A picturesque venue

The two-hour train journey from Southampton to Bristol, another port town, south-west of England, soothes one’s senses. The enchanting English countryside is on view. Over to S. Dinakar.

August 19: A bustling port city on the south coast of England, Southampton, during its heyday, was seen as a gateway to the nation. It still has a very busy harbour. A walk down the central market in the heart of Southampton takes me to what the locals just call ‘the monument,’ an ancient structure that has survived different rulers and several bloody battles. Also visible are the broken walls of what was once a walled township. Around history you have the modern shopping malls. Welcome to Europe.

August 20: The icy winds from the sea bring the jackets out in the English summer. Then, it begins to rain and the first India-England ODI of the NatWest series is under threat. The weather finally clears and the Indian practice sessio n at the Rose Bowl begins. This has to be among the most picturesque venues in world cricket. A little mountain faces the press box, and we can spot the double-deckers travelling uphill, a bunch of cars, parked further up, staring down at the venue from the elevated position, and the huge tress swaying in the gust. The Indians are in happy spirits. A Test series has just been won. The two coaches, Robin Singh and Venkatesh Prasad, get cracking with the boys. Skipper Rahul Dravid extends a welcoming hand with the words — “A traditionalist for a one-day series?” Well, we are all trying to change with the times. And with Twenty20 spreading its wings, the one-dayers do seem traditional! The teams are just winding up from their sessions, when an enterprising Bengali television reporter is seen rushing with his camera. He reaches on time to catch the legendary Ian Botham, emerging from the canopy, signing autographs, amidst a slew of smiles. The former all-round great is still hugely popular. Another big man, Andrew Flintoff, a cricketer not very different from Botham, is slated to make his comeback after a four-month lay-off, on Tuesday.

August 21: The area around the stadium has the look of a village fair. Canopies, little stalls, freshly cooked food, little children testing their bowling speed at the NatWest speed gun clinics — there are prizes for those who ma nage to hit the stumps — and more spectators arriving in more buses, the ambience is vibrant. This is a cloudy day, but streakers, and not rain, make an appearance. England wins by a mile. Former English cricketer Derek Pringle, now a cricket writer, says, “I had predicted a 5-2 triumph for India.” He is reminded that the margin is still possible. A sense of dejection sweeps through the large contingents of Indian supporters. Some of them are still optimistic. Things can change quickly in one-day cricket.

August 22: The two-hour train journey from Southampton to Bristol, another port town, south-west of England, soothes one’s senses. The enchanting English countryside is on view. The speeding train passes through small but sparkli ng towns, meadows, and patches of brilliantly brown landscape, before entering a much bigger town, rather city, Bristol, the next stop in a hectic one-day series cricket caravan. The sun’s out here and light bounces off the grass.

August 23: The roads leading to the Gloucester County cricket ground are narrow and winding, passing rows and rows of similar, tiled houses. It’s almost like a maze, but the cab driver comprehends the turns well. Soon we are at t he entrance of a venue steeped in history. The ground was purchased by the legendary W. G. Grace way back in 1889 and some great cricketers, including Walter Hammond and Zaheer Abbas, have paraded their skills here since. There is a Hammond Hall in the pavilion and a photograph of his glorious cover-drive adorns one of the walls. Meanwhile, a few prominent members of the Indian team, including Sachin Tendulkar, have been struck down by flu and are missing from the practice session. We also see floodlights on wheels, a concept that takes day/night cricket to the smaller venues. But will these lights be good enough?

August 24: It doesn’t matter to the Indian batsmen who bat under bright afternoon sunshine. Tendulkar makes a quick recovery but misses his century by a run, at the receiving end of yet another umpiring error. A mountain of runs are scored on a flat surface and India finishes at the right end of a humdinger. The Indian supporters celebrate outside the dressing room. Mr. Ted Corbett, a familiar name for Sportstar readers, wins a bottle of champagne for predicting the winner and the total number of runs scored in the match, very close to what is eventually achieved. Frank Duckworth of the famous and often contested Duckworth and Lewis method for rain-affected matches is around too. He is the D & L method manager for the ODI on a day of clear skies. “There could still be a stoppage if the floodlights fail,” he argues. He says the ludicrous situation that South Africa faced in the 1992 World Cup semifinal against England was the genesis of this method. “It was a mathematical problem, needed a mathematical solution,” he says. A short affable man with glasses and a receding hairline, Mr. Duckworth defends against the argument that says the rule tends to benefit the chasing side. “We took an average from over 700 one-day games and found out that the teams batting first won just over 50 per cent of the matches where the Duckworth and Lewis method was employed, which is close to the average ratio from all matches.” Of course, the duo is alive to urgent demands and a few alterations were made after the 2003 World Cup. “It is not possible to be completely fair when the weather intervenes,” Mr. Duckworth, however, concedes.

August 25: The teams arrive in Birmingham. There is some bad news for England. Andrew Flintoff has an inflammation on his right knee and is under a fitness cloud for the third ODI. There is no cloud cover on view though. The sun shines bright on a city of great charm. The series too is hotting up.