August 24. I am writing this during a patch of rained-off play at Lord’s Cricket Ground and I can already feel my prose style being drained of zest. Out on the field, the wicket has been covered with low, corrugated sheds and a dozen burly groundsmen have just finished carpeting the surrounding turf with huge lengths of grey tarpaulin. Up on the pavilion balcony, the Middlesex captain stares irritably at the heavens, which are also grey. And a grey, or going-grey, trickle of spectators moves pensively towards the exit gates ... See what I mean? There is something about cricket grounds, and cricket, that enervates the language. Perhaps it is because cricket writers are for ever straining to catch the kind of leisured exactitude that the game itself is noted for, and end up sounding merely sleepy and pedantic. Or maybe they too do their writing in the rain. Whatever the reason, I think I’ll continue this at home ...
August 25. It has been a rough week for Lord’s one way and another. First, they get told (by the Mail on Sunday, of all people) that their collection of priceless cricket pics is full of – shall we say? – misattributions. Then, for the first time in living (and probably every other kind of) memory, the Long Room which houses said misattributions is flooded in a brief but accurately local thunderstorm. And in between these two dire blows, members have had to sit and watch Middlesex all but surrender three trophies that might easily have been theirs: the three trophies they have been playing for all season. All this in a single week. By Wednesday, those hideous orange and yellow ties really did look as if someone had set fire to them. To complete the general air of spookiness, the three key games had been lost to the same team: Somerset. Somerset’s captain for the week was Ian Botham, who still remembers what those ties looked like when the gents of the pavilion silently (and with near-hatred) acknowledged his two ducks against Australia in 1981.
Marylebone’s week of torment had begun with the semi-final of the Nat West Cup. It was a marvellously exciting game (and Botham won it almost single-handed), but at the end I found myself almost envying those who had watched it on television. The one-day game has brought ‘atmosphere’ to cricket, we are often told; you really have to ‘be there’ to savour the extraordinary new passion that has been engendered by the certainty of an outright result. As it turns out, all this means is that cricket fans have begun imitating soccer fans: the gear is the same, the chants and songs are the same, even the faces – slack-jawed aggrieved – could have been shipped over from the terraces at White Hart Lane or Upton Park. Umpires get booed, boundary fielders get bombarded with obscenities, and opposing fast bowlers run up to a crescendo of oohs just as goalies do when they prepare to take a goal kick.
The difference is that a soccer game lasts 90 minutes; a one-day cricket match can take anything up to nine hours. ‘Atmosphere’ simply can’t be sustained that long without a certain artificiality creeping in: the celebrated ‘passion’ becomes a kind of duty. At Lord’s, after the first hour or so, the chanting and the whistling began gradually to disconnect itself from events on the field, and the rival groups of fans began staging their own sport: of chant and counter-chant, oath and counter-oath. A mightily struck six or a spectacularly broken wicket might manage to tug their attention back to the detail of the play for a few minutes, but anything that bordered on the cautious or the subtle would induce a fresh upsurge of off-stage tumult. By the end of the game, one faction was shouting ‘Liverpool-Liverpool’ and the other was yelling ‘Come on you Whites.’ By that stage, sundry gallons of Strongbow and Carlsberg had worked wonders and the once-virile clamour had become thin, tired and piping. There was a sour, thwarted note there too. The revellers seemed to have finally realised that they had come to the wrong place, and that it had all taken too long.
Two days after the Nat West match, Iwas back in the same seat at Lord’s for the first day of Middlesex’s Schweppes County Championship match with Somerset: a three-day affair, and featuring almost exactly the same players as before. Botham, Richards and Garner were there for Somerset; Gatting, Emburey and Cowans for Middlesex – big stars indeed, and the stakes too were pretty high. If Middlesex failed to win they would fairly certainly surrender their leadership of the Championship table to Essex; and this after having at one stage of the season held a 48-point lead. Somerset needed to win too, if only because they hardly ever do. I got there early, vowing this time to spot the worst yobs from the outset and then make for whatever corner of the ground was furthest from them.
I need not have bothered. The ground was almost empty, and the thousand or so human shapes sprinkled round the terraces seemed to have taken near-arithmetical pains to keep out of each other’s way: there was a minimum three rows of empty seats between each tiny group of fans. ‘Fans’, though, was hardly the word. There was no one who was not under ten or over fifty. There were fathers with sons, the sons often bespectacled and with gigantic scorebooks on their knees; there were benign-looking pensioners, many of them accompanied by wives with thermos flasks and knitting; there were sad-faced scoutmaster types with binoculars, Daily Telegraphs and sandwiches that could only have been packaged by a mum no other woman had ever managed to displace. And there was silence, or near-silence. Voices were lowered even when they didn’t need to be.
At 11 o’clock, the two umpires trotted down the steps of the pavilion. There was a restrained, but thoroughly cordial round of applause. Then came the fielding side (more claps) and then the two opening batsmen (from the home team, but the claps were at the same level and lasted not a second longer than before). Let play commence. And so it went on throughout the day: at some time or another, everyone got clapped – bowlers for maidens, fielders for good throws, batsmen for shrewd singles. There was always a reason to be clapping. The first fifty was clapped, the first fifty partnership was clapped, and there were minimally prolonged claps for the first fifty by an individual. Late in the afternoon, someone near the Taverners’ Bar launched into a slurred rendering of ‘There’s only one Ian Botham.’ Nobody clapped him, and he soon returned to staring vengefully at his beer.
All day long, between claps, the near-silence was broken only by the sound of bat on ball (like in the books) or – now and then – by the voice of Philip Edmunds coarsely berating his fielders, the umpire, the opposing batsmen, Fate – well, it sounded like Fate (as in ‘For Fate’s Sake’). I have never been able to find out why the England selectors are always supposed to be looking for reasons to leave Edmunds out of the team, why he rarely gets taken on overseas tours, why Middlesex declined to make him captain after Brearley even though, on paper, he was the most likely candidate. After studying him in conditions of near-silence, I’m a shade less puzzled. He’s a one-day man, to be sure, and full of atmosphere.
Still, one can hardly blame cricketers for getting a bit testy, so to speak, from time to time. A lot of them spend large lumps of their lives either standing in the field watching cricket or, sitting in the pavilion watching cricket. In one innings at Lord’s the fielder nearest me touched the ball three times in something like three hours. When his turn came to bat, he was out first ball. And that was him finished for the day. He was a thoughtful-looking fellow, much taken to running his index finger down one side of his nose. Sometimes he would not do this but instead begin studying his fingernails, one by one. When the bowler ran up to bowl, he would bend forward, hitch his trouser-legs and put his hands forward in a welcoming posture. After each ball he would straighten up, and resume work on his nose, or fingernails. He did this some five hundred times during the course of the day. What was he thinking? Did it ever seem strange to him that destiny had brought him to this pass? What did he do in his spare time – indeed, what view of time permitted him to think of some bits of it as ‘spare’? As with the ducks, what did he do in winter?
On this last point, there is a handy guide – The Cricketers’ Who’s Who, compiled each year by the ex-MP Iain Sproat.[*] As well as the expected cricket statistics, there are sections on Jobs Outside Cricket, What I did in the Close Season, Nicknames, Opinions on Cricket, and so on – good gossipy stuff to nose about in between overs. In winter, it seems, cricketers simply carry on playing cricket – and a large number of them (I haven’t counted but it must be over half) do this in South Africa. South Africa also figures prominently in the Opinions section, with every player I looked up deploring the banning of Gooch, Underwood and Co. ‘If Barclays Bank can make money out there, why can’t we?’ was the familiar theme, and there was mention too of Allen Lamb’s inclusion in the England side. Jobs Outside Cricket ranged from ‘horse-breeding’ to ‘installing fruit machines in pubs’; there is a postman, a window-cleaner, a lorry-driver, an ‘ex-steel-worker’ and a surgical shoemaker. Mostly, though, cricketers turn out to work as school-masters, civil servants or sales representatives. There are fewer university degrees than one might have expected; indeed, fewer O Levels. And the public school component is small.
On the subject of educational qualifications, my favourite reply came from the South African Robin Smith, who attended Clifton Primary School and Northlands High School, Durban. Where others nervously list their meagre O’s and A’s, Smith – who seems to have neither – boasts as follows: ‘Highly qualified with regard to my educational studies’. Smith’s nickname is ‘Judge’ and under Cricket Superstitions he lists: ‘Always have a big night out before a game.’ It is already being predicted that he will be the third South African-trained white to find a regular place in the England team (perhaps, with his brother Chris, replacing Gooch and Boycott).
On Sunday, I deserted Lord’s for a few hours and sneaked off to Tottenham for Bill Nicholson’s Testimonial. Nicholson was Spurs’ manager during the team’s great period during the Sixties, and this was to be his final pay day: Spurs v. West Ham, with Nicholson collecting the proceeds. The real attraction for me, though, was the afternoon’s promised curtain-raiser: a 40-minute set-to between Spurs players of the past, players last seen at White Hart Lane as heroes, some twenty years ago. Again, I am not sure that I am glad I went. No sporting heroes are ever quite so worshipped as those of one’s own generation; whatever happens afterwards, these remain always ‘the real thing’. One gasped at their skills because one was still (in fantasy, at least) young enough to learn them or suddenly, by magic, to find that one had had them all the time. On Sunday, I found myself gasping for somewhat different reasons. There, out on the field, were my heroes, just as they used to be. But this time they were wearing grizzled makeup, pepper and salt wigs, and had cushions stuffed inside their shirts. And they were somehow moving in slow motion. I don’t know what I had expected – after all, I knew how old they were. And it was not as if they were in bad shape, considering their age. On the contrary, none of them collapsed, or ran to the touchline to throw up; indeed, their stamina and eagerness could not be faulted. It just that ... well, Cyril Knowles doesn’t have white hair, and Alan Gilzean is not completely bald, and Cliff Jones (as I’ve been telling everyone for years) really is the quickest left-winger in the business. After about half an hour, my 16-year-old son (who was there to watch the ‘main match’) asked me if I felt depressed. I said I didn’t, that it was really ‘nice’ to see the ‘lads’ again after so many years.
[*] The Cricketers’ Who’s Who, 477 pp., £8.50 and £4.99, April, 0 907 48104 3.