“There is a widely held and quite erroneous belief that cricket is just another game.”
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
England’s excellent success in retaining the Ashes in Australia gave the year a great start. Well-organised, well-led, well-motivated they won a remarkable series with outstanding contributions from almost every member of the team. Cricket may be the greatest game in the world. Football is the world’s game and the beautiful game. It arouses more passion and I would certainly get more excited about Manchester United or England winning their respective international competitions. But for its variety, its grace, its athleticism, for the way in which it more closely reflects life, cricket wins every time.
It is a very difficult and technical game. Its rules are not simple; there are many stories about the difficulty of explaining the game to a foreigner, particularly an American. However, in many parts of the world, especially the former colonies of the British Empire, it is the number one sport, even the number one subject of interest. An international match between India and Pakistan will attract a greater TV audience than the so-called World Series in Baseball.
The English had a talent for codifying the sports and pastimes that they played in their public schools. Thus football, rugby, tennis, boxing, athletics, golf and many others were exported around the world through the military and then the trading empires of the British. Some sports were picked up abroad and re-exported such as polo and badminton. But cricket has a unique history.
Competitive cricket was being played in the 18th century and by the middle of the 19th it was professional. Though in that unique British manner for more than another century many of the participants declined to be paid and described themselves as “Gentlemen” to distinguish themselves from the professional “Players”. Lord Hawke, an England batsman in the Victorian era, said “Pray God no professional may ever captain England.”
The first international match was played between England and Australia in 1877 on Melbourne Cricket Ground. Australia won as they were to on 122 further occasions compared with a 100 wins for England with 87 drawn. There have been 66 series with Australia winning 31 to England’s 30, the other five were shared. International cricket is now played all over the world between many countries and can arouse great feelings. The 1932-3 series in Australia against England, known as the “Bodyline” tour because the England captain asked his bowlers to bowl at the bodies of the Australian batsmen in a tactic to defeat the incomparable Don Bradman, caused diplomatic incidents in a way that even the “Hand of God” by Diego Maradona could not replicate in the 1986 World Cup. In the 60’s and 70’s cricket became the principal tool by which pressure was brought to bear on the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In the West Indies cricket is the one way in which otherwise disparate islands can express their unity. In Zimbabwe it is unfortunately used by the despicable Robert Mugabe to show that his country can have normal relations with the rest of the world.
As I grew up I tried to teach myself the game. I read avidly the biographies of the great players such as Don Bradman and Peter May and they claimed to have taught themselves. Sir Donald Bradman, the greatest of all batsmen- indeed some even think he was the greatest of all sportsmen- said “I was never coached. I was never told how to hold a bat.” My father bought me a complete set of wickets and bails as well as bat and ball. Day after day I set these up in our garden but our lawn was only 11 yards long and a full cricket pitch is twice that. In teaching myself to bowl the perfect length in our garden it was impossible to adapt to a normal pitch. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.
At school in loosening up for a form match I took a cricket ball full in the mouth. My lips blew up like a balloon but the following day I climbed Snowdon with my father and some friends. At a school camp in Manorbier near Tenby in South Wales we played mallet cricket. I hit the ball over a fence and in retrieving it caught my leg on the barbed wire. I was rushed to hospital on the back of a motor bike and had stitches without any anaesthetic. I still bear the scar.
Other than these pathetic experiences I have very few memories of playing cricket at school, but at Oxford a friend organised an unofficial college team he called the Incogniti. We enjoyed a variety of matches against a mixture of opposition. Our own standards varied according to the quality of our opposition. The captain would put me onto bowl when he wanted the other side to score some runs. On one occasion I ran in from the boundary in imitation of a fast bowler. I hurled the ball in the direction of the stumps and to my amazement shattered them. The skipper came up to me and said, “What on earth are you doing? I don’t want to get them out yet.” I made up for it with a series of overthrows from the field.
My only other cricket over twenty-five years has been just two matches. At Green’s the management played the staff in a game on the pitch next to our Thurcroft factory. I was bowled first ball for a duck but took three wickets and a catch and elected myself Man of the Match. Our accountant took excellent photos from the boundary and I sent one of my dismissal to the Primary Club. This is a charity that raises funds for blind cricketers. To qualify for membership you have to have been out first ball in any kind of cricket.
The other was for the charity, Birthright, (now Wellbeing) in a match against the Gynaecologists and Obstetricians at Victor Blank’s magnificent private ground. By this time I was finding a simple game of cricket a test of muscles I never knew I had.
The first professional cricket I saw was the 1960 test match against South Africa at Old Trafford. Soon after I joined Lancashire as a student member and for twelve shillings and sixpence (62.5p) had a season ticket for all matches in the season. On several Saturdays I went to Old Trafford to see Lancashire play. However, born in Surrey, I considered myself a Surrey supporter, no doubt influenced by the fact that they had won the County Championship for the previous six seasons with great players like Peter May, Alec Bedser and Jim Laker. On holiday on the south coast I persuaded my father to take me to see Hampshire play Surrey at Southampton and saw this great team before it broke up.
Over the years I have seen test cricket at all the main venues, Old Trafford, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Lords and The Oval, except Leeds. The nearest I got to Leeds was in 1975 when I stayed in the same hotel as the Australians. The great Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were trying to hit golf shots over the hotel. The media were also staying there and the legendary commentator John Arlott had dinner with his Australian counterpart Alan McGillivray at the next table. True to his reputation as a vinophile he ordered the wines (three of them) before even looking at the food menu. The match was abandoned as a draw after vandals campaigning for the release from prison of a convicted criminal, sabotaged the pitch with knives and oil.
More recently I have contented myself with an annual visit to Lord’s to see the Saturday of the Lord’s test. That way I have kept in touch with the game and seen most of the top players. On one occasion I tried to interest my wife in the game. We had tickets for a great occasion. To celebrate the bicentenary of the MCC in 1987 an MCC side played a Rest of the World side with some of the greatest players of the day on show. Unfortunately it rained heavily overnight and although the rain had stopped we had to wait for the outfield to dry before the umpires would permit play to start. Eventually we saw a couple of hours play in the afternoon but only after watching grass dry for several hours. This put my wife off cricket for life.
A few years ago, as part of the Marketing Society’s Market Aid programme, I worked with the Charity, the London Community Cricket Association. The LCCA was founded in response to the Brixton Riots. Its work began in the Inner London communities where it became a source of hope for otherwise hopeless and disadvantaged black youths. The skills developed in those situations were then adapted to the teaching of cricket to the blind and other disabled people. The success enjoyed in these areas brought the charity to the notice of the international community and it has worked its magic as far apart as Afghanistan and Zambia. Now called Cricket for Change it continues to do great work both here and abroad.
But for the last word on cricket how about this? “I have often thought how much better a life I would have had, what a better man I would have been, how much healthier an existence I would have led, if I had been a cricketer instead of an actor” Lawrence Olivier (1907-1989)
Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved