Oxford blue with the cold

By Stephen Fay at The Parks
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The Independent Online
SNOW fell overnight in Oxford, and the two-bar electric fire took hours to warm the treasurer's office. But the sun shone on the University Parks, and the 1996 cricket season began only four hours late, in front of 100 or so assorted dog walkers and dedicated cricket nuts.

Since the students were willing to risk torn muscles and strained joints on a damp outfield, Leicestershire were allowed to bat first, and their innings was opened by last year's Oxford captain Gregor Macmillan. He scored the season's first run off the bat and, although he looked at home, his was the first wicket to fall for only eight, bowled by Pierre Du Preez, an import from Cape Town.

When the first-class status of Oxbridge cricket is coming under hostile scrutiny, Macmillan - despite his early dismissal - is a good advertisement for it. Runs scored on the good batting wickets in the Parks got him a place in Leicestershire's first team last summer and he averaged 43.22 in six games. Oxford was a prelude to a career in cricket. As far as he was concerned, it acted as a cricket academy.

But it does seem faintly ridiculous that an easy century against Oxford or Cambridge boosts a proper professional's batting average. Of course, the reason they have first-class status is to be found inscribed on panels in the pavilion.

They commemorate a long tradition (the first is dated 1827), and there are names from the last three years that may become familiar: Jason Gallian, Simon Ecclestone, Ian Sutcliffe, perhaps Macmillan himself. There are few recognisable bowlers' names (Bosanquet of the Bosy and, much more recently, Vic Marks). Batsmen say this is because fast bowlers are no good at passing exams, and the record seems to bear them out.

Dr Simon Porter, the treasurer at Oxford, becomes very agitated at the thought that the University's first-class status could be swept away if English cricket develops an appetite for reform. "It is crucial that we retain it," he insists.

He lists the lengths Oxford have gone to to justify it: a proper coach (Les Lenham, formerly of Sussex), and the money lavished on the square. It is a fine apprenticeship for a young cricketer, he says.

But, while the first-class game at Oxbridge may not matter a great deal to English cricket, it is vital to the Universities. The reason is money. Both Universities get an annual hand-out from the Test and County Cricket Board, though it is not easy to find out how much it is.

Dr Porter, who is bursar of Nuffield College and played for Oxford in 1973, is an obliging man but he is anxious not to offend the TCCB, and wanted to make sure the authorities would not object to the sum being revealed. The answering machine at Lord's had no answer, and it was mid-afternoon before Dr Porter learned that the TCCB had no objection, in principle at least. Both Universities get pounds 37,000 a year, and this makes up the bulk of their income.

The Oxbridge tradition is part of cricket's history, but their status may be a leading indicator of the willingness to change English cricket. We will know it is happening when we do not come to Oxford to witness the inaugural game of the season.