We always got there early. The smell of the grass, the huge sky, the expanse of green and the ticking over of the mower cruising the outfield – Old Trafford was urban and rural all at once. Men – and almost always only men – would arrive and “Ow do?” in those flat accent that started just five miles inland from Liverpool, but that I heard only on Coronation Street and during footballers’ interviews. Scorecards would be bought and studied and, whilst the players did the most perfunctory of warm-ups, possible close of play scores would be guessed at. PA system would crackle, coughing into life and a welcome, ignored, would be offered to the crowd, one or two cracking open cans of Carling Black Label. The start of a Test match day in the 70s was very different from today’s Busby Berkleyish routines with a cast of a hundred or more busily coaching, stretching, photographing and hanging on. Back then almost nothing went on, until everything went on.
And, as you do at cricket, we talked. Does watching any game lend itself so easily to talking as does cricket? Those truly practised (yes, I’m going to count myself amongst them) can carry on a conversation through an over, breaking off just as the bowler gathers, to resume as the ball hits the keeper’s gloves, the pause almost imperceptible, as the merits of a decent Number Eight are detailed or the DRS system discussed relatively sanely or the state of the nation evaluated.
In 2008, membership at The Oval took me to The Shelf, the thin strip of seats on the Third Floor just in front of the restaurant. There I enjoy the regular company of Jeremy Theobald and Lynn Bashforth – now husband and wife – and perfect companions for a day at the cricket. Often joined by friends, we sit and watch and talk and drink and eat and laugh and shout and cheer and applaud and groan and… enjoy just about my favourite place in the world: so close to home yet so far away. My kids come, made welcome by everyone in a safe environment, the culture of cricket dripping into their souls. They like it too - but they’d like it more if Chris Gayle played for Surrey. Junior membership is £20 each, affording entry to all matches and a seat in that glorious pavilion. I can only hope that they grow up knowing that not all life is like this.
Something in the rhythm of cricket – whether the hurly-burly of a T20 or the less frenetic, sometimes plain slow, pace of a first class match – promotes conversation, that wonderfully natural exchange of thoughts that relies on one’s generosity to let another speak and then to take another’s point. So it’s no wonder that cricket has produced some of the best writing on sport – words seem woven into the game.
In the 70s, the Daily Mirror dropped through the letterbox every morning and my Dad brought the Daily Mail home in the evening. Cricket was covered by both, but I recall nothing of the writing, other than the then unremarkable fact that every county scorecard was published in full in both papers. A double-century was very rare in those days and they stood out amongst columns of cs and bs and LBWS and figures. At college, I started to read The Guardian, which meant Matthew Engel and Frank Keating and (later) Mike Selvey. As the print leeched on to my fingers, matches would come to life in their prose, written to deadline, but with an eye on posterity. I loved it.
At the same time that cricket’s written word was lodging itself in my consciousness, its spoken word was doing the same thing. I was too young to appreciate the lyricism of Arlott, found Laker just a bit dull and I couldn’t understand how Peter West did Come Dancing and Test Cricket. But I loved Richie Benaud’s balancing of excitement with understated deadpanning and his loyalty to the game above his Australian nationality. And then came World Series Cricket! That was what I wanted to hear! The music was sensational and then the commentary kicked in – it didn’t like it was coming from a literary salon or the upper sixth remove (as Test Match Special did too often), but from just outside Bay 13. Bill Lawry, Richie again, Tony Greig and Chapelli and their mates knew their cricket and cared about it. They were men I could imagine sitting next to in the ground – no English commentator passed that test until Channel Four and Sky assembled their brilliant teams.
I read The Cricketer and have done for twenty years or more. I loved the early 90s density of prose and Robin Marler’s dry as a bone humour in his book reviews. Just before going to sleep, what could be better than a five page report on the recently concluded New Zealand vs Pakistan five Test series? Well, maybe something involving Isabelle Adjani, but it wasn’t a bad second best.
The words started to appear differently in the late-90s, as screen replaced paper. We’d become used to ceefax clicking over every two minutes – “There’s Gooch’s 300!” – but now Cricinfo gave us ball-by-ball coverage of matches in heart-stopping F5 action! I was at my desk as the old ad and photo-free site calmly progressed England’s score to 2-4 in Michael Vaughan’s debut Test as though that were perfectly normal. And there were all those stats, deliciously updated in real time, in which one could wallow. I’d stare at them, transfixed by their sheer numberliness pondering when Shaun Pollock would pass Malcolm Marshall.
With broadband came interaction – the much trumpeted Web 2.0 was in our hands (literally, with laptops doubling in power and halving in price every year). My first interaction came on a big fat desktop in 2005, when I sent an e-mail to The Guardian’s already wildly popular Over-by-Over coverage. It was published and I was hooked and have loved it ever since (as I confess here). I sent my first post to The Guardian’s SportsBlog in 2006 - MouthoftheMersey was born and was soon living up to his name. The Ashes 2006-7 was an addictive delight on those boards – it was, wait for it, propa banter. I discovered that people were interested in reading my pithy little (soi-disant) zingers at the OBO and my slightly more considered comments, alongside more attempts at humour, on the SportsBlog. I felt honoured to be holding globe-spanning conversations via The Guardian with cricket tragics like me who loved the game more than their team. Then, via a post on the SportsBlog, I was asked to write for… money!
Lee Calvert (with whom I was to ambush Rob Smyth in the fifth over of this OBO) suggested that I scribble posts for The Googly and, flattered, I did. I found that I could write all day every day about cricket without repeating myself and almost without effort. I wrote what I would like to read in the hope that others would too – and some did. But The Googly folded and, at the behest of Nestaquin, the founder of this site, he and I struck out on our own – without the monthly dribble of cash into the account.
Here I write not journalism, but whatever I fancy and whenever I want. I write without a journalist’s discipline, without their editors, without their eye on the commercial element to what they do. This is blogging and whether anyone reads it is as free a decision for them as mine is in deciding what to write. I respect journalists and their often brilliant work – Rob Smyth, Lawrence Booth, Andy Bull, Mike Selvey, Mike Atherton, Gideon Haigh, George Dobell and lots and lots of others – and I read their stuff as often as possible, but I respect bloggers too. We’re different and, though what we do has obvious parallels with journalism, it’s not the same thing – and shouldn’t be. Good journalism and good blogging are subsets of good writing – and there’s plenty of room for both. I have written journalism – for Channel Five’s website, Spin Cricket and for The Blizzard – and I enjoy that every bit as much too. It’s not quite true to say that if you can blog, you can write journalism and vice-versa, but it shouldn’t be impossible to move between the two – if you have something to say and the talent to say it. Writing journalism also gives you a better chance to secure a seat in the media centres – magnificent vantage points (in every sense) to watch the game. I never thought I’d be sitting there!
In late 2009, the talking element of my cricket life took another turn as I wedged my Shane Watsonesque backside on to a cushion at Test Match Sofa. It’s impossible to describe exactly how much fun it is, but I hope some of it comes across to the listeners. Watching cricket all day amongst people who are very different, yet share a love of the game and the humour and warmth it can generate, joined by thousands more via Twitter, is to rejoice in a great agglomeration of cricket fans, brought together by internet communications. I don’t want to come over all Derrida here about the difference between speaking and writing, but it’s surprising how much more demanding it is to speak for three of four hours compared to writing for that time. Perhaps writing is more natural! I never know what I’m going to say on the mic, but I know it needs energy, wit and some vestige of originality if it is to work – and sometimes it does. What a privilege it is to talk on The Sofa!
These two posts were prompted by an internet conversation with a friend across The Atlantic. She suggested that in my writing about theatre (at westend.broadwayworld.com) and cricket (here and elsewhere) from the perspective on a Northern working class upbringing, I had some parallels with no less a doyen of those disciplines than Sir Neville Cardus! Of course, I scoffed at the comparison, but, in reading this (at Wikipedia of course) about the father of cricket journalism, I felt my life as a writer is a pale, pale shadow of taht of Cardus’. “He was untrained in music, and his style of criticism was subjective, romantic and personal… His writing about the game [cricket] was innovative, turning what had previously been in general a purely factual form into vivid description and criticism.” I recognise that lack of training (in my case, in theatre) and I recognise the subjective, romantic and personal as an aspiration in my writing. On cricket, I am no innovator, though I have embraced innovative technologies and discourses and I aspire to vivid description and criticism. It’s not a bad template to follow. And not a bad life to live.
Part one – watching and playing is available here.
You can tweet me @garynaylor999