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Cricket news - County cricket - a thread to the past, a refuge from the present
May's Bounty in Basingstoke is a small ground, more of a square with the corners knocked off rather than round or oval. There's a gentle slope from the Castlefield End and all along one side is the Fairfields School, where John Arlott was once a pupil.
One day in July 1977, a guy called David Rock went there to play for Hampshire against Nottinghamshire. He had just got into the Hampshire team, and in his life, he would play only 37 first-class games.
But today, when he looked down at the scorecard there was his name, DJ Rock, just below those of BA Richards and CG Greenidge. The pavilion at May's Bounty had a flat roof that acted as a balcony for the players' dressing rooms. David Rock heard that Hampshire were batting, so he got his pads on and sat down to watch the start of play.
You'd have to be some kind of cricket tragic to remember David Rock now. If you search his name online, the first 'David Rock' you hit is some kind of business performance guru. He was 20 years old in 1977, and two years later he would be done with professional cricket.
Perched on a bench at the edge of the boundary at May's Bounty you were no more than sixty yards from the middle, so the action was visceral in its way. David Rock went in early that morning as Clive Rice got Greenidge in the first over and then Richards soon afterwards.
I don't remember much about the specifics of the day beyond David Rock scoring the second hundred of his career. He used a Duncan Fearnley bat, and, maybe unconsciously, he looked like Barry Richards did when he played from the front foot: tall and strong.
No other Hampshire player made more than 26. Dilip Doshi took 3-35 from 19 overs, John Birch another three with his medium pacers. And something weird must have happened in the second over of the day because the scorecard shows Peter Hacker, the other opening bowler, with figures of 0.3-0-0-0.
That day of county cricket was my first, part of a school trip. The county game can seem eternal, a long river with a distant source. It has endless numbers of those half-forgotten days at grounds like Basingstoke, and they contain multitudes, generations, lifetimes. The Championship has been official since 1890, but really it began in 1864, and counties have been playing against one another since 1709, when Surrey met Kent.
Men born in the 1600s understood what a county match was and this season the first players born in the 2000s will play in it. That's a span of five centuries, and to play in the Championship, or simply to watch it, somehow joins you to this thread of time.
It's both enduring and delicate, never more precarious than now, when the speed and volume of life can be overwhelming. Perhaps not since W.G. Grace wrote to The Sportsman newspaper a few days after the Battle of Mons in 1914 to suggest that the Championship be suspended while there was a war on has the competition appeared as vulnerable.
David Rock's match at May's Bounty was played over three days. The County Championship is, therefore, the only sporting competition that has responded to the passage of time by getting longer - matches are now played over four, and so it sits like a house with motorways running either side of it, the traffic flying past at ever increasing speed. Next year comes the Hundred, like it or not.
With an aim to give it some kind of clear benefit, a purpose beyond the purpose of existing, the Championship has been charged with producing international cricketers. In a way this reduces it to a cypher, a means to an end, when one of its real glories is the players who aren't and will never be internationals. Those who have hit the ceiling of their talent. There have been thousands of those, thousands of David Rocks and John Birches, and we all hold our favourites close.
The public's fondness for it is apparent in a different way now. Online, it is a new refuge from daily life, something that can be sneakily followed from a boring office or listened to through a concealed ear bud. The traffic flies past, the grounds aren't often full, but it is loved.
For some reason at this time of year, I often think of David Rock and what might have happened to him. A while ago I found a blog about Hampshire cricket history, and there he was. He had returned to the club for the 1980 season but decided to retire before it started.
The story goes on: "For a few years he played for Portsmouth CC in the Southern League, but apparently after one game he took a lift from his skipper and got out of the car telling him to keep the kit. As far as I know, he never played cricket again, although I saw him once in the early 1990s watching Hampshire from the Rugby Club bar at the United Services Ground [at Portsmouth]."
It's tempting to read something into his sudden retirements, if that's what they were. But I hope that David Rock was happy in that bar, looking out on something that joins us all, something to which he belonged.
Jon Hotten will be writing regular columns for CricBuzz throughout the English summer. Follow him at @theoldbatsman
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