Magazine article The Spectator

Where the Super Sopper Soaks It Up and the Incunabula Glow

Magazine article The Spectator

Where the Super Sopper Soaks It Up and the Incunabula Glow

Article excerpt

There is something luxurious about enjoying, in a highly distilled form, two totally distinct - even, one might think, incompatible - pleasures in a single day. It is the kind of experience Henry James might have dwelt on at length; and, now I re-read it, that first sentence of mine has an uneasy Jamesian - or is it Jacobean? ring, as though the Master were peering over my shoulder. But to business. What I am talking about is a visit to Wormsley, the bosky estate near Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire, which Sir Paul Getty has turned into a twin temple of cricket and bibliography. It is only 30 minutes' drive from central London, a short turn off the M40, and the sylvan splendour, the intense agrestic or pastoral peace which descends immediately you pass the gate-posts, is itself a palpable joy. Here are English longhorns, taking their ease and eyeing you with princely condescension, their elegant whorls of fine ivory indicating their lineage, and here are hanging woods which creep down the folds of low hills into rich pastures, nature resplendent but not without a touch of human artistry.

But the cricket ground! Here indeed is a work of art, as though Lorenzo de Medici. or, better still, Pope Julius II, had decided that Christendom must be adorned with the world's perfect cricket pitch. and had commanded Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael to put their heads together and create it. It was the last match of the season, indeed of the millennium, but the perfect turf was still unscorched, unworn, virescent, putting Wimbledon's Centre Court to shame with its emerald effulgence. There is something majestic about a vast curving expanse of perfect, even grass; each tiny blade unique yet part of a limitless army drilled and marshalled for our delight. And the majesty is enhanced when, as in this case, a motor-mower of unimaginable width has cropped the whole into perfect oblongs, identical to a millimetre, and then recropped them laterally into almost invisible squares which, like rhythmic palimpsests, emerge through the even aquamarine.

No expense of human ingenuity or labour, no spark from boffin-land, has been spared to keep the wicket trim and usable. A nostalgic, bucolic thatch may adorn the scoring hut, and indeed the pavilion, but great contemporary machines are on hand to perform wonders. I noted a monstrous mechanical chariot called a Super Sopper, which rolls giant areas of sponge over the pitch to soak up moisture and defy the rain clouds. And near by was a huge Hover Dryer, which spins ferociously over the stilldamp turf and completes the desiccation. What, are there no sticky wickets, then, on this perfect ground? It certainly invites mighty strokes, for it is big and the boundary far, and the batsman must swing powerful shoulders behind the blade to earn four runs. Just beyond the outfield there is a bronze life-size statue of a master batsman showing them how to do it. It is by that formidable sculptor Gerald Laing, and let into the plinth are four exquisite low-reliefs showing the progress of the ball from bowler's arm to boundary, an elegant conceit worthy of this theatre of perfection.

In Arcadia, good manners come naturally, and the cricket was gentlemanly, though not without gritty professional skills. Since I began to attend first-class cricket in the 1930s, it has changed - at the Test-match level anyway - beyond recognition, a facilis descensus Al eno, with its sulphurous and mephitic combination of armour and glaring colours, bad temper, force and trickery, umpire-defiance and worship of money won by yobbery, so that I cannot bear to watch it. …

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