Do you remember the great heatwave of 1976? Of course you do, we all fled to the beaches and the parks, tore off our clothes and went lobster red for the summer. How about the great storm of 1987? The one Michael Fish didn’t predict, where trees were uprooted, roofing tiles were flung about with gay abandon, and we all took the day off work. Well, if you’re a Northampton Town FC fan – and of a certain age – you’ll also remember the great season of 1965-66, when the Cobblers played in the First Division; their one and only year in Football’s Top Flight since they were founded in 1897. To be fair it wasn’t that great a season as they only won ten matches out of forty-two (although they still finished higher than Blackburn). But for our little club it was the stuff that dreams are made on.
The Royal and Derngate have got together with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art and Seven Sisters Group to create The Twelfth Player, an original and interactive tour around the Sixfields Stadium. In groups of no more than four – and two would I think be preferable – you’re given an iPod which guides you round some familiar and some unfamiliar areas of the stadium. You walk around, at the pace directed by the iPod, and whilst so doing you follow the story of a mad fan family who keep popping up on your screen. You may also see some ghosts of the past in “real life”, and, if you’re lucky, bump into Clarence, the Cobblers’ mascot. The story weaves some significant figures of the club’s past into its present to give it an extra dimension which will probably appeal to true devotees of the club more than just your average visitor.
What it does provide is an opportunity to go “backstage”, as it were, and see the places you wouldn’t normally visit – the changing rooms, both home and away (I was really surprised by how small the shower areas are); the laundry area, and the famous “tunnel” which takes the players on to the pitch. You get to walk all around the pitch (sadly not on it) – although some guys were tinkering with some machinery at the corner of the pitch and I definitely got the feeling we were getting in their way, which slightly disrupted the illusion of the event!
There’s no doubt that this is a unique entertainment, approximately 40 minutes long, and I think you’d get the most out of it by being a big fan of the club or (even more) a child who is a big fan of the club. The technology is very clever and entices you in to the extent that you may occasionally forget to keep taking a good look around you, and not just concentrating on the screen! I was accompanied by Mr Flying the Flag who is a Northampton Town Nerd (he won’t mind me saying that) and he did point out that there were a couple of factual inaccuracies in some of the historical data given, which I guess is a shame. Not that I would have known. Primarily it’s a great chance to see the places only the professionals go; and I’m never going to come under that category! It’s on until 12th July – but not every day, so make sure you book ahead!
When I book theatre tickets I always like to be near the front if possible, which normally means paying the top price. Generally I would prefer to go less often but with the best seats, rather than finding myself stuck somewhere on a balcony gasping for oxygen whilst peering down on to a tiny stage miles away. With the Olympics, however, the best seats are likely to be several hundred pounds so that was never going to be an option – and for the football and boxing we bought the cheapest seats available. But for some inspired reason, when I bought the seats for the canoeing, I went for the top price (£60). And I am so glad I did, as Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves in Row 1 of Stand 1, virtually at eye level with the finishing line. I have never enjoyed such an excellent view at any sporting event ever!
As ever, the whole experience was made so much more enjoyable by the twin ingredients of enthusiastic volunteers and gamesmakers, and superb seamless planning and logistics. For Eton Dorney, we chose to Park-and-Ride at Stafferton Way in Maidenhead, which involved driving to a car park and then getting a shuttle bus. Originally I had thought we could go by train; but, according to the London 2012 travel site, in order to get to Maidenhead station early enough to negotiate the shuttle service, walk and airport security, we would have had to have departed Northampton at about 8.30pm the night before. Thus we opted for the 90 minute drive. The Park-and-Ride was an excellent choice; we were nicely parked up and had joined the briefest of queues for the shuttle bus within moments of our arrival. The Shuttle Bus takes you to Windsor Racetrack, where you walk on a carpet of temporary plastic bricks for about a kilometre to get to the security check-in.
The gamesmakers were really on top form, welcoming and helloing, guiding your journey to the entrance. Shortly before the security area the path breaks into two – should you go left or right? One megaphoned volunteer announced: “you may take either the left or right path. The queue on the left is a little shorter, but the staff on the right are a little better looking”. We went right. Once through, another megaphoned gamesmaker, the self-styled Mr Happy, was welcoming guests. “I like happy couples” he said, “you make me happy when you look happy”. He had a bon mot for everyone walking past. He really made me laugh. Inspire a generation – I want to be a gamesmaker when I grow up.
As we had to leave home at an ungodly hour, we then went on a breakfast hunt. Fortunately Mrs C had been very sensible and brought with her some pre-buttered gluten-free bread. Roast beef rolls from a hog-roast-type stall were a rather unorthodox breakfast but very filling and actually quite delicious. They kindly didn’t charge us for Mrs C’s unused roll, so two huge chunks of roast beef each and one roll cost £12.50. We perched on the edge of some concrete stand and slowly breakfasted. Then it was time for a pre-sport toilet break – Mrs C reported nothing remarkable from her visit to the Ladies, but I was astounded at the positioning of the urinal in the portacabin type construction that I used. With the door open, anyone queueing for breakfast baguettes would have received a complementary eyeful of activity at the urinal. I decided to opt for a cubicle.
Once inside the stand, we decided to make ourselves comfortable and await the sports. I would suggest you take some kitchen towels or tissues because the seats were pretty wet from dew. Fortunately I had kept my roast beef roll serviettes, which were fine for the purpose. On the big screen opposite, we had two genial hosts introducing the activities of the day; and throughout the morning (our session was 9.30 – 12.30) they either interviewed participating canoeists and kayakists, or entertained the crowd with Mexican Wave practice and Bongo-cam, which is where a camera alights on you unexpectedly and you have to play the bongos to a suitable backing track to the hoots of laughter of your immediate friends and the wider derision of Eton Dorney as a whole. It’s funnier than it sounds. I didn’t get the lady’s name but he was called Dave. They did a very good job of keeping everything moving and engaged inter cursus although with a race every seven minutes or so, there’s not a lot of down time. He modelled his “look to camera” on Brian from Big Brother, which might not be an entirely wise move. The other amuse bouche which remanifested itself continually throughout the morning was Mandeville and Wenlock’s song, “On A Rainbow”. They’re the London 2012 mascots, if you hadn’t worked it out. It’s a bustling bright little number that would be perfect in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest and revels in jolly lines like “who knows how far you may go when you travel on a rainbow”. You’d be very hard-hearted not to adore it, even after being forced to hear it six times in one morning.
The sporting programme for the morning itself was, we were told, historically unique in that it was the first time 200m canoe and kayak sprints had been introduced to the Olympic Games. They’re rather exciting to watch, and rarely take more than 40 seconds or so to complete, so these guys and girls are the Usain Bolts of their sport. Men’s single and double kayaks, Men’s single canoes and Women’s single kayaks, all doing 200m at a dash; firstly heats, then semi-finals. The heats were a little odd; depending on how many participants there were in the heats, to progress through to the next round you had to finish in the top five or six positions. However, in some of the heats, there were only six competitors anyway – so they all got through. It was more like a dress rehearsal really. In fact, in the Men’s single canoes, there were four heats in which 25 competitors took part – and only one of them didn’t get through to the semi-finals, poor Mr Demyanenkov from Azerbaijan – and even he had a quicker course time than seven other participants who did get through. The vagaries of sport, heh?
We did of course loudly cheer all the Team GB competitors, all of whom got through their heats and three of whom made it through the semis into the finals which would take place the next day. A couple of rows behind us there were about ten very vociferous French spectators who went ecstatic every time one of their countrymen or women took to the water. There were also some Australians, Canadian, Slovaks, and many other nationalities all supported. There were also some plucky competitors who finished way behind the others in their heats and semis, but who still got massive rounds of applause when they eventually crossed the finishing line. Probably the winner of the “kayaking outside his league” award was Nelson Henriques of Angola who not only crossed the line a long time after his rivals, but also delayed the beginning of each of his races by his inability to get into starting position in the first place. That’s the kind of sportsman I would be.
So 23 races constituting a good three hours worth of entertainment, in a very good-humoured crowd, with a fabulous view of the action and in glorious sunshine. What more could you want? The trip back to the Shuttle buses was quick and easy – with the gamesmakers lining the route for Hi-Fives all the way back, if you felt so inclined; even one of the bazooka wielding policemen was Hi-Fiving everyone; a trifle risky, I thought. Mr Happy was still on his perch, being happy and encouraging everyone to come back tomorrow because that would make him really happy. If you’re missing any prozac, he’s got to be a suspect. No queues for the shuttle bus, and the exit from the Park-and-Ride car park took about three minutes. I doubt if we’ll get any last minute tickets to any other events, so that wraps up our Olympic experiences. Great memories! And if you went to any Olympic events, I hope you cherish the memories too.
After a day’s Armchair Olympics, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were up and out on a mid-morning train to London for some Flyweight and Welterweight Boxing Rounds at the ExCel. Lots of firsts for us here – neither of us had seen live boxing before, nor had we been to the ExCel, nor had we trekked out that far into the wilds of Docklands. When I amateurishly dabbled with Postgraduate life at Queen Mary College in East London in the early 1980s, this area was largely a wasteland. Mile End, Stratford and such places always had some liveliness, but one never ventured out as far as Canning Town. The DLR has opened up a whole new area which we had never seen. This was only our second ever trip on the DLR – the first being a good 15 years ago when we were in the company of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle taking her on an excursion to Greenwich, where she spent the whole day scowling, as was her wont in those days. But I was amazed at how developed, lively, trendy and generally fabulous this part of East London has turned out to be. The ExCel is actually alongside the Royal Victoria Dock, where I believe my paternal grandfather worked; and not far from George V Docks, where both my dad and his brother laboured as teenagers. How times have changed.
A quick check of my Tube Map App recommended the Northern Line from Euston to Bank then DLR to Custom House. Quite easy – approximately 33 minutes. When we arrived at Euston, however, the recommended Olympic route, on all the information boards, was Victoria Line to Kings Cross, then Circle Line to Liverpool Street, walk to the mainline station, take the Overground to Stratford, walk 6 minutes to Stratford DLR, and from there head to Custom House – 1 hour 8 minutes. Or alternatively, with one fewer change, (but three minutes longer), tube it to Highbury and Islington, then take the overground to Stratford. Why all the fuss? We just went to Bank, changed nice and simply to the DLR and arrived at Custom House station long before we needed to, so much so that we stopped off for a decent cuppa tea at a bar adjacent to the station, which was awash with accredited people from all nations of the world.
Very jolly and friendly security checks got us into the ExCel. We walked its length and breadth and soaked up the atmosphere, which really was rather splendid. Not only does it house the Boxing, but also Judo, Weightlifting, Table Tennis, Fencing, Wrestling and Taekwondo. As our sports session was from 1.30 to 3.30pm, we thought we’d have a light lunch at one of the stalls. Again this involved the usual gluten-free hunt, but that was quite easily achieved by the appearance of a large and tasty looking Jacket Potato stall, so both Mrs C and I had a Jacket Spud with cheese and beans (£5.50 each) and some water. We sat on the floor, ate, drank and were merry.
Once you get inside the Boxing area itself, there are more food and drink stalls, plenty of toilets and a little semi-museum of boxing artefacts and full size shrines to famous boxers. A guy who looked as though we would be handy with his fists was posing next to a lifesize cardboard cut out of some boxing champion or other. His lady was attempting to take a photo that would doubtless serve as The Perfect Facebook Profile Pic. Looking round the museum area, I tried to find some references to the amateur boxers my Mum knew when she was young and carefree, but drew a blank. We wandered around a little more, and saw a weigh-in machine, and a few other exhibits. We turned to go into the arena, pausing to watch the posing guy still with his dukes up and bearing a very pained and embarrassed expression as his lady was still fiddling uselessly with the camera. I think the fun moment was lost.
Once inside the arena, I was impressed with the overall size of the room but felt the boxing ring itself looked a bit dwarfed by everything else. There were plenty of TV screens to help you see the action a bit clearer and closer up but if you’re going to rely on those you might as well stay at home. A jovial announcer chap introduced us to some video which explained the finer points of this noble art; and then he interviewed a few excited punters. Apart from the relatively small area obviously set aside for the “Olympic Family”, it was good to see that the hall was more or less full. The crowd was very expectant for the final bout as that would feature Great Britain’s Fred Evans’ fight against Lithuania’s Egidijus Kavaliauskas, so it was almost as though the seven matches before it were like a warm-up act.
What became very obvious as the afternoon wore on is that Olympic Boxing is highly tactical. You win by scoring points – and you get a point every time the knuckle edge of your glove strikes your opponent in the appropriate target place – head or torso. Points make prizes, and no score is no glory. There were a couple of bouts where the two boxers, admittedly nimble on their toes, spent what seemed like hours just tippety-tapping their gloves against their opponents glove, for which cheeky approach the opponent would just tippety-tap back. A typical end of round score for this type of shenanigans was 2-1. All tactics and no fisticuffs, which is actually a bit boring to watch, especially when you’re sat at a distance from the ring. They may have floated like a butterfly, but some of them stung like one too. There were, however, definitely some boxers who showed more fighting spirit than others. There was a 17 year old flyweight Puerto Rican, Jeyvier Cintron Ocasio, who was suitably polite and reverential to his elders and betters outside the three minute rounds but then went hammer and tongs at his opponent, the Brazilian Neto, during the match itself. Amongst the welterweights, Canadian Custio Clayton eventually seemed to get the idea that a little aggression is necessary and his final round against the rather overwhelmed Australian Cameron Hammond was worth staying awake for.
In order to overcome the tedium of paying attention to each second of each round, the crowd as a whole developed coping strategies. The most popular was to get up at all times during the session, whether it be before, during, or after any particular round, and go to the bar. Unlike at the football, you were allowed to bring alcohol into the arena. Some people took this opportunity several times during the two hours. It was as though they regarded their (at least) £50 tickets as entry to a very expensive club, where you simply go and get drinks for everyone, and there’s a bit of boxing going on as minor background diversion.
The next most popular activity was checking Facebook. Every other smartphone was lit up with that familiar blue and grey screen, as husbands commented on action pics and wives chatted to girlfriends. The other entertainment activity – the boxing equivalent of the Mexican Wave really – is to pick on an unlikely competitor and support them for no good reason whatsoever. It only takes one mischief maker to start up the cry “Mon-Go-Lia! Mon-Go-Lia!” for the whole crowd to join in and support the plucky pugilists from Ulaan Bator. I saw the person who started the Mongolia chant – he was about four seats in front of me – and I can tell you the nearest he’s been to a yurt was the camping sale at Millet’s. There’s no doubt the chant worked wonders – we had two Mongolian boxers in our session and they both upped their game in response to our admiration, although the Welterweight still lost – dashed close though. The mischievous chanter got bored – and with good reason – at the dull tactical bout between Ukraine’s Shelestyuk and Moldova’s Belous, and started up a “Mol-Dov-A! Mol-Dov-A!” chant; but we knew what game he was playing, and no one was having any of it. After a dozen or so lone shouts, he shut up, embarrassed.
The whole thing is a surprisingly theatrical event. The entrances of the boxers; the arrival of the next lot of judges and referees like a changing of the guard; the pantomime reactions of the crowd. There were no busty blondes walking the number of the next round inside the ring, but I guess we weren’t in Vegas. For that final match between Britain and Lithuania, not only did the crowd sing with one voice “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” but they also loudly booed poor Mr Kavaliauskas, which was unsportsmanlike and I wasn’t very happy with it. Even less happy was I with the booing that met M. Vastine of France and Signor Picardi of Italy, whose sole transgressions were to have been pitted against a Mongolian. Still, I cheered on Freddie like he was an old mate, even if he was extremely tactical in his approach to his opponent; and as my reward Evans did give him a good going-over in the last round to seal his victory. I’m not sure what would have happened if he had lost – the judges would have been lynched.
When it was all over we all got up quickly, and, ignoring Seb Coe’s recorded message of “thanks and bye”, we left the arena and headed down towards Pontoon Dock station to get the DLR, but first to enjoy a brief side visit to the Thames Barrier Park – for yes, it is indeed just here – and a rather enjoyable view of the Barrier. We had decided to go home for dinner (by home I mean eating out in Northampton, not actually “at home” of course) but thought we might first see what the West End was looking like in the height of London’s Olympic frenzy. I would say it was a little quieter than usual – particularly as far as traffic was concerned. Charing Cross Road barely had any. After a nice little Pinot Grigio in Covent Garden, we made our way back. A fascinating day out – not quite as entertaining as we had expected but well worth the experience; and a continued Hats Off to the organisers and volunteers who have made this Olympics a most extraordinary thing.
As I’m sure you’re aware, dear reader, deep down Mrs Chrisparkle and I are very sporty types, so I put our application in for the ballot for Olympic tickets on Day One, what seems like many years ago now. Like nearly everyone else, we were completely unsuccessful in all of our choices. But that meant we were entitled to go for the Sad Losers’ Repecharge, and subsequently obtained tickets to three sports, totally unrelated to the six of our original application. Still, once we got them, we held on to them, and on Wednesday we sampled our first taste of Live Olympic Glory.
Coventry was the perhaps slightly unlikely location for this momentous event, as some of the football events are being held at the Ricoh Arena – I mean the City of Coventry Stadium (close shave with the Branding Police there!) We arrived at the station courtesy of our London Midland train on perfect time, and were greeted by about a dozen joyful volunteers whose sole job seemed to be to say hi and welcome and point to where the complimentary Shuttle Buses were waiting. Within 60 seconds of getting off the train we were sitting on the bus – you can’t say fairer than that. And very soon we were off on the first leg of Glory.
At the stadium, we were asked to take everything out of our pockets and put them into a clear plastic bag that they kindly provided; any small bags could be taken straight through, but any larger ones had to be security checked. “This counts as small, yes?” said Mrs C to the friendly lady, pointing at her handbag. “No. That needs to go through security.” But the procedure was about as speedy and pleasant as it could be. We were rapidly whisked to a nice lady who asked permission to open Mrs C’s bag, agreed that everything inside was perfectly valid and non-terrorist, and then put her bag into another large clear bag, tie-twisted it up with an enormous security tag that could have restrained an oak tree, and we were cleared to enter. A friendly lady asked if I wanted to buy a programme. Yes please. But there are £5 and £10 programmes, and the lady went into careful detail to explain the difference between the two. I opted for the fiver.
More friendly people waved us towards the turnstile entrances, with “hello” and “welcome” and “have a nice day” and it all sounded really genuine and welcoming. It’s a pity Life can’t be more like the Olympics, really. Mrs C and I were separated at the turnstile into “men” and “women” queues so that we could be same-sex-frisked (“Don’t mind if I pat you down, sir?” politely enquired the presumably G4S security guy) and then it was a quick scan of a barcode and we were inside. They say in advance to expect airport-style security. They are wrong; it is hugely more friendly and polite than any airport experience I’ve ever had.
Once inside there is a vast array of food and drink outlets – more than enough to deal with this crowd you would have thought…. (see later). We established which would be the best one to offer a gluten-free meal for between the matches. Nearly every one was offering steak pie, pasty, cheese and bacon slice, etc and we thought uh-oh this doesn’t look promising. I distinctly remembering reading on some London 2012 site that they had put a lot of thought into providing for the sustenance needs of people with food allergies. We kept looking. Eventually we found two outlets that were offering Chicken or Vegetable Jalfrezi, with rice and naan. We had already thought that a glass of pre-match wine would be a good idea so ordered two London 2012 Chenin Blancs and asked whether the Jalfrezi was gluten-free. After some backstage consultation the lady came back and said yes! We said great! We’ll be back later. The Chenin Blanc was just about cold enough but very tasty and we stood in front of a screen and watched Bradley Wiggins coasting home to victory, to a huge cheer from the others also watching.
I’m pleased to say there is plenty of toilet provision, which is always a Good Thing. For the gents, a veritable plethora of urinals; I reckon at least 300 people could use them at the same time, and that was just on our side of the stadium. Ladies were also well catered for, I understand. However, Mrs C’s enjoyment of the toilet provision was marred by the overzealous actions of the Branding Police. I had noticed in the Gents that the name of the company supplying the hot air dryers had been masking-taped-over. Didn’t give it a huge amount of thought to be honest. Mrs C, however, complained that not only did they do that in the Ladies with the hot air dryers, but also with the soap dispenser, the Sanitary Towel bin and most ridiculously of all, with the names on the vending machine. So you couldn’t tell if you were buying an urgently needed tampon or a tangerine-flavoured condom. She came out speechless with annoyance about it, finding it an insult to her intelligence. So much so, gentle reader, and don’t tell anyone, but, aggrieved by the wrong done to the sisterhood, she returned back inside and removed the masking tape from the vending machine. As she pointed out, if you had bought the tangerine-flavoured condom by mistake you would be more than narked. A little civil disobedience from time to time is just something that has to be done.
The first of the two matches we would be seeing was Japan v Honduras. Not a lot of Honduran shirts or flags in evidence, but, my, what a lot of Japanese! Every other person had a red dot on a white oblong painted on their face, loads of people wrapped themselves in large Japanese flags, ladies were in sporty kimonos, guys were dressed in full Samurai warrior outfits. The atmosphere was tangibly exciting. They were really throwing themselves into the spirit of the event in a way that I hadn’t expected.
We took our seats; and they were great. East stand, more or less in line with the front end of the penalty box, about fifteen rows back. Everyone of course is currently concerned with Empty Seat Syndrome, but I didn’t think the ground was looking that bad. People kept coming in and going out so it was difficult to gauge the attendance but it looked to us about 75% full. The teams came on; we had the National Anthems. Everyone stood in respectful silence for both anthems (apart from the Japanese who sang along, which was only right and proper).
And from then on, it got a bit boring. The match wasn’t very exciting – both Japan and Honduras were already through to the next round so there wasn’t a great deal to play for apart from a bit of honour on the day. I’m certainly not saying they did a “Badminton”, they just weren’t very good at finishing. Or starting, come to that. At half time we were thrown big bouncy balls to play with. That was good. Second half came, still not a lot of action, but we hang on till the final whistle to mark the end of the thrilling no score draw.
There was a good hour between the end of the match and the beginning of the Senegal v UAE match so we thought there would be plenty of time to queue for a Jalfrezi. Actually Mrs C had suggested we leave five minutes early to queue, but we decided that ought not to be necessary. Wrong! When we eventually got to the outlet in question, there was a very long queue. Should we join it, or come back when it has gone down? We joined. After half an hour we were close to the counter, but then – disaster struck. They ran out of pies. Everyone else was desperate for pies, it seems, and they were waiting for fresh supplies to go in the oven. But instead of trying to find out if anyone wanted anything else to eat, they just stopped serving. And waited. They would serve people who just wanted drinks, but that was all. Eventually extra pies arrived, but not before some people had got unsurprisingly very arsey and tetchy about it. In fact I was surprised at the amount of good grace and forbearance most of the customers showed. After 45 minutes of queueing we were finally able to order. Two Vegetable Jalfrezis and two glasses of your Finest London 2012 Tempranillo Shiraz, if you please. I paid for it all (£22.40 – judge for yourself if that’s good value or not). First one Jalfrezi arrived. The server scampered away. Then two little bottles of wine were plonked on the counter – no glasses. The server scampered away again. A guy waiting for a pie admired the fact that they served wine by the neck – we agreed it was a classy joint and no mistake. Eventually another Jalfrezi appeared, which we grabbed quickly. “Have you got any glasses for the wine please?” No – but we could have the polystyrene cups they use for coffee. So we found a quiet corner – not – and ate our Jalfrezis (very nice actually) and drank our wine (surprisingly delish). The naam bread turned out to be pitta but because of the stupid time it took to queue and get served we missed the first 15 minutes of the next match and so I certainly wasn’t in the mood to question their Trades Descriptions.
Our late return was a shame because it was much more exciting than the first match. Senegal and UAE were really at it hammer and tongs, especially in the second half, with lots of near misses and agonised oohs and aahs from the largely non-partisan crowd, Senegalese drum beats notwithstanding. There were a couple of goals though, both at our end of the pitch, so it was very rewarding to watch. The 1-1 draw was fair I thought. The majority of the Japanese supporters had gone home after the first match so the stands looked much emptier but it didn’t spoil the atmosphere. The official attendance was 28,652 – apparently Coventry City’s average home crowd for 2011-2012 was 15,118. So that’s all good then.
Would the trip home be as seamless as the way in? Absolutely. Vast swathes of farewelling volunteers pointed us towards the shuttle buses and there really were a helluva lot of those too. They must have rounded up every stray bus in Warwickshire. Considering we left the stadium at around 9.40pm we were back at Coventry station at 10.20pm – that’s pretty good service. On arrival at the station we were still being welcomed, goodbyed and missing-you-alreadyed by volunteers and got on an extra train that those nice people at London Midland had provided that arrived at 10.23pm.
A really enjoyable day. Highlights: atmosphere, organisation, friendliness, goals. Lowlights: food queues and overzealous Branding Police. You may read that the Olympic powers that be don’t want you to take bags into football arenas. Our advice would be, bring your own choice of food from home and enjoy it picnic-style – although no drinks of course, you’ll need to get those from the well-stocked bars. There is a big Marks & Spencer just outside the stadium, which was calling Mrs C’s name as we arrived, so you could also stock up on eatables there. Do that and you’ll have a much more relaxing – and probably tastier – time. Anyway, what’s with this “no alcohol inside the ground” rule? Why is it safe to drink it in the outside areas, where people are milling around and bumping into one another, and not safe to drink it when you are sitting down? The bizarreness of this rule became very obvious at half time in the second match when we all got up to go out and encountered a poor man trying to get in with two hot coffees in either hand with which he was desperately trying not to scald himself as tons of us bombarded past him. If he had been carrying alcohol and it got spilt, it would have only resulted in tears not bandages.
What do I know about the noble art of cricket? Which is the best guard? Seamers and spinners? Mid off or mid on? L B or W? Not much. But I thought it was high time I learned a bit, and it occurred to me that I had never been to a “proper” cricket match. And living a mere 30 minutes stroll from Northamptonshire’s Cricket Ground, where better to start than with their match against the touring India side, as yet not showing that much star form in their series against England.
Well, they didn’t show much star form against Northants either. Their 1st innings total was 352 for 9. After contending with an unwelcome shower or two, Northants were left with 84 overs to beat that score. And they ended up at 355 for 7. That was with three balls to spare. Somehow, apparently, this score equates to a draw between the two sides because it was a two-innings match. Don’t quite get that, but it’s undeniably true that India didn’t win, as I had surely expected.
So what can I tell you of my day at the cricket? It was a sell-out, and the crowd were extremely friendly. As the day progressed, the Indian drums started, the flags started getting waved, and for the last two hours the cricket was almost secondary to the mini-parade of Indian fans dancing their way around the entire ground. Twice. A big local ginger lad, sporting a Northampton Saints Rugby shirt, seemed to take the Indians to heart and he headed the flag waving and dancing processions, much to the delight of the Indians in the crowd.
We were seated in the midst of some Indian brothers, sisters and cousins, who were all very entertaining company and not afraid to make lively and frequently hilarious comments about the proceedings. I’m afraid I couldn’t identify any of the players, but when an Indian fielder came near the boundary where we were sitting (the County Stand as I now know) this guy behind us would shout out the cricketer’s name and things like “Hey! India’s Next Captain!” or “Hey! Will you marry my sister?” of “Hey! Give us a wave!” To a man the Indian cricketers in question ignored his calls, despite the fact that he had bigger lungs and better vocal projection than Pavarotti.
When Andrew Hall, the Northants Captain – not playing that day – was seen walking around the stands, this guy called out “Hey! Andrew Hall! Give us a wave!” To which Mr Hall duly gave a little wave, like the one Rowan Atkinson did on Not The Nine O’Clock News before he walked into a lamppost. Later on Andrew Hall, this time accompanied by an attractive young lady selling tickets, walked around again, now with the raffle prize, a framed bat signed by Sachin Tendulkar. It was drawing a lot of attention. The man on the tannoy called out: “People are asking what the raffle prize is and when it will be on sale. I’m not sure what the prize is but I can confirm tickets will be on sale after lunch.” Andrew Hall and his ticket lady looked at us in disbelief. “He’s making my job much harder” she complained. Mrs C and I went in for the raffle. I spent the entire afternoon fantasising about where we could put the bat if I won. Mrs C thought that Ebay would be the best location for it. In any case some other chap won it. Sigh.
As India performed worse and worse throughout the afternoon, the Indian supporters started to get a bit restless with their team. The fielder, who had earlier been considered marriage material for the girl next to me, returned to our section of the boundary. “The marriage is off – you’re useless!” she cried out.
I hadn’t quite comprehended how the majority of youngsters attending the match spent the entire time running up and down the boundary trying to get the fielders to sign their mini-cricket bats. It’s a complete subculture. They must hardly get to see any of the real match, because they’re always leaning over the barrier waving their mini bats at these guys; who, let me tell you, look every inch as though they loathed every second of the attention. When they did sign the bats, they did it with the most scowly face imaginable.
I am pleased to tell you though that Mrs Chrisparkle and I had a splendid time. We sat down about 10.30am. At around 11, we had our first corned beef roll. Then at 12 we had a big bag of crisps. At 12.30 we had some stuffed vine leaves and a cheese roll. At 1.15 we broke open the Semillon Chardonnay. More rolls followed, and at about 3.30, in time for tea, we had some almond slices. Isn’t sport wonderful? It rained a little occasionally but for the most part the sun shone; being a woman, Mrs C was able to multitask watching the cricket and reading The Independent at the same time. It all finished at about 6.20pm. Incredibly good value we thought at £15 per person. We’re both keen to go again.