Richard Gillis, Irish Times
Ireland spent the bank holiday on the road, their first away trip since returning from the Caribbean. The counties lay in wait with a quiet determination to put the upstarts in their place. They'd read the headlines, clocked the chicken dance and seemed unwilling to buy the T-shirt.
Leaving home before dawn on Saturday morning the team travelled between Taunton and Southampton, two contrasting grounds that together reflect the changes taking place in the professional game in England.
The Taunton ground is a throwback to a previous generation. Sitting in the old wooden pavilion it's easy to transport yourself to the 1930s, watching Arthur Wellard, who hit 500 sixes in his career, accounting for a quarter of the runs he made. And 40 years later, how great it must have been to turn up on a weekday morning just as the young Vivian Richards was slowly striding to the crease, or settle in the seats next to the sight screen as Ian Botham went about making his name.
County cricket is often criticised, mainly people who don't watch it. It is outmoded they say, an anachronism which must reform or die away unloved and unmissed. It is routinely blamed for the failings of the England team, as if this were it's only reason for being. The counter view, to which I subscribe, is that the county game stands for something in its own right and is an essential antidote to Ashley Cole in wide screen. Sport doesn't have to be just something we watch on TV, counties such as Somerset, and the others Ireland play over the next few weeks, are closer to the people they represent than most sports teams. Walking around Taunton there is still a sense of community and of society, similar to that found at many GAA clubs. It's a quality that's tangible but not quantifiable.
After their bruising game on Sunday, the Ireland team bus hit the A303 that moves sedately across England's south coast, toward Southampton for the yesterday's game against Hampshire.
It was gone nine when they arrived at the Holiday Inn Express (for people who prefer to get the experience out of the way as quickly as possible). An evening spent staring at snooker and Spanish football in the lobby cum restaurant passed with talk of United's Premiership win and the width of Justin Langer's bat.
The motel overlooks of the Rose Bowl complex, the gleaming new stadium on the outskirts of the city that houses the thrusting ambition of Hampshire CCC.
Unlike Taunton there is no history here, just the future: all permanent floodlights and five-year strategic plans. There are striking parallels to some of the new grounds in which Ireland played in the Caribbean including the ‘build it and they will come' philosophy underlying the projects.
Sitting in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by rolling countryside, it could be the Providence National Stadium in Georgetown: out of the centre of the town, hotels and park and rides close by, a little incongruous with its surroundings. Only here the locals can afford to get in, and the dream of sustainability has a chance of success.
Hampshire is part of a new movement. They along with Glamorgan and Durham want a piece of the England action, their business plan depend on it. They are challenging the hegemony of the old test grounds such as Headingley, Old Trafford and Trent Bridge. There is a risk here: providing an international ground without test match revenue is a recipe for financial disaster (Rosebowl plc revealed £750,000 loss in 2006). Over the past year they have held One Day Internationals, against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But they have watched Glamorgan nick an Ashes test in 2009 and know that if they are to sustain their growth they need to do the same. Test status has been bestowed from 2010, and it can't come soon enough.