Wickets tumbled and the sponsors were humbled

The first thing I encountered, walking into Luton Town Cricket Club 10 minutes after the start of play on the first of a four-day County Championship match between Northamptonshire and Essex, was Graham Gooch. He was making his round-shouldered, disappointed way to his car. Was he injured? Was someone else fielding for him? Or was he simply not bothering any more with meaningless Championship games? "Nah, mate," he said, opening his boot to remove a file of paper work which he was going to take back to the dressing-room. "I'm out already."

Gooch was not, it transpired, isolated in his failure. Rather he was at the head of a procession of dismissed batsmen which, by the end of the day, was to number 30.

Luton has a long history as a cricket club. The walls of the pavilion at Wardown Park are lined with pictures of past teams, stretching back to the first XI in 1910, striking languid Edwardian poses and wearing big moustaches (RW Jeakings, club captain back then, was clearly a sartorial role model for Graham Gooch). Behind the bar is a framed pair of knickers, kept there by a barmaid who maintains a record of visiting internationals by encouraging them to autograph her frillies: "I got Viv Richards," she explains, proudly. "And I got Curtly twice."

But rarely can the place have seen a day like Thursday, 15 June 1995. Sitting around the boundary were a couple of hundred spectators, huddled beneath blankets and knitted hats against the chill. A thin, cold mist hung over the ground; the wicket, apparently, had been water-logged a week before the game. As soon as David Capel started to bowl from the Stockingstone Road End, you could tell the conditions would do things to the ball which made it look as though Craig Matthews, Imran Khan and Mike Atherton had all spent half an hour in a darkened room with it. It looped, it swung, it zigged, it zagged and it hit an awful lot of pads. Just after lunch, the other 10 Essex batsmen had joined Gooch in his ignomy, the innings stumbling to 127, of which the wicketkeeper Rollins had made 52.

If Northants supporters, heady with the vertigo of seeing their team up near the top of the Championship table, thought they about to enjoy a cheery afternoon, they were in for a shock. Twnety overs after their innings started, it was over. Mark Ilott, bowling as if with a banana, took 9 for 19, as the home team crumbled, all out for 41. His tally included a hat-trick of leg-before decisions, all adjudicated over by umpire Bob White, who, during the day, put his finger up for no fewer than 11 lbw appeals.

"Some pitch, eh?" said Graham Gooch as he padded off the field to get padded up again.

Mark Ilott was even more cheery, revealing it was not the first occasion he had registered a hat-trick of leg befores.

"I got one playing for Watford under-15s," he said, wearing a grin that must have hurt. "On that occasion, my dad was umpire, and in my excitement I shouted `howzat, Dad?'"

The grin was not to last. Paul Taylor, Northants' left-armer, reckoned anything Ilott could do he could do as well, and swung his way to 7 for 50 as Essex mustered only 107 in their second innings. Gooch out twice in a day: it was like facing the Australians once more.

I had gone to Luton to report on a typical pointless non-event Championship grind and had witnessed the sporting equivalent of wholesale slaughter. But at least I had shown up. The match was being played in Luton - not, you might have noticed that close to Northamptonshire - because a local firm had paid for the privilege of staging it there (frankly, these days you could get a Championship encounter in your garden if your cheque's big enough). Determined to make the most of it, they had fringed the boundary with candy-striped marquees in which to smooze clients. And then they decided that since most of their guests would not be interested in the boring non-event cricket on offer anyway, and it would give them the weekend to recover from the hospitality, there was no point in inviting anyone over until the Friday.

And thus, as the most bizarre game of cricket ever was played out, none of the people who had under-written it were there to witness the events. Which, in these days when money seems to be the only thing that counts in sport, was a rather enjoyable irony.


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