help wondering whether a trouble-free day for the groundsman Peter Lambourne - and another excellent report - might not just be a bit of an anticlimax compared with the game that provided one of life's really big moments.

At nine o'clock he gave up his ground to the umpires. Bird, accompanied by colleague George Sharp, told him that they were "now in sole charge". But that was not the end of it. Instead it was the starting point of a two-day battle with misty rain.

Admirably, the village club was able to "sweep" the dewy outfield grass with a rope attached to a tractor, just as they do on county grounds. Additionally, Lambourne used a 100-metre hose that stretched from one corner of the ground to the other. But the intermittent misty rain, and umpire Bird, almost did for the groundsman.

The number of times the covers went on and off appears to have entered into the folklore of the club. Lambourne remembers it as about 10. He got the feeling that senior and junior umpire were vying with each other. What does he think should have happened? "They could just have played on."

Lambourne may have failed to come to terms with the world's most rain- affected umpire, but at least he feels free to say so. Sixty-seven and retired, he is not answerable to a county club secretary or the Test and County Cricket Board.

Nor is the club chairman, Arthur Jeddere-Fisher, a retired barrister who, on an ordinary Sunday at Aston Rowant, is to be found serving at that other type of bar, in shorts and shirt of Caribbean hues. Nor is Andrew Bailey, the chairman of a publishing house.

Management ability, and good contacts, has meant the publisher taking overall charge of hospitality and catering, while the barrister is in charge of "finance logistics" - "Has everyone got enough change? Are we running sort of disposable beer glasses? Was 4,000 pint glasses enough, and 1,000 half-pints?"

Such men may not be beholden to anyone but they are, of course, very keen to do Aston Rowant proud. They want to put their little ground on the map (it is, they believe, only the second village ground to stage a NatWest match) and to justify the trust put in them not only by Oxfordshire but by NatWest. A national sponsor can feel rather anxious about being accommodated in al fresco manner (at least compared with county grounds).

"We think we've covered every aspect, and even taken action to pre-empt some concerns," the event co-ordinator, and second XI captain, Steve Pile, says. "The main concerns are whether we can adequately provide on a village ground: one, players' facilities; two, playing surface; three, guests' facilities."

A technical marketing manager in the computer industry, Pile has been working on Aston Rowant's big day - for nothing - since October. With Eric Lambourne, the ground manager for the day, he spreads out a plan on which fluorescently highlighted tents and tented "pavilions" appear from nowhere.

Players and officials will be fed in the County Pavilion. Don't imagine that the club's stalwart tea lady will roll her sleeves a little higher: professional catering will be employed. Then there is the NatWest pavilion, housing 200 guests. The club's own hospitality pavilion hosts another 200. And on the "public" side of the ground, a beer and refreshment tent. This is where the club hopes for profit, along with the parking in a field over the road at pounds 2 a car.

Pile's wife, Jill, is in charge of the food for the refreshment tent. Seven teams of sandwich makers will gather, four to a house, to make 1,200 sandwiches from 120 loaves. The bread comes from Waitrose in Thame and will be acknowledged with an advertising banner, one of some 20 around the ground, as the club looks to swell its list of local sponsors.

Around 100 club members will have a job, and one of the jobs is stopping other club members from treating the pavilion as their own. "The need for better crowd control is what we learned most from our previous match," Pile says. "On a day like this the club effectively becomes the property of the county. It can be difficult for members to accept that."

The hope is for 2,000 spectators, compared with the 600-odd who braved the poor weather two years ago. And, along with the right weather, a game that lasts until after tea. There is a belief in a convention that the first-class county will bat first - especially at a minor venue.

That belief have been shaped by Somerset's willingness to bat first on a difficult pitch two years ago, but the arrangement is by no means predictable. In that same first round in 1994, five minor counties found themselves batting first (and at Northop Hall, the Welsh Minor Counties' 104 was famously overhauled by Middlesex in only 16.2 overs).

"We want Lancashire to bat first," Pile says, "make a big score... and lose." He laughs. In fact, it is quite doubtful whether they do want that result. They are uneasily aware that the TCCB fixture list shows a second- round NatWest match at "Aston Rowant or Old Trafford". The date is 10 July. It is, as Pile points out, a key week in the sporting summer. Further, he has some real work to do. And Aston Rowant are on tour.