One of the reasons I started this series was to visit new places to watch cricket, but another was to revisit old ones, to come into contact with myself from the past, and to see what has changed from then to now. This was one of those trips.
I also knew, from the off, that I wouldn’t be able to see the whole game. Despite the fact it was a cup final, travelling to and from parts beyond Maidstone by train on a Sunday is difficult, and having had a full day with family the day before, I needed an evening indoors to sort myself for Monday. It was going to be one of those trips that was more walking than watching, then.
I’m sure I’m not alone in following the Cricketer Village Cup; it feels a right and proper thing to do, villages being the natural home of English cricket as well as often playing in public spaces – ideal to watch in the current climate. When I saw that Sunday was the day of the Kent Final, and it was at Leeds and Broomfield, I felt duty bound to attend.
It was not, I feel I should admit, my first visit to Leeds Castle, and as a result it is a place to which I have felt certain emotional ties. Way back in the summer of 2003, a group of recently qualified linguists left East Anglia on a tour of the UK, the plan being to work clockwise around and see as much as they could. The people pressed up against that Renault Espace that sunny day remain some of the best friends I’ve ever had and some of the most wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of knowing.
I’m sure I loved them all before we set off, but that time in the Badger Bus (as it came to be known – we acquired, somewhere) a poster of a badger in the back window, who on the first day of their trip visited Leeds Castle, got lost in the maze and then headed to Canterbury, only to get utterly sodden in a campsite; my memory of specifics is hazy, I know we eventually titled our barbecue the Seville Groy, but I have a feeling the weather that first night was too inclement to use it.
Certainly, after that trip, my participation having been cut short when I ran out of money in Carlisle¹, we had an indelible bond between us and, though we are scattered in, pretty much all four corners of the country now, I couldn’t be happier to call them my friends, and now we’re older and wiser, prouder of the influence they have on the world. I thought of them often on the train journey; mainly with fondness, but a touch of regret that we see each other so infrequently. If you happen upon this, and I’m sure you’ll recognise your backs from 18 years ago, hello!
Maybe it’s worth noting that there’s not really any hardcore sports nuts amongst the group, so maybe that was when I learned to appreciate the peripherals of games as much as the games themselves.
So there was a bit of emotional baggage to the journey down, but I didn’t want to mention that to the older gentleman who met me as I picked my way through a gate that led from the road to where I thought I’d seen some white-clothed figured from the road.
At the time I felt edgy, I wanted to get past, to watch the cricket, but looking back, he was almost like a guardian angel in thick gloves and a bucket hat – it was, I have to say, too warm for both. We talked of the grounds, and the gates we could see, we talked of the castle and whether I had seen it before. He recommended that if I had seen it, even twenty years ago, that I should only ‘pat it on the back’. I had plans to do less than that, but obligation to his words took me through the gate later on, and he was right. It would have been a mistake not to at least see it while I was there. Eventually he meandered away, and I picked my way into the ground through the swing gate.
I looked right, to where a small crowd had gathered by the clubhouse; parents, grandparents, unused teammates. Nobody sat too close to one another, and the staccato line of deckchairs extending towards me like a harbour arm saw couples at least two metres apart. As I took up my position on the grass, and did battle with an ant scoping out my personal terrain, the spacious nature of a cricket field had its advantages.
The field, I noticed, was closed on three sides by hedgerows, meaning that the tourist attraction in the distance was well disguised, but the open side, beyond the outfield tree that is seemingly traditional to Kent offers a clear view to the verdant hills that lollop off towards Maidstone, but without any sign of its presence.
Turning from the setting to the game, there was encouragement for the fielding side, who grasped eagerly at difficult caught and bowled opportunities, trying hard but each time missing out. These opportunities are due to tight bowling, and the scoring rate is slowed right down, so that when the batters do strike out, and one soon hauls a huge six soaring over the castle boundary, seeing the ball disappear into the overgrowth, the release of pressure is like a soda syphon. That was not the last ball that seemed to get sucked into the earth; someone could do a roaring trade in winter when the leaves die back if they can scour the grounds of the castle.
A few minutes later, in a suitable break in play, one of the gents who had set up on his deckchair crept towards me and admitted he had a terrible question to ask. “Who is fielding?” he asked. I confessed my own, similar, ignorance and we shared a laugh. I had, at this stage, checked the PlayCricket app, but such things are not always updated, and this was not one of those times.
Undeterred, he went the other way, soon gleefully reporting that the hosts were putting the runs on against the toiling visitors. Immediately he sat down, the ball was spooned to mid-off and the diving fielder made the ground but was just unable to hold the catch. The bowler, Freddo, shouted encouragement but looked distraught.
Soon after this there was a terse exchange between a fielder and a parent about a refreshment; the youngster covered himself in little enough glory that seeing the fourth drop of the day coming off his bowling felt like karma more than any of the others.
The 15th over saw a pair of geese appear from the castleside boundary, flying over the pitch if not the game, and adding their honks to an already voluble fielding team; and instead of returning to the match, my focus was drawn by a fielder chatting to one of the spectators, his position in the deep obscured by the tree. They passed the best part of an over in conversation, giving lie to the idea that the ball always goes to the fielder who wants it least.
When I turned back to the match, another fielder had been placed directly in my eyeline to the batter. He shouted “Played, Marky” at nobody in particular as I stood up, and figured that with cloud thickening at 72/2, it might be a decent time to see if I could lay eyes on the castle, or at least seek some shelter under the trees.
Sure enough, the third wicket soon came. Toby saw his medium pace hoiked high into the sky, the grey cloud acting as a natural sightscreen for a fielder who had plenty of time to consider his own position, and the catches that had gone down beforehand. He cradled it calmly, and the cheers rang out.
I arrived at the gate on the far side, thinking that it’s wooden frame offered me a nice upright resting spot and settled down to watch Marty bowl. Shoring up one end beautifully with his spin, dust shot into the air with every ball, the batters struggling to get any kind of power onto their shots; a few over had raced by before a late cut to four beat the despairing fielder on the fence in front of me, as the score crept up to 94/3 off 23.
Deservedly, he claimed the fourth wicket, the umpire’s finger being raised after the first time he had beaten the bat, leaving me to wonder quite why it had taken so long for him to come on. As I wondered, a yellow bi-plane buzzed over head, presumably out on a day trip from the local airfield – my suspicion is that it was a Tiger Moth, but I’m no historian of aviation.
The fourth wicket opened the floodgates, and the fifth fell before the 100 was reached, after a neat piece of juggling by the wicket-keeper, who looked to have let it past before plucking it cat-like out of the air in a display of fabulous agility. One wonders, seeing such moments in village cricket, about the nature of such inspiration – how much is the result of hours of training and basic muscle memory, how much is the brain, refusing to be defeated, and how much is pure talent?
I ponder this as the sixth wicket partnership begin to settle, showing discipline enough to leave as the scoreboard held firm, and I sit for just a few minutes before the long trek back to Hollingbourne for the train home. I survey this idyllic ground again before I leave, feeling blessed to have made the trip, and thankful to have seen cricket played, even just an excerpt from a much bigger whole.
I think back to my last visit to Leeds Castle, that group of youngsters full of possibility and hope, and wonder whether we have fulfilled the former or lost the latter. Maybe it doesn’t matter either way; our only destiny was the passage of time, and having been able to do that whilst they remain close to me has been something to cherish for nigh on twenty years.
Leeds & Broomfield rallied, reaching 157/7 off their 40 overs, nobody reaching more than 32, as Tobey Castle took two more wickets to end up with three.
Castle himself was the fourth Linton Park bat to fall, with the score at just 18, but they too recovered, Mark Christmas steadying the ship, and Sam Boyns bringing them home with just five balls to spare. Another three wickets from Castle in the next round, at Crowhurst Park down in Sussex, were in vain as Kent’s interest in the Village Cup was extinguished, but I will certainly look out for fixtures next year – nearly every ground I clicked on to read about was described as picturesque, and Leeds and Broomfield most certainly fit the bill.
¹We had, by that stage, covered the south of England, large parts of Wales, and even bits of my traditional stomping ground in northern England. He responded by taking the wicket of the day, clean bowled – no fielders required. Another fell at 45, and what had looked a good start had fallen victim of the Geoffrey Boycott test.