Paul Kirkley, a regular contributor to Waitrose Weekend, brings you his own unique take on the game of cricket. Paul has a self-professed “blind-spot” when it comes to the game, and despite coming from a family of cricket mad Yorkshiremen, doesn’t watch it, doesn’t play it and doesn’t understand it. That is, until now, last summer Paul threw himself into all aspects of Waitrose’s association with cricket, providing a unique journey as he finds out about whether he can really grow to love the game.
03rd September, 2015 - "England totally rock at this!"
Blimey, this cricket’s lark’s great, isn’t it? England totally rock at this. It’s not like the football, where everyone gets terribly over-excited and puts flags on their cars, only for us to go crashing out in the group stage.
Yes, England have won the Ashes. I’m sure you already knew that – it was probably on Twitter or something. So that, like, makes us the best team in the world, right? Because Australia won the World Cup, and we beat Australia. Is that how it works? Let’s say that it is.
And even if we’re not the best team in the world (which we so are), then this is certainly the best England side in yonks (if you want more detailed stats, buy Wisden or something).
Everyone’s excited. David Cameron took to Twitter – or at least ordered one of his lackeys to take to Twitter – to congratulate Alistair Cook and his men on a “thrilling victory”. “I’ll never forget Botham in ’81 & don’t think I’ll ever forget this either,” the PM added.
Beefy himself declared, “It doesn’t get any better – well played boys”, while another England legend, Graeme Swann, hailed a “stunning Ashes victory”. Even the Australians got in on the act, with former skipper Shane Warne congratulating England on playing “fearless and entertaining cricket”. Thanks Shane – can we have that in writing, please?
Piers Morgan, meanwhile, tweeted a picture of the humble pie he would be eating for his dinner, having previously declared that England had as much chance of winning the Ashes as he had of being elected Pope. (Probably best not to dwell on the implications of this for the future of the Catholic Church.)
Finally, Jeffrey Boycott described the 2015 Ashes as “a series with some exhilarating moments of drama”, which is believed to be the most positive thing Jeffrey Boycott has ever said about anything, ever. (Well he is from Yorkshire, you know.)
Apparently, though, it’s not always like this. Every time I mention how great it is, and how I should have been following English cricket for years, veteran fans give me that pitying look that people with kids give to new parents. It’s a look that says: you’ll learn, son. You’ll learn.
Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ve arrived at the dawn of a new golden age of English cricket. Maybe I’ve even created it! (I can’t think how that could possibly be, other than someone at the ECB telling the team to look lively because there’s a keen new columnist taking an interest. But it just felt good to say it out loud.)
Certainly there’s a lot of expectation now, with giddy talk of “our greatest ever team”. According to wiser heads than me, the fact the flush of youth is on the team’s side means there’s a real opportunity for the current crop of England players to develop into a true “golden generation”.
So, basically, that’s all good. All that needs to happen now is for me to actually witness England’s winning form with my own eyes. Because I have so far managed to turn up to four days of international cricket in which our boys have… well, wobbled is putting it mildly. Given how glorious England’s summer has been, that’s some feat: like opening Fifty Shades of Grey at random pages and not finding any rude bits.
The Ashes being a case in point. With the impeccable timing for which I am known, I chose to experience my first taste of this seminal series during the Second Test – aka The One That Didn’t Go So Well. Here’s what happened…
Friday, July 17, 2015: As the most historic rivalry in cricket – perhaps in all sport – I am interested to see if the atmosphere at an Ashes match is as charged as people have led me to expect.
The first difference I notice is that St John’s Wood is full of touts, buying and flogging tickets like they do when 1 Direction are in town. Or, er, so I imagine, anyway.
The second difference is the roar that greets me as I enter the ground. I don’t mean a roar for me: this column hasn’t quite gone that viral (yet). The roar is because, after a heroic 173 runs, Australia’s Chris Rogers has just been dismissed at the start of the Second Test’s second day. And, thanks to the wrong kind of flash flooding near Cambridge, I’ve missed it.
For the first few overs, I struggle to find my focus. When Gary Ballance catches out Michael Clarke, there’s a collective noise – somewhere between a cheer and an ‘oof’ – from the crowd. But I had been distracted watching a plane flying overhead (you’ll have to forgive me, I live in the country), so have to wait for the big screen replay before adding my own belated, slightly self-conscious oof-cheer. Clearly I haven’t trained my cricket eye yet. I lean forward in my seat, as if this might help.
Next to me, a couple discuss the relative merits of one-day versus Test cricket, and both conclude they’re fans of those days in Test cricket ‘where nothing happens’. In the absence of anything on the field you might call an actual incident during the next hour or so, I can sort of understand what they mean. Another, elderly couple are sharing headphones – on earpiece each – to listen to Test Match Special, which is just the sweetest thing ever. (At least I assume it’s Test Match Special. They could be listening to the new Snoop Dogg album for all I know.)
There’s a tense moment when England suspect an LBW, and Hawkeye technology is employed to reconstruct the incident in forensic detail, from every possible angle. The way everyone frowns and squints at the screen, you’d think they were working out the ballistics of a major crime incident, not whether a ball had hit a man on his leg. Then, when it’s over, everyone claps, and no-one leaves the field, so that’s that. (I can’t help noticing some of the day’s biggest excitements hinge on the outcome of these computer-modelled reconstructions. Who says video technology is ruining sport?)
To my left, the Australian fans are seated together in a large block, wearing a sea of bright yellow caps that make them look like a crowd of Minions. They’re clearly enjoying their day in the sun – in every respect: as the morning clouds disperse, I regret a) leaving that £7 bottle of sun cream I was too tight to buy in a shop earlier and b) not having a yellow cap, like the Ozzie Minions.
At lunchtime, there’s a carnival atmosphere. Literally – there’s a samba band on the pitch. (I idly wonder if they couldn’t have had something more appropriate to the visiting nation like, say, traditional Aboriginal music, or AC/DC.) As play resumes, I’m still eating my lunch in front of the giant screen on the Nursery Ground. It’s all about Australia now: there’s a hearty round of applause when they break through the 500 barrier, and I scoot over to the side of the pitch, keen to witness a little bit of history as Steve Smith prepares to become the first Australian to score 200 at Lord’s since 1938.
As he reaches 199, I wonder how many diehard England fans would be disappointed to see him bowled out now. The sustained standing ovation that greets his double ton suggests not many. I may be wrong, but cricket strikes me as a lot less tribal than football, with a sense that, if England are going to disappoint, then a barnstorming performance from Australia will still make it a good day out. But that could just be my faulty sporting gene talking.
A short while later, Joe Root dismisses Smith for 215. It is, according to Sky Sports, the third highest score against England, in a Test, at Lord’s. Impressive, but I can’t help noticing that’s a lot of qualifiers – if you added ‘under a Tory government, with a Scottish Doctor Who’, I’m sure he’d come out at number one.
I go for a walk, and meet a man dressed as the original Ashes urn. As novelty costumes go, it’s not as natural as Goofy or Buzz Lightyear. And it must be hot. But hey, everyone needs to urn a living, right? (No? Please yourselves.) I have my photo taken with him. If he’s as self-conscious as I am, he doesn’t let it show.
It strikes me again, sitting out here in the sunshine, what a friendly, non-threatening place this is – the nearest thing to violence I see is someone being hit on the head with a champagne cork. I wonder if I’d feel this relaxed on the terraces at Upton Park, or whatever it’s called now? Or maybe I shouldn’t judge all football matches by my slightly terrifying experience of Leeds United in the 1980s. (My dad once took me to see the mighty Kevin Keegan in action at Elland Road. A Leeds fan hit him in the eye with a coin, and he was stretchered off.)
At tea, I return to the stands but, five minutes after play resumes, everyone troops off again, and some gardeners come on to mow the pitch. I’m confused. Why couldn’t they have done this 10 minutes earlier? A couple of people shout ‘Come on, England!’, the first time I’ve heard this all day. Maybe they’re just really big fans of British mowing.
When they return, England are suddenly in to bat. Hang on, how did that happen? Aren’t they supposed to get all the Australian team out first? Only eight of them have gone, according to the scoreboard. This, it transpires, is my first taste of a declaration – which means the incumbent team are bored of batting and want to give the other side a go. Or something like that.
Anyway, to cut a long and slightly painful story short, England didn’t have a great day. Actually, that doesn’t really do it justice – they didn’t have a great day in the way Napoleon didn’t have a great day at Waterloo.
But it didn’t really matter. Because, as we now know, England’s experience at Lord’s would prove to be the only stumble in a march to victory that, a little over a fortnight later, would see Alastair Cook’s side regain their confident, swaggering form and thrash the opposition at Edgbaston, before completing their historic rout at Trent Bridge to regain the Ashes in the most convincing fashion imaginable.
After losing 5-0 in Australia in the 2013/14, and being knocked out of the World Cup at the group stage earlier this year, Cook had entered this Ashes series on the back foot. But his team’s stunning display over the First, Third and Fourth Tests has turned the skipper into a national hero, while Stuart Broad’s merciless progress through the Australian batting line-up, taking eight wickets for just 15 on the first day at Trent Bridge, is already the stuff of legend. Joe Root, meanwhile, has pushed Steve Smith – last seen hitting his way into the record books further up this page – into second place as the leading batsman in test cricket. (Sorry Steve. I guess history wasn’t on your side after all.)
Unfortunately, England couldn’t quite muster a win in the final Test at the Oval. I know that because, obviously, that was the second Test of the series I chose to attend. Yes, the Curse of Kirkley had struck again. In the meantime, I had also watched England defeated by Australia at the Women’s Test – and let’s not forget that my first ever Test, against New Zealand back in May, didn’t exactly go England’s way either. Sorry about that, everyone.
So will my luck ever change? Well, if we truly are standing on the precipice of a new golden age of English cricket, then the odds have got to be in my favour, surely? Despite my bumpy ride so far, I’m feeling as confident as everyone else in the country about the shape of the national game. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, if I don’t see England win a cricket match in the very near future, then the Pope’s not Piers Morgan.
24th August, 2015 - "I couldn’t be on the team, as I’d make a terrible woman, and an even worse cricketer"
At Canterbury’s appropriately named Spitfire Ground, a very British battle is under way. It’s an inspiring story of triumph over the odds, a demonstration of our island nation’s indomitable spirit, facing down and eventually defeating an implacable enemy.
Yes, the groundstaff have done an extraordinary job: hours earlier, the St Lawrence pitch had been fast submerging under a biblical deluge on the third day of the Women’s Ashes Test. And yet, somehow, the team at the Kent County ground have managed to get it in a fit state for play to resume for the late afternoon session.
Sadly, England’s women are not quite showing the same British stiff upper lip. In fact, they appear to be crumbling in the face of a merciless onslaught from Australia. By the end of play, the visitors have a healthy lead of 196, and the prospects of an England win in the Ashes series’ only Test match look as gloomy as the weather forecast for the final day of play, at which I am due to make my women’s cricket debut. (As a spectator, obviously. I couldn’t be on the team, as I’d make a terrible woman, and an even worse cricketer.)
So it’s a pleasant surprise when I arrive to find Canterbury basking in warm sunshine – blue skies over a city quite near Dover, as Vera Lynn very nearly sang. The Spitfire is a low-rise, agreeably weathered-looking ground in comparison to Lord’s (though, weirdly, there’s a new housing development in the actual ground. They must be forever handing balls back.)
The crowd is a little thin on the ground today, probably on account of those apocalyptic weather forecasts, though 1,700 had turned up for the first day’s play – an impressive figure, when you consider where the women’s game was 10 years ago. And, while there may be less of them than at the men’s Ashes, the crowd make up for it in enthusiasm, the players serenaded onto the pitch by a rousing chorus of Jerusalem.
At a rough estimate, I’d say it’s a fairly even split between women and men – though, when I poke my head into the stand reserved for KCC members, it’s an all-male affair. A couple are dozing in their seats, one is reading a book called The Golden Age of Village Cricket, and another something called Playfair, which is a bit like Mayfair, except with page after page of cricket stats instead of naughty pictures.
There are two scoreboards: one is a flashy modern digital job, but the only one I can see from where I’m sitting is a traditional, wooden affair with flip-down numbers and letters. On this, England are called ‘Kent’ and Australia ‘Visitors’. Something about this pleases me enormously.
And the cricket? To my untutored eye, there is no visible difference between the women’s and the men’s game. Certainly I’ll never be tempted to tell someone they ‘throw like a girl’ in the future – unless I mean it as a compliment.
What is different is the scoring, with the Women’s Ashes operating a points system, whereby you get two points for a win and one point for a draw during each of the three One Day Internationals, four points for a win and two points for a draw in the Test, and two points for a win in the three T20 Internationals to follow. In Test cricket, women also play 100 overs in a day, as opposed to the men’s 90. Possibly this is just showing off.
The play pauses for what the announcer calls a ‘Harrogate Spring hydration break’. That’s a drink of water, to you and me. Shortly afterwards, Australia declare on 156-6. I’m still not sure why teams do this, and everything I read about it just makes me more confused. Maybe they just get bored. Anyway, England manage to lose two wickets in the 10 minutes before lunch. At 16-2, they’ll need to make 247 runs this afternoon to win. You don’t need to be a cricket expert to work out that’s a big ask. (Handy, as a cricket expert is the one thing I am not.)
At lunchtime, I take a stroll around the ground. The outfield is full of kids hitting practice balls, while families eat together on the picnic tables at the tree-lined Old Dover Road end. There are even dogs running around. It’s a lovely atmosphere – like a day at the park.
I chat to Sue and Gordon, who have set up by the boundary fence: folding chairs, picnic table, fetching pink umbrella, the works. They’re KCC members from near Tunbridge Wells who came down and pitched their caravan for last week’s county matches, and decided to stay on.
Sue is busy knitting Christmas stockings for her local hospital. She says she can get through one a day during matches. They’re enjoying the sunshine, but are not averse to ‘sitting here, frozen to death’, when the occasion demands. Ken wonders if I know why the women play 100 overs, not 90. I tell him he’s asking the wrong man.
Nearby, 18-year-old Izzy and her friends Molly, Holly and Bessie are sitting at a picnic table. Izzy plays cricket for Sussex, but the Kent ground is nearer her home. She thinks today’s turnout is pretty good: ‘Two years ago there would have been one man and his dog,’ she says. She thinks crowds get more excited by the T20 matches. ‘That’s where the real interest is at. They’ve sold 5,000 tickets for Hove, which is brilliant.’
Izzy was introduced to the game by her granddad. He liked cricket, then? ‘He liked a drink,’ she smiles.
She admits that, even for this group of avid cricket fans, their ratio of talking to actually watching what’s going on on the field is ‘around 70 to 30’. They’ve also brought a rugby ball, for those moments when ‘nothing’s really going on’. I love that about cricket: a game so unique, even its most passionate advocates sometimes feel the need to play a different game during a match.
After lunch, longstanding England captain Charlotte Edwards goes into bat. I’ve followed Charlotte’s career, in so far as anyone who’s never watched cricket can follow a cricketer’s career, ’cos she’s a local girl to us in Cambridgeshire, and we featured her a lot when I worked on the paper there.
Unfortunately, the captain is caught out on her very first ball, clocking in and out for the shortest afternoon work shift imaginable. She makes the long, dejected walk back to the pavilion while a TV cameraman runs alongside her, capturing her agony in unforgiving, high-definition close-up.
And it gets worse: Lauren Winfield and Natalie Sciver are out within three balls of each other, and Laura Marsh has barely reached the crease before she’s trudging dejectedly off the field again. From what I can see, though, anyone would struggle against Australia’s Ellyse Perry, enjoying what Charlotte Edwards later describes as a ‘devastating spell’ of bowling. Well done to Georgia Elwiss, though, who appears at times to be upholding the English end all on her own.
And through all this, one nagging thought keeps running through my mind: Has the Curse of Kirkley struck again?
Maybe if I don’t watch, things will get better. I make a beeline for a girl who has come dressed as Po, the red Teletubby. Her name is Roshini, and she and her friends have just graduated from the University of Sheffield, where they were on the cricket team. They’re enjoying the relaxed vibe here today. ‘It’s nice to see the women’s game growing in popularity, but it’s still more personal and intimate than the men’s game,’ says Roshini. ‘We feel like the players know us, and recognise us.’
Well it does help to be dressed as a giant red Teletubby. Care to explain? ‘We’re trying to build it up, make it a thing,’ explains Roshini. ‘We’ve got a Dipsy lined up, so we just need to find a Tinky Winky and a Laa-Laa. It would be nice to see more of a carnival atmosphere sometimes.’ And – sorry, but I have to ask – how do you find it going to the loo? ‘Nightmare,’ she grins. ‘I need an assistant.’
On the field, things are drawing to their inevitable conclusion. When Elwiss is caught out, a group of Australian fans stand up, wrap themselves in their national flag and start singing along enthusiastically to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline on a portable stereo. I have no idea why. Is that a thing?
Then it’s all over. Anya Shrubsole is given out lbw, and England are all out for 101. In their final five wickets, they’ve managed to score just 23 runs in 10 overs. According to wiser heads than me, that’s the lowest fourth innings all-out score in Test history. But then, every hour of cricket I’ve watched this summer seems to have yielded a record of some sort. Maybe everything’s a record, if you look hard enough.
Anyway, Australia now lead the series by 8-2, which means England will need to win all their remaining T20 games in order to retain the Ashes. And from everything we know about Charlotte Edwards’ team – having been World Cup and T20 winners, and won back-to-back Ashes since 2013 – they’re more than capable of doing it. On three conditions:
1) They hold their nerve.
2) They take a leaf out of their male counterparts’ handbook, and attack, attack, attack.
3) They don’t let me within five miles of the ground.
30th July, 2015 - "Seriously, does any other sport come with such a baffling array of terminology?"
There are thought to be around 1,025,000 words in the English language – and, from what I can gather, at least 1,024,000 of them are about cricket.
Seriously, does any other sport come with such a baffling array of terminology? From ducks to dead balls, googlies to grubbers, bunnies to bodylines, it’s a whole new language – like French, and whatever it is that teenagers speak.
But am I daunted? A bit, since you ask. But willing, as ever, to learn. Here, then, are just a few choice highlights from the cricket glossary any aspiring fan needs to get his or her head around. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Bodyline: The now-outlawed tactic in which bowlers aimed the ball at the batsman, rather than the wicket. A bit like when they used to throw wet sponges at people on It’s A Knockout, only much, much more painful.
Bouncer. Joe Mangel’s faithful Labrador in Neighbours. Also a short ball that passes the batsman at chest or head height.
Box: Item worn by batsmen and wicketkeepers to protect their googlies. Also an historic term for a fielder in the ‘gully region’.
Bunny: A cricketer who’s rubbish at batting. Known in my school as ‘a Kirkley’.
Chinaman: A deceptive delivery that fools the batsman into thinking the ball will spin off to leg, before doing the opposite. Also known as a Slow Left Arm Chinaman. Named in honour of left-handed bowler Ellis “Puss” Achong of Trinidad and Tobago, who was the first person of Chinese decent to play in a Test match. So that makes perfect sense.
Corridor of Uncertainty: What commentators like to call the area outside the off stump, where the batsman is unsure whether to play the ball or leave it. Not to be confused with the Tunnel of Love, the Road to Nowhere, the Path of Least Resistance or the Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Dibbly-dobbly bowlers: Term for medium-paced bowlers designed to make commentators feel ridiculous. Unless the commentators are Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men.
Duck: A zero score. For losers, basically.
Duckworth Lewis Method: System to decide the outcome of one-day matches when rain interrupts play. Named after Sergeant Lewis from Inspector Morse and Jack Duckworth from Corrie. (Okay, it was Frank Duckworth and Tony Lewis, two mathematicians with too much time on their hands.)
Gardening: When a batsman makes some minor repairs to the pitch with his bat. Not really gardening in the sense Alan Titchmarsh would understand it, but worth remembering the next time your other half asks for some help with the lawn.
Googly: The dictionary definition is ‘an off break bowled with an apparent leg-break action’. But mainly it’s there to give people like me a cheap laugh.
Hawk-Eye: Tracking technology used to judge LBS. Also the least memorable member of The Avengers.
Jaffa: A delivery so good, the batsman ends up swinging helplessly at thin air like an eejit. Almost impossible to do with an orange, ironically.
LBW: That’s Leg-Before Wicket. The clue’s in the name, but it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds, depending on exactly where the ball is tracking, where the batsman is standing and what colour his trousers are. Okay, maybe not that last one.
Leg theory: Largely forgotten Top of the Pops dance troupe. Not really: see Bodyline.
Maiden: When an over is bowled from which no runs are scored. Said to be named after a beautiful woman who ‘bowled’ over a young cricketer. Or he may just have been a fan of Iron Maiden. Or both.
Nervous Nineties: The pressure on a batsman who knows he is approaching his century.
No-ball: An illegal delivery from the bowler. Not to be confused with ‘no ball’, which is when the England captain has to go round and ask for the ball back from next door’s garden.
Off-side: When a player is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent at the moment when the ball… No, hang on, that’s the other off-side. This is the side of the pitch which is to the batsman’s right (if he’s right-handed) or left (if he’s left-handed).
On-side: The same side as the batsman’s leg.
Brookside: Popular 80s/90s soap set in Merseyside. Not relevant.
Out: Do one, sunshine.
Pie thrower: An inferior bowler. Though, in reality, it takes a lot of skill to bowl someone out with a steak and mushroom pie, so possibly needs re-thinking.
Plumb: When the batsman is clearly LBW. Not to be confused with plum, which is another type of pie.
Pudding: A slow, stodgy pitch. Also another name for a pie. I actually really fancy a pie now.
Rip: The act of putting a maximum spin on the ball. Shane Warne was famous for his ‘rippers’, which is why the word can only be spoken in an Australian accent. See also: Galah, flaming.
Rock: Nickname for a cricket ball. Note: actual rocks should not be used, especially for U14s matches.
Sledging: Verbally abusing an opposing batsman in a bid to put him off his stroke. Not to be confused with riding very fast down a snowy hill which, unlike this, is something children grow out of.
Slip: Fielding position close to the wicketkeeper. Also, when someone falls over, thus providing a welcome distraction after five days of play.
Slower ball: A deceptively slow ball designed to catch the batsman out. Even slower on the action replay.
Sweep: Risky batting move played by going down on one knee. Going down on the other knee is known as a Sooty. Possibly.
Teapot: Hands-on-hips reaction by bowlers to a fielding error. The non-verbal equivalent of ‘My 8-year-old niece could have caught that, you lemon’.
Throwing: A controversial bowling action that is more like… you know, a throw.
Twelfth man: A substitute fielder, barred from batting or bowling; a Kirkley.
Wagon wheel: Graphical representation of the cricket field, with lines showing the trajectories of the batsman’s scoring balls. Is it me, or have Wagon Wheels got a lot smaller lately?
Wicket: Catch-all term for everything not covered by something else. May refer to the stumps, the act of knocking the bail from the stumps, the act of not knocking the bail from the stumps, the cute Ewok from Return of the Jedi… anything you like, really.
Wrong ’un: What the Australians call a googly. The possibilities for a hilarious misunderstanding are literally endless.
Zebadebadingdong: A word I made up. But let’s see if we can get it in the next edition of Wisden, okay?
06th July, 2015 - "Pizza, samosas and onion bhajis are now just as likely to be served as cucumber sandwiches and scones"
Bill Bryson, that shrewd chronicler of English idiosyncrasies, once noted that cricket is the only sport in the world to incorporate meal breaks. Which is probably true, unless you count the sugary snacks people sometimes get handed while running marathons, or Luis Suarez seemingly stopping to take a quick bite out of the opposition.
And it’s not just one meal break: cricket stops for lunch, and again for tea, not to mention numerous intervals between innings when the crowd can reach for a sneaky Twix, even if the players can’t.
In fact, history shows that cricket and food go together like strawberries and cream. No, hang on a minute, that’s tennis. Like tea and scones. Bread and butter. Egg and cress. You get the idea.
According to some intensive research I did – okay, it’s written on a different bit of Waitrose Weekend – for more than a century, it was traditional for international cricketers to fill up on shepherd’s pie and treacle tart before an afternoon’s play. Which surely beats an ‘isotonic sports drink’ any day of the week.
It’s not like that now, of course. These days, national teams retain the services of professional ‘performance nutritionists’. The England squad’s menu for the 2013 Ashes, for example, included piri-piri breaded tofu with tomato salsa, a quinoa and cranberry breakfast bar and mungbean curry with spinach. (At least I think it was the England team’s menu – it could equally have been Gwyneth Paltrow’s shopping list. Either way, the treacle tart was notable by its absence.)
Easy to laugh, I suppose, but there is a genuine science behind this stuff. Cricket may involve a lot less running about than football or… er, running, but players still need to control their blood sugar levels on the field. That means more high protein and low-to-moderate carbs with a low glycaemic index. Apparently.
As you might expect, travelling around the world on cricket tours doesn’t just broaden the mind, but the palette, too. In a video for waitrose.com/cricket, England legend Sir Ian Botham talks about eating curries in India and Sri Lanka, oysters and kangaroo in Australia and chicken in the Caribbean. Of course, Botham ought to know more about food than most, having spun his lifelong nickname of ‘Beefy’ into a lucrative side career, including teaming up with ex-teammate Alan Lamb to front a campaign for EBLEX (the English Beef and Lamb Executive) and acting as the Boss of Beef for the Beefeater restaurant chain. Truly, jobs do not come beefier than that.
Charlotte Edwards, the long-standing captain of the England women’s team, can also be found at waitrose.com/cricket, rhapsodising about her global food education while touring an Australian market and tucking into a beef pad thai. Sadly for Charlotte, she has yet to turn her name into a food-based revenue stream, though a second career as an ambassador for King Edward potatoes is surely hers for the taking.
So that’s all very hashtag-modern and everything. But what of history? What of tradition?
If cricket has a signature dish, it is surely the humble cucumber sandwich. Actually, it’s not so humble at all: this delicate symbol of the English gentry – crusts optional – reached its peak of popularity during the Edwardian era, partly due to the introduction of year-round cucumber growing in hothouses. Cucumber sandwiches were the staple ingredient of afternoon tea, which is a peculiarly English invention in itself: its introduction to polite society is widely credited to Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, and should not be confused with ‘high tea’, which is what northerners like me call dinner.
It’s perhaps surprising, then, that the cricket tea is actually an Australian invention. Yes, really. It might be hard to picture those rugged Aussie blokes holding out a pinkie while sipping from the finest china cups, but it’s true. (Well, maybe not the bit about the pinkies.)
The custom – probably introduced as a way of escaping the mid-afternoon temperatures Down Under – took a while to catch on over here but, once it did, it quickly became subject to The Rules. Yes, don’t go thinking you can just stroll off the field for a brew whenever you feel a bit thirsty: the MCC’s rules on ‘intervals’ stretch to several pages, of which this passage on the timing of tea is but a short extract:
“If either 9 wickets are already down when 2 minutes remains to the agreed time for tea, or the 9th wicket falls within this 2 minutes, or at any time up to and including the final ball of the over in progress at the agreed time for tea, then, notwithstanding the provisions of Law 16.5(b) (Completion of an over), tea will not be taken until the end of the over that is in progress 30 minutes after the originally agreed time for tea, unless the players have cause to leave the field of play or the innings is completed earlier.”
Everyone clear on that? Good.
Should there happen to be a nationwide cucumber blight, egg and cress is a reasonable alternative; perhaps even corned beef, if you want to authentically recreate the experience of eating in an Anderson shelter during the Blitz. And scones, naturally, are another staple of the cricket pavilion – again, as much for their association with drowsy English summer afternoons as anything else.
On one level, at least, the magic of cricket seems inextricably bound up with such nostalgic reveries of a bygone England, as evocatively captured in Harold Pinter’s A Cricket Poem (‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime / Another time, another time’). But, according to the splendidly named Jim Pipe, author of Cricket: A Very Peculiar History, pizza, samosas and onion bhajis are now just as likely to be served at tea as cucumber sandwiches and scones. Insert your own joke about how nostalgia ain’t what it used to be here.
But enough about what they eat. What about us? No doubt the picnic baskets MCC members use to mark their territory in the Coronation Garden at Lord’s still contain their fair share of cucumber and cress, and perhaps the odd bottle of milk stout. But Lord’s also sells a range of deluxe hampers created by Jamie Oliver, not to mention an array of Indian dishes in partnership with the prestigious Tamarind Restaurant in Mayfair. The Food Village, meanwhile, offers gourmet burgers, fish and chips, burritos and, if you’re feeling flush, a well-stocked Champagne Bar. There is even a Waitrose. (I don’t know if the same is true in, say, Leeds. The website for Headingley just says the Stumps Restaurant will be open on matchdays. It would be nice to think they only serve builders’ tea and potted meat sandwiches, but I suspect not.)
Britain has witnessed a culinary revolution over the last 20 years, so it’s inevitable the food we associate with cricket is changing, too. While I suspect Wimbledon will always be in thrall to strawberries and cream, and football fans are unlikely to give up their meat pies any time soon, I fear the cucumber sandwich’s days in the pavilion may be numbered.
And what of tea itself? Those who hold tradition dear will be relieved to know that that the noxious infusion of Oriental leaves that England somehow adopted as its national beverage remains a popular fixture of clubhouses across the land. Indeed, Lord’s even has a deal with a popular tea brand to slake players’ thirsts during breaks in play. But gone are the days when tea was so central to cricket that WG Grace would travel with his own silver teapot and warming lamp. Today, players and spectators alike might prefer something a little more specialised. Certainly there enough coffee stalls around Lord’s to suggest Britain’s newfound passion for the bean is encroaching on our love affair with leaves. But I think we can all agree it will be a sad day indeed when cricket’s afternoon tea break is re-branded as the afternoon half-caf-tall-soy-no-foam-flat-white break.
22nd June, 2015 - “If I’m struggling with the action on the field, then the spectacle around it is self-evident”
It’s stupid o’clock in the morning and I’m on a train, bound for Lord’s. I pick up the newspaper I bought at the station and turn to the back page. Yes, that’s right, the back.
This simple act is something of a revelation in itself. I’ve seen people – almost exclusively men – do it many times, and it’s always struck me as odd, even a little insensitive. Are the sports reports really the most important thing going on in the world? Then again, with such unspeakable horrors as war, famine and the Kardashians splashed over the front pages each day, maybe you can’t blame people for wanting to escape into something more comforting, familiar and reassuring – three words that, I’m about to discover, figure highly in the Englishman’s love of cricket.
So I’m reading the sports pages – specifically, The Independent’s report of the previous day’s opening exchanges between England and New Zealand in the first of the summer’s seven Investec Tests. ‘In his fourth over,’ the match report states, ‘Southee bowled a ball on an inviting line which went on with the Lord’s slope and took the thinnest edge of Lyth’s bat as he pushed forward.’ I re-read this several times, but its meaning continues to elude me. And there’s more where that came from: Joe Root “shouldered arms to a ball from the off-spinner” while “Ian Bell was undone by a splendid ball from Henry which veered in on off, held its own and crashed into off stump”. Veered in on off? You’re just listing prepositions now. Maybe I should quickly check what Kim and Kanye have been up to?
An hour or so later, I arrive at Lord’s in glorious sunshine to find people queuing along the streets of St John’s Wood, waiting for the gates to open. And when I say people, I mean men. Elderly, white men. Notting Hill Carnival this ain’t.
Here, blazers and panama hats are very much on-trend, while many are resplendent in the striped ‘egg and bacon’ neckties that mark them out as members of the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club, which owns Lord’s and was formerly the sport’s governing body). Some extend this fealty to wearing the full MCC blazer, which is a brave look outside the Punch and Judy circuit. Suddenly, I feel a bit underdressed – and not a little under-aged – in my jeans and Pink Floyd t-shirt. Even the apartment block over the road is called Blazer Court.
Inside the ground (I’d already been ticked off by a friend for calling it a stadium), I have a nose around the famous Coronation Gardens. This is the lunchtime al fresco dining area where MCC members rush to secure a spot by laying out their tartan rugs and picnic baskets on the benches like posh German beach towels.
With a couple of hours still to go until play starts, I wander into the MCC Museum, the centerpiece of which is cricket’s most precious artifact: the original Ashes urn, a personal gift to England captain Ivo Bligh in the 1880s. At least, it’s as much of a centerpiece as something roughly the size of an eggcup can be. Other highlights include an unfortunate sparrow that was ‘bowled out’ by Jehangir Khan in 1936, and a splendid portrait of Sir Spencer Cecil Brabazon Ponsonby-Fane, GCB, ISO, a Sussex and Middlesex cricketer who was also Private Secretary to Lord Palmerston, the Earl of Clarendon and Earl Granville. They don’t call it a Gentleman’s Game for nothing, you know. Studying an image of WG Grace – widely considered the greatest cricketer of all time – meanwhile, it occurs to me his impressive hipster beard would now be the envy of Dalston and Shoreditch, especially if paired with some skinny jeans and a topknot.
Outside, vendors are selling 4-band radios, which is a worry: if even hardline cricket fans don’t know what’s going on without a cheat wire, what hope have I? Meanwhile, the crowd still looks like a day out for the 1922 Committee: the lack of diversity is actually surprising – like I’ve somehow become trapped inside a living copy of the Daily Telegraph. But it turns out these are just the early birds – it’s a Lord’s tradition for MCC members to arrive with the lark and, as the start of play looms closer, the great unwashed – or the great unblazered, anyway – begin to arrive in their thousands, a welcome number of women and children among them.
A little before 11, I take my seat for the match. I feel strangely exposed: as if people are going to rumble me as a fraud, an imposter, a cuckoo in the nest. It’s a feeling not helped by the fact that, despite the match being a sell-out, I have a whole row of seats to myself. Does everyone else know something I don’t?
The teams walk out to applause, followed by a reverent hush as A New Zealand Player bowls to An England Player (bear with me, I’m still new to this sports reporting business). The England Player hits the ball with a satisfying thwack that echoes around the ground. I know the sound of leather on willow is the lamest cliché in cricket, but at least now I know why: it really is a beautiful noise, to which no other word than ‘thwack’ can really do justice.
At this point, I’m still not entirely sure who’s doing what to who – I really should have bought one of those radios – but I clap when everyone else claps, and manage a convincing sharp intake of breath when the occasion demands.
If I’m struggling with the action on the field, then the spectacle around it is self-evident. 28,000 people in the English summer sunshine is quite a sight to behold. It’s a kaleidoscopic riot of colour, only broken by the neat, square handkerchief of white formed by the crisp shirts of MCC members in the Pavilion. Facing off against Thomas Verity’s ornate Victorian masterpiece from the other side of the field of play is the JP Morgan Media Centre, a towering, futuristic vision in glass and aluminium that looks a bit like a giant version of Brian, the confused.com robot. Together, these contrasting Lord’s icons say something profound about cricket’s mix of modernity and tradition. Probably.
Anyway, I’m just uploading a picture of this arresting scene to Facebook when something important happens, and the crowd makes a collective ‘oof’, as if they’ve all simultaneously received a punch to the abdomen. The scoreboard tells me that England’s Moeen Ali has come a cropper, and friends on Facebook helpfully fill in the details for me. It ought to be embarrassing, the man who’s actually there, his boots on the ground, receiving updates via social media, but I’m reliably informed the journalists and commentators inside Brian the robot are all watching it on telly as well, so I don’t feel so bad.
On the pitch, Stuart Broad and James Anderson follow Ali in fairly short order, and England are all out for 389 (that’s 389 runs – I’m getting the hang of this now). My first experience of seeing my national team at the crease (yeah, get me) has lasted a whole 48 minutes. Tea, anyone?
As New Zealand go into bat, the morning settles into a languid, unhurried rhythm. A feeling of peace and wellbeing descends and, while it’s still definitely closer to the ‘relaxing’ end of the spectrum than anything you’d call actual excitement, I find I’m enjoying myself. And, if you make a bit of an effort, it’s actually not that difficult to understand what’s going on – or at least understand enough to follow the basic cut and thrust of play, even if it will take a while to get the whole ‘in on off out, shake it all about’ stuff. Strip away the jargon and the numbers and it all comes down to men throwing and hitting balls; the rest you can worry about later. Even the scoreboard begins to assume a certain elegant simplicity once you’ve studied it long enough: I particularly like the little asterisks that tells you who’s currently batting and who’s bowling. It reminds me of when my dad used to follow the cricket on Ceefax.
I also can’t help but notice that, occasional Facebook distraction aside, I’m paying more attention than many. In front of me, a man barely looks up from his Telegraph crossword the whole morning. He’s basically using his seat as a glorified park bench – and, at £75 a pop, a pretty expensive one – but it seems it’s enough for him to be here, among the reassuring ritual of it all. Similarly, after lunch, the bar and food village remains packed: literally hundreds of people, quaffing beer and champagne and willfully ignoring the elite sportsmen they’re ostensibly here to see. But, as Jeremy Hall, Waitrose’s Events and Sponsorship Manager, explains when I drop into the store’s on-site Cricket Hub, that’s one of the great advantages of the game: unlike football, where the action is condensed into a hyper-concentrated 90 minutes, the fact the play goes on all day – and, often, several more days after that – means it’s okay to zone in and zone out. It’s all about the occasion. Also, there’s another valuable lesson here: the English love cricket – but not as much as they love a drink.
Compounding the sense of quintessential Englishness, there is much discussion of the weather (‘It’s definitely lifting’) and, by mid-afternoon, the sun has burned through, and I’m regretting not packing any Factor 50 for my pasty northern skin. Also, all those panama hats suddenly don’t look so silly any more.
On the field, England are doing a miserable job of taking any New Zealand wickets. Just after 3pm, there’s a brief flurry of activity when Latham and Guptill are out within four minutes of each other, but they’re the only scalps we’ll see today. On Facebook, I loftily remark that England are hopeless. Later, I will read some pretty generous appraisals of their bowling form, so it shows you what I know (recap: nothing).
And later still, Alastair Cook’s side will go on to secure a stunning turnaround victory, beating New Zealand by 124 runs in what is widely agreed to be an electrifying Test (“the best we’ve seen in years,” gushes The Guardian), showcasing a resurgent England after a troubled period of rows, recriminations and poor results.
There’s also a broad consensus that day two – the day I chose to break my cricketing duck – was the least exciting bit of this five-day thriller by some margin. But that’s okay. Personally, I rather enjoyed the restful, measured pace of it all: the soothing, slow metronomic tick tock of balls in that still square of green among the sweaty bustle of a London Friday. Next time, I might even bring a crossword.'
27th May, 2015 - “When it comes to cricket - there honestly can’t be a more clueless adult male in Britain today"
'About 10 years ago, my wife and I were visiting my parents in Leeds when my attention was drawn to the TV set in the corner of the room. Nothing unusual about that, of course – I’d spent some of the best years of my life staring into that corner of that room. But this time, it wasn’t what was on the telly that intrigued me, so much as what was on the telly. Specifically, the somewhat distracting presence of a large strip of masking tape obscuring the bottom third of the screen.
‘Oh that,’ said my dad casually, when I brought it up. ‘That’s for the cricket.’
Sensing I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this explanation, he added: ‘I can’t stand all that stuff they have going across the bottom these days.’ ‘That stuff’, presumably, being stats, scorelines, rolling sports headlines and the like. ‘It drives me mad. So I taped it up.’
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how Yorkshiremen are supposed to feel about cricket – so devoted to the game, they’ll cover up half the telly just so they can watch it in peace. (My mum, presumably, was having to make do with guessing whodunit on Midsomer Murders by the clues in the top half of the picture.) ‘Okay Dad,’ I said. ‘Whatever makes you happy. But it’s coming off for Doctor Who.’
You’re probably getting some idea of our father-son dynamic here: Dad loved sport – pretty much all sport – with a passion. He loved it so much, we once spent a day of a family holiday visiting 60s motor racing legend Jim Clark’s grave in the Scottish Borders. (A lovely bit of masonry, don’t get me wrong, but hardly Chessington World of Adventures.) He was also a lifelong Leeds United supporter – he was, in fact, at Wembley the day my sister was born. Sure, she was his first child and that’s lovely and all, but it wasn’t every day Leeds made the League Cup Final. Fatherhood could wait another day.
And he loved cricket. In fact, as he got older and football became more grasping and vulgar, Dad increasingly preferred cricket. My mum’s brothers were cricket obsessives, too. Still are, in fact – even though one of them has lived in Australia for 50 years, which is obviously a sore point, cricket-wise.
So yeah, all the men in our family are mad about cricket. Except one. This one. Hello. Because sport – all sport – is my blind spot. I don’t watch it, don’t play it, don’t understand it. And, despite a brief but ardent passion for Liverpool FC – the glory-hunter’s team of choice in the early 80s – I never have. When all my mates were getting their first season tickets for Elland Road, I was at home stapling copies of my Doctor Who fanzine together. I was a geek, a nerd, a spod. Some might say I still am – you’d have to ask my wife. (Actually, don’t.)
And it’s not like I haven’t had opportunities, over the years. When I was about 14, a friend of mine got a job as groundsman’s assistant at Headingly. He asked if I wanted to come along and help, and so it was that my first ever day’s wage was earned watching Yorkshire play… someone or other (apologies – other cricket historians are available), after which I had to collect all the wet towels from the players’ dressing rooms. Perhaps it was being confronted by so many sweaty, naked men at such an impressionable age that put me off the game. It may even have put me off men.
A few years later, I ended up living a stone’s throw from that same ground. (I appreciate I could have used a more appropriate cricketing metaphor than a stone there, like… Nope, sorry, drawing a blank. Something to do with boundaries? Or hitting sixes? Or is that rounders?) But I never went in. Obviously. Why would I, when there was a perfectly good Blockbuster Video virtually next door?
So, anyway, you see the problem. What I know about cricket you could write on the back of a bail. And most of that would be showing off that I know what a bail is. So when I was approached to write a beginner’s guide (they were kind enough not to say idiot’s guide – but we were all thinking it) to cricket, my employers really lucked out: when it comes to this subject – though not exclusively this subject – there honestly can’t be a more clueless adult male in Britain today.
The things I don’t know about cricket are literally endless: what, for example, is an inning? Why is the score expressed as a complex mathematical equation that would have baffled Alan Turing? What are googlies, dead balls and dippers? And what’s a bouncer, if not the dog from Neighbours?
I’m a blank canvas. A clean sheet. An open mind (some may say an empty one). And now I’m going to learn all about cricket. But, more importantly than that, I’m going to see if I can learn to love cricket, the way an Englishman – and a Yorkshireman, to boot – is supposed to love cricket.
Because, don’t get me wrong, I’m attracted to the idea of cricket – or, at least the rather idealised, long shadows, leather-on-willow, pealing church bells, bicycling maids, exquisitely English idea of cricket so beloved of John Major. (Does that type of cricket still exist? I know cricket whites have been replaced, at international level at least, by corporate branding and crash helmets. But I’d be disappointed if grass-stained white flannelling wasn’t still a fixture of Sunday afternoons on village greens across the land.)
But will I love it enough to get beyond this romanticised view and fully embrace the modern game? Will cricket steal my heart and fill my soul – the phrase I’m manfully trying to avoid here is ‘bowl me over’ – or will it just prove, once and for all, that I was born with a defective sporting gene, and should just learn to accept it?
Time will tell. But I’m eager to get started. I just wish my dad was still here to share this adventure with me. I’d love to have taken him as my guest to Lord’s. Imagine that: father and son, sitting in the sunshine, enjoying England’s national game together without interruptions, adverts, or the need to cover half the field of play with masking tape. Yeah, that would have been quite something.
I’m still not going if it clashes with Doctor Who, though.'