This week is a kind of anniversary. I’ve realised that, gulp, 52 years ago I attended my first County Championship Cricket match.
When you’re 9, new experiences come along regularly, so I don’t suppose I had any reason to recognise that Lancashire v Notts at Southport & Birkdale CC on July 19th 1961 would be the start of a life long love affair – but it was.
Folk who know me, and my background – Scottish, Irish, left wing, republican – are often surprised that cricket has such a hold over me. There are elements in Scotland who see the phrase “Hate cricket” as a kind of alternative to “Love Scotland”, as if, somehow, the game ‘belonged’ to England and that was a Bad Thing. Having seen cricket grounds as far apart as New York and Kuala Lumpur, and played the game with more than a dozen different nationalities, that’s palpable nonsense, and a gratuitous insult to the tens of thousands of Scots who enjoy the game in different ways.
A love of cricket doesn’t depend on where you come from, but rather it reflects how you see life.
When I look back to that hot July day and reflect on my involvement with the game ever since, it becomes clear that the attraction of cricket lies in its connection to the basic elements.
Thinking back to that first game, I remember my original hero, Geoff Pullar, got 115 (run out,) and, eyes closed, I can even picture my childish pencilled entry on my scorecard to that effect. However, if I’m honest, without reference to the archives, I couldn’t tell you much about the actual cricket. That appreciation came later. What enveloped me on that first experience was the atmosphere, and I can still recapture it – and frequently do at cricket grounds to this day.
The murmuring silence of a focused crowd. The deep green of the grass and the riveting blue of the sky. The straw coloured wicket and the worn patches in lines at each end of the square. The dangerous and mysterious smell of beer and tobacco escaping with every swing of the pavilion door. The freshly painted white of the 18 inch high picket fence around the ground and the flecks of whitewash on the boundary rope. Rust on the folding legs of the decrepit benches brought in for spectators, and the violent red, blue and orange of the deckchairs spread around what John Arlott memorably called: “This delightful seaside ground”. The flags of Lancs, Notts and S & B fluttering on a flag pole, and guy ropes taut as they held up festival marquees. The initial splutter of the heavy motorised roller as it coughed into life, the ebb and flo of its engine as it reversed to and fro out in the middle. The smell of creosote from newly painted fences and the dryness of grass cuttings scattered near the groundsman’s shed.
The plastic flask which always contained diluting orange, and the sandwich box with Mum’s ham salad rolls, an individual fruit pie and, on good days, a wee pork pie. The feel of butter escaping the roll on to my chin in the heat of a hurried lunch, and the after taste of that orange juice. At tea perhaps a Blue Riband, if it’s not melted, and late afternoon thirst slaked with a can of lime and lager (2% proof).
The deep shine of the ball when it comes to the boundary, the contrast of hard seam with lustrous leather, the clack as it hits the fence. The unusual greeny cream of the players’ ‘whites’, the thick cable knit of their sweaters, with deep colours round the waist and on the front of the fading caps.
I sit on the ground by the boundary in front of the score board which stands in newly constructed splendour on top of a mini mound of asphalted terrace, behind me, rising upwards, benches and seats arranged in rows, bags beneath most of them, the occasional paper wrapping making a bid for freedom, till it’s pursued by its owner and put in one of the bins. The spot on the grass becomes mine for the full three days, it’ll be bare by the end of the game as I sit and shift and squirm in the heat.
Occasionally, I take a walk round the ground – still nervous, not knowing what’s acceptable, but keen to get to the ice cream trolley, where you can buy one of those strange oblong Walls’ cones where you have to put the block of ice cream into the cone before you eat it. The first obstacle is the sightscreen at the Harrod Drive End.
This is the scariest part of the ground for me. There are only three terraced steps between the boundary and the low garden walls of houses next to the ground. Add this to the sightscreens and there is inevitably an ‘After you, Claude!” moment as someone seeks to squeeze past in the opposite direction; nerve wracking for a nine year old. I learn quickly that you ‘don’t move behind the bowler’s arm’ and for a couple of years yet I won’t even risk it when the bowler is coming from the other end!
Another reason for apprehension is that this is the favoured area for the cognoscenti. I don’t realise yet that behind the bowler\s arm is a prime position for reading the game – but the atmosphere here tells me so. These guys look serious. I see them as ancient, but they probably aren’t much older than I am now. Scorebooks are in evidence, as are a selection of club ties, linen jackets and er sandals. There are hats of all types, many of them straw. There is a decided whiff of Empire, as they mutter and nod to each other, eyes on the wicket, hands fiddling with their scorecards.
Nervously, I edge past, the whitewash on the wall attaching itself to my shorts. There are other reasons to be fearful: householders sitting in their gardens peering at me, an overhanging tree in full blossom entirely occupied by buzzing bees, and then the house with the wee shed, the flag pole, the gate, and the crab apple tree. I’ve heard these are poisonous, who knows? The crabapples on the tree knock against my head, those on the ground squash under my shoes – and are occupied by angry wasps. I would have been even more freaked had I realised that the committee member who lived on the other side of that gate was the district Coroner, and spent his working day with dead people!
I escape towards the long off boundary like an astronaut coming out of an airlock. Here’s the ice cream trolley and a large grassy space behind the seated enclosure. I can breathe again. There are trees growing here, they’ve been lopped, their bark is sticky and you can smell the sap. In the future I’ll play ‘games on the ground’ here – as in the members’ card admonition: “Games on the ground of any nature must not be played during a match”. We ignore that, and, mostly, so do the members – although occasionally a red faced, eye popping old gent berates us when our ball encroaches on to the field of play.
We play games that last for hours, with sponge rubber bouncy balls and cast off bats. We run and chase and shout and chaff each other. We make scores like 344 and 297, mentally noting our personal records, we dive for catches, we skin our knees and elbows, and grass stain our jeans, we clamber surreptitiously over garden walls, we dispute LBWs, pointing out the slope of the tree stumps. I discover three Scots boys live in one of the houses – imagine that: Scots boys liking cricket! We fall in love with the game. We are revelling in our childhood without knowing it.
I move on along the midwicket boundary, all marquees and enclosures, neatly trimmed hedges and carefully planted flower beds. In four or five years time, this area will house a brand new pavilion. As a teenage member, I’ll attend its formal opening, and over the years I will stand next to the greats of the game here: Benaud, Constantine, Dexter, Cowdrey, D’Oliveira, Boycott, Trueman, Statham, Sobers, Lloyd, Hall, Griffiths, Edrich, Illingworth and more. As a schoolboy and then an Extra X1 player I’ll change in its dressing rooms, look for my name on the team noticeboards, and, on my last occasion here as a player, on tour with my Edinburgh team, I’ll take grateful advantage of friendly bowling and the shortest of boundaries to hit an unlikely six into it. After midweek nets, in the bar, I’ll taste the best shandy ever poured anywhere.
Now I’m heading round the back of the no go area which is the Ladies’ pavilion – a steward guards their exclusivity zealously; there is a small stall, almost apologetically placed, for ‘Lancashire merchandise’ – in reality a few books, the Playfair Cricket Annual, and Wisden, the Year Book, and a brochure for the year’s Benefit player.
Moving behind the old tea pavilion and the venerable pavilion, I pass through the groundsman’s shed area. It’s all fertilizer and diesel and machinery of questionable use. Broken stumps hint at some fearsome deliveries, and there are balls with their stuffing escaping, drums of chemicals, and various light rollers and mowers spread about. It’s like being back stage at a west end theatre. There’s a whiff of linseed oil too, you feel that anything might be plotted or fixed here. Hurrying past the portable toilets and their foul smelling buckets, contrasting with the summer dresses on the steps of the Ladies Pavilion, I find myself heading for the nets at the Grosvenor Rd end. For some reason, maybe the extra space, this isn’t as formidable as the other end. There is, however, another door in the wall. Behind it is a newly built detached house and each matchday around 3pm, the door opens and a small man in a tweed jacket appears and heads for the pavilion. I don’t know at that point that he’s the club President, nor have I heard of a bucket list, but there and then I decide: stuff Monte Carlo or Rio – if I could live in a house with a garden door that opened on to a cricket ground, I would die happy!
There are mature trees casting shadows here and it’s a cool part of the ground, though Iwill always be transfixed by the ‘preying mantis’ bow of fast bowler Ken Higgs as he starts his run up only yards away.
I pass the nets, gazing with awe – will I ever practise here? How much I have to learn – but, again, it’s the grass, the earth, the smoothness of the wooden stumps: it holds the eye and fills the senses – or it does for me anyway
Now I’m completing my circuit along the boundary towards the scoreboard again. Three or four rows of seats here then a low whitewashed wall topped by a dark fence, separating the ground from the railway. The commuter trains to Liverpool pass every twenty minutes, some slow down to watch the game, some even stop for a moment or two. Occasionally, they will sound their horn in salute. I’ll come to understand that: “He put it on the tracks” means ‘six’ in local parlance. It’s an electrified line – you wouldn’t go retrieving those balls though!
I get back to my seat, checking the numbers on the scoreboard. In a few short years I’ll gain entry to that miracle, I’ll climb the metal ladder with the smell of sawdust and oil, and be responsible for turning the handles to change the score. It will be hot and smelly and you must always avoid the No 1 batsman’s score – because the screws are loose and the handle hard to turn. When Andrew Bunting’s batting, he’ll make a point of telling you at tea that you must never put up 13 when he’s on that score.
Later still, I’ll learn how to score in that box, book resting open on the wide, sloping shelf, fascinated by the dots, the symbols, the need to get it right and to catch the umpire’s eye and signals. This will get me a free tea as Extra X1 scorer – but the players will still be initials to me – KM Heard, HV Gregory, ER Wigglesworth, JP Marsh, SJ Tasker – or caps – orangey red for Heard, pale blue with hoops for NA Todd, RA Gibson, dark blue with hoops for PS Fish. My eyes must have been huge with all that I took in, and all the words I was too shy to utter.
So the ground envelops me, claims my senses and brings them alive.
But then there’s the crowd.
In some places, cricket has the reputation as a ‘posh’ game – and in some cases, as with most sports, it is true that it is adopted by the most advantaged members of society. However, in my experience, it is also enjoyed and followed by a wide section of the community. After all, the game’s origins lie in farm labourers and sailors playing each other as a vehicle for aristocratic betting. The toffs have always been involved, but not always as players.
One of the joys of a day at the cricket is the universality of its appeal and the humanity of the crowd. By its nature the game allows for conversation, reflection and discussion. Football, on the other hand, with its faster pace and shorter duration, does not lend itself to reflection. My early ‘elemental’ memories of football matches would not stretch much beyond the glare of the floodlights, the taste of sweet tea, a fug of tobacco smoke and the odd whiff of liniment. You talk about football – and life – after the game, not during it.
From the start, the crowd at cricket matches fascinated me. It may have been barristers, Squadron Leaders and Golf Club captains in the clubhouse, but around three sides of the ground there was a truly universal and fascinating mix.
Here you would hear the flat accents of East Lancashire – Bury, Oldham, Accrington, Burnley, with the odd Liverpool twang thrown in. If you cared to look, you would see the blue veined arms of miners, muscled beneath rolled up sleeves and open necked shirts, and the gnarled fingers of mill workers wrapped round pints and pipes. There would be small shopkeepers, fretting about leaving a junior in charge for the day, publicans taking a midweek break, and salesmen having carefully juggled their rounds to sneak in an afternoon at the cricket. Sometimes there would be three generations together, son thanking father by passing on the cricket message to his own offspring. There would be old friends, with time at last for the cricket, and in those days, carrying shared memories of places like Paschendaele, Ypres, the Somme, Dunkirk or the Liverpool Blitz. Frequently there were couples: the wife – sometimes studying the game keenly, or, in holiday mode, cardigan round shoulders, flowery summer dress, a book, magazine, or knitting on her knee, nodding while her husband proclaimed the state of play. Folk will have their say about woman’s place in society in those far off times, but there were many content couples there in my memory and more than a few women who were totally dedicated to the game, irrespective of having a male partner.
Walking along that long midwicket boundary, and when sitting in front of the scoreboard, you quickly appreciated the range of topics people bring with them to a day at the cricket. Phrases escaped from conversations, flicked up at you like pebbles from a path of chat. “I told him, that’s enough!” “I don’t know how we’ll get through this” “It all depends what you mean by happy” “I don’t want another year like that” “The two of them looked so suited” “He’s daft, and he knows he is” “She’s the spit of my gran”.
And it was here too, almost by osmosis, that a youngster could begin to learn the rich language of cricket. “It’ll turn in the third innings” “He’s got some arm on him that lad” “Pitch it up, pitch it up!” “He always moves across the line, he needs a different guard” “Look at that – foot to the pitch, head over the ball, straight left elbow. Bloody marvellous!”
It became obvious eventually that what I loved about cricket was its all enveloping nature – it took me in, surrounded me and wouldn’t let go. From above, the ground would have looked like an eye – with the players the pupil, the field the iris, and the crowd the lids and lashes, blinking and opening wide in harmony with the movement of the game.
As a game, it changes, of course, but it needs to guard its soul. Over the past three weeks I’ve seen Nasser Hussein opine that his ‘moments’ in the Trent Bridge Test Match were ‘those involved with the referral system’, David Lloyd suggets batsmen now played different defensive strokes because of ‘Hawkeye’ technology, and an advert for a T20 match promising: “Music, Barbecues, and stumps that light up”. They all seem moments unlikely to resonate for fifty years or more.
Put simply, cricket reaches parts of your heart that other sports can never manage.
What luck to discover it, and what joy to hold it dear for all these years!