The small-scale pleasures of Oxbridge matches
Three-thirty pm. The schedule is tight, but a few minutes can be squeezed in. Take the John Radcliffe exit off the Oxford bypass; dodge the ambulance heading down Headley Way; swing off the Marston Road and look for the free parking bay scouted out earlier on Google Maps. Park, alight, and retrieve coat: it is still April, after all.
The best part of a mile remains to the destination. Off, then, down the cycleway, leaving behind the low-slung housing estate, and plunging into the green expanse that quietly nestles so close to the centre of Oxford. Across the first bridge and over the cattle grid; through the meadow; up and over the second, and more signs of civilisation are swinging into view.
Leave the main path that continues westward past Linacre College towards St Cross Road, and to strike out northwards into the University Parks. A kissing gate in the iron railings provides the opportunity; past the rising traffic-control bollard, round the School of Pathology, and it is now not far.
There is yet little sign of cricket in the vicinity. One clue is discernible: in the distance, three navy blue semi-circular covers peep round the left-hand corner of what appears, seen from this side, to be an old residential property, or possibly a small museum. Indeed, on closer inspection, to the right-hand side, a small cluster of people can be glimpsed in profile, grouped together in such a way to indicate the presence of a hidden line in front of them. They must be spectators on the cover boundary.
The final approach is across the uneven ground, through the grass, and round the eastern corner of the afore-sighted Pavilion. Fortuitously, arrival has not coincided with an interval. Warwickshire have just started batting, and the left-handed Alex Mellor and William Porterfield are negotiating the Oxford attack with ease, despite the mandatory exclamations of the fielding students.
The Irish captain drives on the off side, beating the deep mid-off, and it speeds towards a little group of three or four figures in deep-blue training wear, leisurely ambling around the boundary. They jocularly comment on their common reluctance to risk a head injury from fielding it as it crosses the line. As they approach, their shapes resolve into those of Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, and Oliver Hannon-Dalby.
A spectator bids Bell a good afternoon, to which he responds politely. Another spectator waylays Trott and plies him with questions. "Favourite grounds in England?" "Lord's...Edgbaston." "Overseas?" "Er... Adelaide." Such interactions are par for the course here in the Parks. With no entrance fee charged, and little riding on the game, it provides a relaxed opportunity to witness the highest calibre of cricketers in an even less formal setting than a typical county game.
Occasionally the games receive particular attention on their own merit. In 2013, Oxford pressed hard and came close to a surprise victory over the same visitors, narrowly failing to chase down 155 by a 21-run margin. Often, however, external factors create more interest: in 2014, Warwickshire's last visit, interest was heightened through the first-class return of Trott. As it was, his bowling had more of an impact than his batting, as his two wickets outweighed a short-lived 8. In 2015, Kevin Pietersen blasted 170 from 149 deliveries in his bid for an England recall, albeit in a match that did not carry first-class status.
Joining Bell and Trott, wearing neither the regalia of the King of Spain, nor the suit that Warwickshire's Sport Director might normally don, Ashley Giles exits the pavilion. Clad in their low-key training wear, chugging gently around the boundary in second gear, the small band could be mistaken for local club cricketers at a mid-week net session, rather than the trio of Ashes winners they comprise. The inquisitive spectator has moved out of earshot, and the amused conversation in the group appears to have turned to his somewhat over-enthusiastic on-the-spot questioning. Yet he can be cut a little slack: chancing upon such an illustrious group would turn the head of many a cricket lover.
Despite the valuable benefits offered by the MCCU scheme, these games will remain an obvious target for those wishing to contract the season to make more time for T20 or other competitions. Already the County Championship has been reduced to 14 games; if the ECB holds to its current commitment to that number, these MCCU fixtures may soon find their traditional place in the schedule under threat.
This city may be lazily dismissed as a bastion of exclusivity, yet, along with its Cambridge opposite number, Fenner's, it provides a rare opportunity, open to all. Anyone can wander in and enjoy first-class cricket on a casual, relaxed basis, without charge: an undervalued privilege that should be appreciated, and seized, while it lasts. For English cricket finds itself in what might be coyly described as "interesting times". In the rush to forge a new future for domestic cricket, the hidden, small-scale pleasures of the present are easily overlooked.
Porterfield flicks another boundary, on this occasion through square leg. It is time to leave the scene and to dive back in to the quagmire of rush-hour Oxford traffic. It has been merely a few minutes of cricket, barely two overs of play, but it was far from a wasted diversion. It is enough to declare winter's end. We are now on British Summer Time; for the moment, at least.
Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK. @LiamCromar