Bahrain restarts play at village ground

The Middle East comes to North Yorkshire tomorrow to revive a 300-year-old tradition. Michael Hickling reports from the boundary rope.

Cricket resumes after a 20-year hiatus in a glorious corner of Wensleydale tomorrow, with camels, traditional Arab headdress, an RAF fly-past and the band of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. How's that for pizzazz?

The first time a Coverbridge cricket team took the field was in 1706 – possibly the first village to do so in Yorkshire – and they clearly believe in getting things going again with a bang.

They have invited as opposition the Awali Camels, a team made up from expat Brits living in Bahrain. Performing on this lush spot, where the River Cover merges into the Ure, the Camels are going to feel slightly disadvantaged: they normally play on an an Astroturf mat laid out on rolled desert sand. They do have a Yorkshire connection however. Their late patron was Fred Trueman and a minute's silence before tomorrow's match will be held as a mark of respect.

The man with a foot in both dressing rooms and who has brought west and east together is Andrew Stephenson. A permanent resident of Coverbridge, he earns his living in the Middle East and plays for the Camels. "It's not about me it's about the community," he says. "Everyone is playing their part from sandwich-maker to flyers of fighter jets – we are part of the low-level training area for RAF Leeming, and their Hawks will be coming over."

It appears they were ready to move heaven and earth to put on a big local show. Unfortunately they were not able to move the historic pavilion. This used to be on the spot where the original 1706 match was played. This is a triangle of ground at the confluence of the Ure and Cover but was susceptible to flooding, and, some time before the last war the club upped sticks and put their stumps down in a more reliable field 500 yards away.

The pavilion went with them. The landowner later built a dyke that made the old spot playable again, and low-loaders and cranes have been employed to take the pavilion home. But after much huffing and puffing, by mid-week they had conceded defeat. It either stayed where it was or ended as a pile of matchwood.

Informal discussions about a cricket revival began in July last year, centring on the importance of tradition in rural Yorkshire – especially the link with two local landowning families – and the significance of amateur sport in maintaining community links.

The Coverbridge cricket revival group came into existence and decided that the rebirth should happen in this summer, 300 years since the first game and 20 years since the last.

Although generations of Yorkshiremen had played their cricket here through times of massive social change, by the 1980s changing patterns of farming and the demographics of rural life brought the demise of the club.

Farmer Tony Clarkson is one who welcomes its return He has been mowing and watering the pitch for several weeks in preparation for tomorrow's match moved the sheep to a different pasture to avoid too much disruption with the fielding.

"It all started at the funeral of an old lady," he says. "We were sitting in the Inn, discussing the passing of the years and the cycle of death and rebirth. We were thinking that at every stage something is lost that can't necessarily be regained. This is an attempt to halt the loss. It's more than just a game of cricket. We wanted to do something to reinstate some core values. We want to play cricket in a gentlemanly manner, not taking ourselves too seriously and reflecting our pride as a Dales hamlet."

Nick Harrington who runs the local historic pub, the Cover Bridge Inn, and is is coordinating the food, planned to provide a hog roast. "Then someone pointed out that it might not be appropriate for a visiting team from a Muslim country."

The visiting team will cut a dash with their flowing Arab headdress – the red and white guthra. "It might seem a little odd at first", adds Nick, "but Dales people are accommodating."

In 300 years the look of the hamlet has barely changed. It's the same old pub still serving local ale, and sheep still graze the isolated hillsides. Apart from the price of beer and the laws of the game, one of the original players might notice little difference.

Tomorrow marks the start of a revival season intended to provide a solid platform for the development of cricket in mid-Wensleydale. The aim is to make a small number of games spectacular and memorable social events.

"I know that the gory and unpleasant makes better news stories in the Middle East, especially at the moment," adds Andrew Stephenson. "I think this match shows something friendly and co-operative can come out of there as well."

It was in Bahrain on Christmas Day 1932 that the first oil strike was made in the Middle East. The engineers who came to develop the oil field were often from the UK and Australia, and the workers recruited to exploit it were from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – just about covering all the main cricket-playing nations.

The game took root even without grass wickets and the Awali Camels – formed in 1935 – have a beautiful ground where they have entertained, among other overseas visitors, MCC and Middlesex.

They hope to have better luck in Yorkshire than last time. In 1998 Fred Trueman invited the Camels to his home club of Cracoe, but the match was washed out due to a spectacular thunderstorm. Instead of playing, Fred spent the entire afternoon telling them about the shortcomings of the modern game.

The Coverbridge Revival Cricket Match, sponsored by the Black Sheep Brewery at Masham, is tomorrow at Coverbridge, on the A6108 between Middleham and East Witton.

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