What follows is not The Spirit of Cricket Lecture 2011, as anyone who has listened to Kumar Sangakkara’s eloquent and passionate speech delivered at Lord’s on 4 July 2011 will instantly realise. Despite being short of him by 8428 Test runs and 183 dismissals (and in the urbane wit and good looks department too), the wonder of the internet allows me the conceit to write my own lecture. Kumar spoke of the history of cricket in his country – I write of a corner of the history of cricket in mine.
In 1978, I was about to turn fifteen and enter a world I had glimpsed only once before – five years earlier when failing my eleven-plus at Merchant Taylors’ School Crosby. That was the world of the English Middle Class, a hitherto unknown country within a country distinguished by its own language and culture. It was a country the borders of which were patrolled by an unseen, unknown people who all seemed to know each other, but didn’t know anyone else (nor care to). But don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t one of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, livin’ in hole in t’road – I was just a kid who grew up in a working class district of a largely working class city, who went to the local primary school, then the comprehensive school into which I was decanted without much say. I spent time watching as much sport as possible on the television (televisions that were never switched off, even if only the test card was being broadcast) but I was fortunate to have a father who took me and my brothers to Goodison Park and Old Trafford (and to chalets at Butlin’s and Pontin’s and caravans in the Lake District and North Wales) and a mother who worked days on the school dinners and evenings in a cinema, allowing us unlimited access to three screens showing double-bills (and my mother didn’t think much of the BBFC, so we saw pretty much everything U, A, AA or X). Other eccentric twists at home included a room given over to a dart board and a six foot snooker table and later, rescued from the cinema, a traditional one-arm bandit. Dad went for a pint after work on a Friday and Mother went to bingo on a Sunday night. Booze was only in the house at Christmas (and we were still borrowing a corkscrew from next door well into the 90s) but there were always cigarettes (and still are). It was a lot like the Royle Family, though my dad worked overtime most nights – and a lot of weekends.
What happened in 1978 is that I started to play club cricket in and around Liverpool. Suddenly, I was opening the bowling for Hightown Thirds in the Liverpool Competition lower divisions and sharing a dressing room with doctors, lawyers and mysterious businessmen. I recall waiting for my lift to an away match at a bus stop standing with my next door neighbours, when a car pulled up and I flung the bag in the back and stepped in – the car was an Jaguar XJS convertible and my neighbours’ mouths may still be open now.
It wasn’t just these new people with whom I was mixing that were strangely seductive, there were the pavilions too, beautiful relics of Liverpool’s already long gone Victorian prosperity. Southport and Birkdale, Oxton, Neston, Birkenhead Park, Liverpool Cricket Club itself at Aigburth and lots more were slowly, aristocratically, falling on hard times. All these bars seemed somewhat different to the lounges I had seen at Butlin’s, with great wooden boards displaying the names of past captains etched in gold leaf, trophies shining in glass cases like saintly relics, men, and heaven help me, well dressed women. People drank wine, gin and tonics and shorts, not just pints of bitter out of thickly glassed mugs and bottles of Mackeson. I didn’t really understand this world, but some of those doctors and lawyers gave me a little guidance and I found a voice – one that still made gaffes, was still more Terry from the Likely Lads than even Bob – but a voice that was changing from that of a bright working class lad into that of what would have been the ex-grammar school boy (had grammar schools not been swept away by, of all people, Margaret Thatcher!). Soon I was wrestling with the pros and cons of going to university – nobody in my family had ever been, so there was nobody to ask there and teachers – well, they were bound to say go weren’t they? I recall asking the brother of a friend who was at East Anglia what was good about university (it wasn’t uni then) – “You get to sleep with middle class girls” was his succinct (and, yes, working class) reply. That swung it and, eventually, he was to be proved right.
Back to the cricket. In the England of the twentieth century, cricket was one of the few places where the border guards of the class divide were not on the prowl. Football was (and still is, even now) working class, rugby union middle class, rugby league working class, tennis very middle class, golf – well, don’t go there. Cinema and telly were working class and theatre middle class (with some liberal intellectuals happy in both camps). Art galleries and libraries were full of very young school parties and very old people trying to keep warm and pubs were urban and working class or rural and middle class (rule of thumb – if you could only get to the pub in a car, it was middle class). Working class men drank beer, and the women Babycham or something else equally awful and the middle classes drank wine, enigmatically discerning the difference between red and white.
Of course there were exceptions to these stereotypes and in London, there may well have been more exceptions than rules, but around the rest of England, there were only two pursuits that seemed to unite these two classes. Cricket had its Gentlemen and Players, but nobody could doubt the bond between DR Jardine and H Larwood nor, a generation later, JM Brearley and IT Botham. Countless first class cricketers from the universities (either of them) and the pits played and toured together, some merely tolerating the other, but many rubbing along well, united by a talent and a love of the game. The glorious cricket grounds built by the professional classes of Liverpool with the money of merchants high on the proceeds of Empire, were always populated on either side of the boundary rope by rich and poor (though not women – that advance would only become visible in the 21st century). Catch any interviews with English cricketers from any time since the invention of sound recording, and you’re as likely to hear the fluting trill of an Old Etonian as the halting accented vowels of a tenant farmer or factory hand – and one or two who aspire to the Etonian tone but can’t quite do it. Don’t forget the names too. Bills, Lens, and Walters are in with the Plums, Gubbys and Douglases.
And it’s the names on old cricket scorecards that remind me of the only other pursuit of the twentieth century seemingly immune from the watchful eye of the class border police. I recall reading them downwards, like a scorecard, but not a scorecard of eleven men, but countless men, whose names evoked all strata of society, working together in a pursuit in which the class borders were still visible, but the field and the shared objectives blurred them more than anywhere else. Those names were not in Wisden, but etched into the marble of the Menin Gate in Ypres, Flanders. The men who met only on the cricket field in life, met only on the battlefield in death. A reminder, as if we needed one, that the glory of the game of Empire is its transcendence of baser instincts, in favour of a shared wonder at the gift Broad Halfpenny Down’s shepherds bequeathed us all those years ago.
And that’s the point Sanga drove home at Lord’s with all the elegance for which we know him. At least he and I have that sentiment in common.