Northants Steelbacks v Birmingham Bears

Tuesday 15th June 2021 – The Vitality Blast T20 – The County Ground, Northampton

Back in the day it wasn’t uncommon for football and cricket to be happy bed fellows. A predominantly winter sport marrying in harmony with a summer sport, using the same facilities. As both games have become more professional, the number of clubs, like marriage in general, has dwindled but there are still some examples of it. Emley FC still share their Fantastic Media Welfare ground with the local cricket club, as too does step 5 Stansted FC. Of course, football and cricket have both been played at major venues such as the MCG and the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, whilst there were plans a few seasons ago for the London Stadium to host Essex Eagles T20 games.

Two Football League clubs also have been married to both sports before. Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane originally opened as a cricket ground, regularly used by Yorkshire CCC in 1855, hosting an Ashes Test in 1902 before the building of the South Stand completely enclosed the football pitch in 1973. A hundred or so miles further south at Wantage Road, Northampton Town shared the County Ground with Northamptonshire CCC from 1897 to 1994, before they moved across town to Sixfields.

Today, there’s very little sign that a football club used to be co-tenants. The original main stand for the football team, on the Abington Road side, is now a smart indoor school and cricket centre, whilst seating curls around the edge of the outfield on what would have been the penalty box. It was here that George Best single-handedly demolished the Cobblers in 1970, scoring six goals in an FA Cup tie for Manchester United.

This was T20 game four of the season and was the most sedate. That’s not a criticism at all, it just didn’t seem like a T20 game, at least off the pitch. There were no fire cannons, the spectators, well spread out around the ground, politely applauded in between the loud snatches of music whilst the queues at the bars and toilets were non-existent – it felt like a County Championship game. Top marks to the club for their preparation and organisation skills. The County Ground felt like a home of a County Cricket Club – there were no temporary stands, with a mix of the old (pavilion) and the new (indoor school), all hemmed in by rows of terrace houses to the south and east, and parkland to the west.

I’d nabbed a parking spot in mid-afternoon an over-pitched ball’s length from the entrance and headed off to meet a mate who lived locally for a couple of beers. Sitting in a bar on the Wantage Road, I was distracted by a small white box on wheels trundling down the road. I had to do a double take as it looked like a robot lawn mower, but Tom explained what they were.

Northampton is trialling these remote food delivery bots, who use GPS and smart proximity technology to deliver food from local takeaways to diners. They know when to stop at traffic lights, when to cross roads and avoid traffic and pedestrians. When they arrive at their destination, you are sent a code to unlock the lid and away you go.

So onto the cricket. The match was billed as being against Birmingham Bears, although how popular the rebrand for this tournament is not clear. Wisden, the bible for cricket fans, listed this as Northamptonshire versus Warwickshire, whilst an away fan I was chatting to at the bar who lived in Warwick made his feelings clear that the team represented the whole of the county and not just the city. “There’s no team called London in the T20, is there?”. He had a point. Bar Durham, which is a city and a county, no other team in first class cricket deviates from their county name.

The team formerly known as Warwickshire in this competition won the toss and decided to bat. Opener Ed Pollock’s became the first player in this season’s tournament to be out first ball of the innings as he turned the delivery from White round the corner and into the hands of Buck. Pieter Malan wasn’t in the mood to be defensive and protect his wicket at the other end, sharing a 90 run stand with Sam Hain, who finished not out on 69, setting the home side 171, which seemed an achievable target on a flat pitch perfect for batting.

Alas, Northants were never in the game. They lost skipper and wicketkeeper Rossington for zero but a stand of 40 for the third wicket gave the home fans hope. But once Vasconcelos was bowled for 36, they fell apart, going from 65-3 to 82-9 in 6 overs. However, an embarrassing sub-100 score was avoided thanks to a 33 run stand for the last wicket, with the best bit of batting from Northants coming from Nathan Buck who finished not out on 26 from just 16 balls.

Northants ticked all the boxes for a great evening of T20. I’m sure the home side and their fans won’t want to chalk this one up as a classic performance but sometimes it is about the whole event rather than just the result and for that Northants can be very proud of how they performed.

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