Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 31, 2017

The Art Of Watching Dull Cricket

Looking suitably ashamed of himself

If the Big Bash League (which always sounds to me like a bunch of lovable urchins in a series of Mack Sennett two reelers, probably led by a teenage Jimmy Cagney and, to be fair, it often looks like that too) isn’t your thing, you might be one of us dwindling band of cricket cognoscenti. We are a happy worldwide sect – well not conventionally happy, but we do rejoice in being miserable (the first of a few such paradoxes in this piece, so you’re warned) – and with good reason. We, unlike the ex-player broadcasters barfing banalities about the Melbourne Test, have learned The Art Of Watching Dull Cricket.

Perhaps my first lesson was given by a dedicated teacher in this field, the legendary Chris Tavare. at Old Trafford in 1981. Play was due to resume on the Saturday with Geoffrey Boycott at one end and the Kent blocker at the other – very much how to capitalise on the cricket fever displacing Lady Di mania after England’s inspired Lazarusian wins at Headingley and Edgbaston don’t you think? Under glowering Manchester skies which threatened merciful rain at any moment, England hammered out 29 runs in the morning session (Boycott eventually out for a three hour 37, David Gower a 22 minutes one, Mike Gatting just over the hour mark for 11 and Mike Brearley tripling Gower’s score in a similar time). The spam sandwiches were much depleted, the Dairylea triangles now absent their circular packaging and the cans of Higson’s Best Bitter looking unlikely to last beyond the lunch break.

Due to my father’s anxiety to avoid being late anywhere (an hereditary trait, as my sons never cease to remind me) we had been sitting on the splintery wooden benches for pushing five hours when Ian Botham walked, bat-swingingly, out of the Red Rose county’s redbrick pavilion to resume his nascent innings after lunch, England well placed, but not impregnable, 200 or so ahead, five down. History records the blaze of boundaries that followed, the eyes-closed hooks off Dennis Lillee and the mighty drives that, had the perimeter advertising for booze, fags and television rentals not intervened, may well have rolled all the way up the Pennines and down the other side to the gates of the great man’s Northern redoubt outside Doncaster.

And here’s the thing – sweet though it always is to see the Australians put to the sword, it was as sweet as a Tooting delicatessen’s Asian candies to witness it after the non-amuse bouche fare slopped on to the counter in the morning session. Such joy is two fold: the boundaries, the freedom of expression, the roars of the crowd are all enhanced by their hitherto absence; and there’s just that sneaking smug self-satisfaction you get when you can say, if only under your breath and to yourself, “Told you so. Told you something would happen.”. That promise of something sensational just out of sight of the JCLs, once injected into your cricketing body politic, doesn’t go away. As didn’t Tavare – still there at the end of the carnage, en route to a seven hour 78, including, inter alia, the slowest half-century in Test history.

A variant on the theme of watching dull cricket in anticipation of enjoying what may happen all the more, is the product of recent technological developments. At The Oval in 2012, Hashim Amla was deep into his third day at the crease, unfurling cover drive after cover drive which were lovely to behold. But it was getting a bit dull (not, to be fair, Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie at Lord’s in 2008 dull – but, frankly, what does?) when a landmark moment – and not just any old landmark moment – hove into sight.

Earpieces, television screens in hospitality boxes and smartphones had alerted the crowd that the stylish right-hander was approaching the highest score made by a South African batsman. A buzz went round the ground, by now everyone aware of the significance of the humble man with the shaven head and long beard and no lager logo passing the likes of Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards and the man who held the record, willing him on a few yards to the left of where I sat, AB de Villiers. History had its eyes on us!

As Tim Bresnan was stroked to the fence yet again, the ground rose as one in thunderous applause and cheering as Jacques Kallis embraced his partner, the odd but oh so effective couple delivering for the rainbow nation yet again. There was no Warneresque leaping about from Amla, no badge kissing that I can recall, just an acknowledgement of the appreciation of 20000 or more people who had suffered some dull cricket for sure, but who would be able forever after to say, “I was there”. Though England’s players stopped short of chorusing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” 70 years later on the very spot – possibly in the hope of inducing a vision obscuring tear – there were hearty handshakes to be followed later by the laurels awarded in the press.

Like all things worth doing, The Art Of Watching Dull Cricket demands some preparation. Proper provisioning is essential – I favour the simple fare of samosas and other Indian delicacies that do not invite the fear attendant on a egg mayonnaise sandwich, slightly warm to the touch, curling a little in the heat. More elaborate picnics are welcome too, finger food deluxe from Selfridges Food Hall as far removed from the spam sandwiches of 1981 as one can imagine, seldom disappoints. Decent wine, chilled in a cool bag, served in top end plastic glasses is recommended too and, if visits to the bar can consume too much time and money, Pimms and Lemonade decanted into a bottle or three still labelled “Dandelion and Burdock” both looks and smells like its original contents and adding vodka to a bottle of blood orange juice is both invisible and, because nobody is quite sure what blood orange smells like, passes the sniff test of suspicious security personnel too.

This bounty must, of course, be shared with old friends, new friends and friends about to be, as dull cricket offers ample opportunity for conversation. Any opening gambit should usually concern the cricket itself (and reference the garrulous Yorkshireman mentioned above, with the grim Man of Kent and the “Cowan Century” as alternatives) but once underway, unlike the cricket on show, it can go anywhere. Recent movies, the state of tertiary education, an XI comprising only players with names beginning with X, Y or Z are just some of the topics that can while away an hour or so waiting for Ben Stokes to come in and change the game. Sending snarky comments to the Guardian’s Over-By-Over coverage is also good to take one’s mind off the actual entertainment triped up, but in no circumstances should one ever send a selfie with a view to its appearance on the big screen, nor use the hashtag #lovingthecricket. There are, after all, limits and Test cricket still demands a certain decorum.

The final lesson in today’s lecture is a simple, but deeply penetrative, insight said to me by a friend when we were both 14 years old, waiting to be old enough to buy bottles of Strongbow, probably in the middle of a particularly intractable game of Dungeons and Dragons. “I like watching cricket” he remarked. “It makes everything else in life seem a lot less boring”. Perhaps that, above all else, is the enduring gift of mastering The Art Of Watching Dull Cricket


Responses

  1. I thought this was a super piece, Gary, and it really resonated with me. Mainly, I feel, because I too suffered Tavare in ’81 (about 45 minutes scoreless and essentially strokeless at The Oval, the breaking of which prompted wild celebrations. 36 years later I can still see the cushions being thrown into the air in front of the gasholders.) and also the Smith-McKenzie stand in its entirety. Very tough going.

    Tavare in his heyday (in international cricket anyway – Kent and Somerset supporters of a certain vintage will never tire of telling you how fluently he could play in the county game) was remarkable. ‘The youth of today’ simply wouldn’t believe such batting was possible (in the unlikely event of any of them remaining conscious beyond a few overs).

    • We know because we were there!

      Character building they used to call it.


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