Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Hungarian Mid-Off

Cowdrey walks out with broken arm. 
Last man in, a few balls to survive.

The dramatic collapse of the English cricket team in Australia is, I feel, a good example of how team psychology works. It wasn't so much the bowling that failed - Australia made normal scores with one or two exceptions - it was the batting, which has been very good over recent years. Suddenly no-one was performing, there was nothing to bowl at, and the walls came tumbling down.

Not that I am any kind of expert in such things but in so far as I care about England as a country, and because I have developed an interest in cricket, the failure touches me. Nothing specific hangs on the drama of it: it is, like all dramas, part entertainment, part catharsis for those who care about it. And I do care.

Why does it touch me in particular? I only ever played one game of cricket at school. I didn't bowl as I had never bowled. I batted and spent most of the time in the field as, I think, mid-off. That would have been 1965 or so. Most of the summer term I was on the athletics field as a reasonable just-about-county level sprinter.

I first noticed cricket on the beach, listening to it on the radio. I forget which beach it was but it was June 1963 and I was fourteen, that very awkward age when you don't really want to be sitting with your parents. I am lying on my towel a few feet away with my transistor radio close to my ear, the sound low enough not to disturb anyone. It is a private world.

John Arlott is talking. It is Brian Johnston's first summer as commentator. There might have been Alan Gibson too, but the names, as such, were unfamiliar. I had grown to love sport through football and remembered hearing football radio commentary in Hungary, but this was different: more leisured, richly narrative, and densely furnished with anecdote and incidental description. It was, I now think, the intimation of a kind of poetry. It was like smelling a poem. I had no real idea of the rules of this improbable game that went on for days and in which there were clearly periods of what I would have thought of, had I the vocabulary, as longueur. It was very slow but it fascinated as an epic might.

But that particular game was highly dramatic. Ted Dexter, often described as lordly in both appearance and style and certainly handsome in an aristocratic sort of way, as I knew from the papers, hit 70 against what was probably the most dangerous bowling attack in the world in Wes Hall and Charlie Griffiths, names that were graven into my memory that summer. That same attack had already broken the rotund Colin Cowdrey's arm. And mad, bald, furiously courageous Brian Close would advance down the wicket towards them. I had seen pictures of them all in the paper but didn't see any of it on television. I heard it so clearly it was palpable.

It is odd to come to a sport by way of the culture around it, but from then on I paid more attention. The basic rules didn't take long but the subtleties took years. The differences in batting or bowling styles, what made a bowler fast or medium-paced, how did spinning the ball work and how many kinds there were. Even twenty years later I was not fully aware of the aesthetics of batting style. I could see Botham's power, but the grace of David Gower was more idea than particulars. There were giants: Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards, Barry Richards, Denis Lillee, Jeff Thompson, Freddie Trueman, Geoff Boycott, and names that retain a certain resonance such as Colin Milburn, Derek Randall, Basil D'Oliveira. I suppose I could roll off some hundred international test cricketers.

Each must have had some narrative identity at a level deeper than most footballers present. Cricketers were older, were distinctly individuals with clear individual responsibilities within the team. You saw everyone performing individual tasks for longer. Their characters as cricketers overlapped with their characters as people in an amplified dramatic sense. While a batsman is at the crease and the bowler is running up to bowl the pair are, in effect, boxers in a ring or opponents in chess, one versus one.

Eventually I even grew to enjoy the tension of those hours-long defensive longueurs, if only because I began to understand the level of concentration required and the possibility of an innings collapsing once a partnership ended.

But I played only once and I wasn't English, which did make a difference. Cricket was and remains one of the unwritten tests of belonging. When I entered conversation about the current state in a test match I could see eyebrows rising. I was not expected to understand, not really. It was rather like a conversation I had a couple of years ago about John Betjeman's poem, A Subaltern's Love Song. A very nice, very good man remarked: 'I don't suppose that will ever mean as much to you as it does to us'. He meant culturally in the first instance, but also something deeper, at soul level. It was like that with cricket. The grace of David Gower was a grace in the inner soul of the inner room of the club. The club is probably right. I have been to two test matches. I  still don't know all the field positions.

I gave up. I give up. It doesn't matter. It's like being told you'll never be able to imagine the life of a woman, or a descendant of African slaves. There are different kinds of claim. The claims of the imagination are what matter to a writer and the imagination can do any damn thing it likes. It's not a social agent. It doesn't claim moral rights. The imagination is, and has to be, a free domain or what's a heaven for?

I don't like cricket, oh no, I love it, sang Bob Marley from another cultural perspective, yet still in the club. I cannot claim to love it in that sense. I have an affection and admiration for it. I am here: it is there. I am glad it is there where I can see and hear it.


Gwil W said...

The cricket I like is played by the likes of Viv Richards. He brought a fresh wind with him from the Caribbean. He knocked them over the walls and into the streets at Rishton. He was more like an American baseball star.

The gentle knock of of cork on willow, the ruby faced Colonel Blimps dozing behind their copies of the Times, the sparse scatterings of families on wet benches gazing into the vague distance, the rain covers always on and off the wicket, and often not even a winner at the end of it all. It was all too much for me.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Lovely article, thanks G. I remember that era well (I think). And nice to think of Bob Marley singing that great 10CC song, even if he was more a football (Arsenal?) man. But do I remember him (in a documentary) playing cricket in his garden in Jamaica, or only football? Great stuff, as always!

James said...

I was a child when the Marley/10cc song first came out. I couldn't make out the words, but what I now know to be "I don't love cricket etc." sounded unbearably melancholy, tired but loaded with fresh pain. They still do.

(It's quite a southern English version of cricket that you're discussing, despite the presence of Brian Close. Perhaps someone with knowledge of the Northern Leagues will help out with that in this thread - that, and the Betjeman. I once lived that poem out, fiancee, Aldershot Officer's Club, tennis, dancing and Camberley golf club the lot, but that doesn't mean that the poem entirely belongs to the likes of me, but then, it didn't entirely belong to the likes of Betjeman either).

George S said...

i don't want to make too much out of the sense of exclusion, James. It is much more interesting to understand what one might be included in. In any case there are degrees of both inclusion and exclusion and I think there is a due and proper regard for these things. There are close places in the heart and we should respect them.

When I first encountered cricket there were two main counties: Surrey (Peter May, Laker, Lock, Bedser, Barrington) who won the championship five or six times in a row, and Yorkshire (Close, Trueman, then Boycott), later Illingwhorth, Sharpe etc). Of the others, Cowdrey was Kent. Dexter was Sussex. I can't remember them all. Freddie Titmuss was Middlesex, my 'home' county at the time.

George S said...

Richards was magnificent, Gwilym, of the same cut as Botham but more reliable, more imperious more of the time - nevertheless, the same type. Of course he wasn't a front line bowler the way Botham was. They had a lot of time for each other.

But I suspect Worrell, Sobers, bd clice Lloyed brought a lot of fresh wind with from the Caribbean too, not to mention Greenidge, Gibbs, Marshall, Ambrose, Garner, Holding, Bishop, Roberts, Kanhai, Lara. More gale than wind really.

Gwil W said...

And in the centre of it all the unflappable Dickie Bird.

George S said...

The unflappable Bird.

tomd said...

April 1968 - I've gone to call on Rupert Roopnaraine in Cambridge to have tea with him and his family. Rupert had taught me French in the sixth form when he was a post-graduate student, but now lives in Cambridge. [ ]Later he's to go back to Guyana to become a prominent and incorruptible left-wing politician and a prize-winning writer, but today he's just a young man having fun with two other friends. I realise they are Rohan Kanhai and Lance Gibbs, both Guyanese, both playing for Warwickshire against the university [ ]. Rupert used to play for the university beside Mike Brearley. All four of us get down on the floor and start a game of cricket with a ping-pong ball and rulers. Kanhai and Gibbs are two of the greatest cricketers in the world; I was lucky to get in my school's Third XI. My cup runneth over.

George S said...

You really are remarkable, Tom.