On watching cricket

This is a very cricket week. England had a magnificent victory at Sophia Gardens but I also managed to turn out for my local side, Archway Ladder CC on Wednesday and if selected will be playing for them again this evening. All this prior to going to Lord’s for the first day of the second Test against Australia. A very cricket week.

To those not brought up in the culture of cricket, whether tourists visiting London or people living in the UK whose families had no interest in the game, I think it can seem a rather arcane activity that might be picturesque but isn’t necessarily very accessible. I realised this talking to the checkout woman in the supermarket this morning who, after I told her I’d been watching cricket all day yesterday, asked me who was playing and ‘didn’t they only play cricket in hot countries like India?’ Maddening!!!

Such ignorance might explain this scene, which takes place every weekend in my local park over the summer.

A sorry spectacle; baseball on what was once a fine cricket ground

A sorry spectacle; baseball on what was once a fine cricket ground

When I first moved to London around twenty years ago there were two serviceable cricket pitches on this patch of ground, each with a changing room and used regularly through the summer by local teams. Over the years the council first neglected the changing rooms, allowing them to be broken into and failing to repair them when they were, then neglected to maintain the pitches so that they became dangerous to play on, and finally dug a great trench across the playing square, thus ensuring that it was no longer fit for cricket.

Then, over the past five years or so the council ploughed money into turning the cricket pitches into baseball diamonds, seemingly with money no object in the provision of infrastructure (changing rooms and practice facilities) and I now have to walk past whooping nonsense on my way to work at the weekend.*

A sign by the gate says ‘BASEBALL AND SOFTBALL  ONLY’.

Through the bars you can see what used to be cricket nets. Don’t think we’ll ever get those back.

Fortunately no-one takes this seriously and you get a lot of people using the space for football training or playing scratch cricket matches. But still, one thing you can’t do in Finsbury Park is watch or play a proper cricket match.

Which is a shame.

So if you do want to watch cricket in London where should you go? This is a small guide, based solely on my personal experience, for the uninitiated or the curious tourist.

Test matches

If you only ever go to one cricket match in your life I would recommend a Test match at Lord’s. Of course tickets for this week’s match against Australia will have sold out months ago, so you should start planning for next season if you intend to go. It’s expensive (110 GBP for Australia, usually 50 GBP plus for other teams depending on the level of their support in the UK and their box office appeal) but don’t let that put you off. Cricket lasts from breakfast until evening and while you’re allocated a seat you can also wander round the ground. This turns into a large village for the duration of the match with shops, food and drink stalls, a museum, games and activities for children and the big screen on the nursery for if you’ve temporarily mislaid your ability to rise from the horizontal.

The big screen in the nursery at Lord's

The big screen in the nursery at Lord’s

I like the atmosphere in the nursery, especially in the late afternoon when the crowd turns amiably sloshed. Watching from your seat is better, especially if you’ve remembered to take your own supplies of food and drink to mitigate the eye-watering prices at the bar. The crowd for a Test match is knowledgable, generally good-humoured with opposition fans and has a happy mixture of people of different genders, ethnicities and social backgrounds. The ‘buzz’ you hear as a bowler runs in for the first ball of the day is a sound worthy of inclusion in Desert Island Discs.

A Yorkshire friend says he ‘doesn’t do Lord’s’ because of it’s perceived/actual air of social exclusivity. This is true of the pavilion, of which more later, but is easily ignored and shouldn’t deter anybody from visiting this wonderful ground. Not often sentimental or nostalgic I nevertheless feel a sense of deep history when walking through the Grace Gates on match day. This romanticism is only enhanced by the welcome guilty sensation of cracking open a bottle of wine before lunch. It makes me feel like an 18th century rake.

England v New Zealand

England v New Zealand

But what if you can’t get tickets for the Test?**

County Cricket***

1) Twenty20

T20 is a welcome enough form of cricket when in the correct mood or place. It’s my favourite form for playing the game as its brevity suits my very limited batting ability, which extends only as far as having a thrash for a few overs before chuntering back to the pavilion having had my stumps flattened or having holed out to a crap delivery.****

For the uninitiated it is probably the most accessible version of the sport (it was designed for that purpose) and theoretically is a glitzy wham-bam festival of cricket that’s over in 3 hours rather than 5 days. So yes, at Lord’s you get loud music over the sound system, dancing cheerleaders, coloured clothing (although what is inherently more exciting about a pair of red trousers than a pair of white ones is something of a mystery to me) and the players lounging on the field. In other words it was designed to attract children of all ages.

I’ve reported on some T20 matches and I can’t remember the results of them or any event of interest … in a game where too much is happening all the time it soon becomes apparent that very little is happening of any consequence. Sixes rain down, badly made up ladies jump up and down and the crowd endures another round of ‘Another one bites the dust’.

In the rain.

Twenty20 at Lord's, Middlesex v Rajasthan Royals

Twenty20 at Lord’s, Middlesex v Rajasthan Royals. Impending rain.

Nevertheless T20 has increased attendance and I wouldn’t be churl enough not to celebrate that. It is a good thing to do after work in the company of a few mates or family.

2) One day cricket

This really should be the game for the cricketing neophyte. Starting at lunchtime and finishing in the early evening you get to see a result (should the weather not intervene) in a much less frenetic atmosphere than T20. Take a picnic, get a row of seats and lounge your way through a sunny Sunday. Batsmen will still play expansively but bowlers get more time to work at them. The more relaxed rhythm of the 40-over game will also allow you to take a stroll round the ground from time to time without missing anything. My favourite, non-Test form of the game. Crowds are pretty healthy on a good day and I’ve rarely come out feeling less happy than when I went in. Even when Middlesex lose.

3) Championship cricket

Lord's for a county game

Lord’s for a county game, from the pavilion.

The purist’s form. Four day matches going from 11 till 6.30 in the evening. I’ve never attended the entirety of a championship match but sincerely hope to devote a substantial portion of my retirement to doing so.

You can wallow in four day cricket; you can do the crossword, write a novel, sleep soundly, talk to the players, heckle the players, heckle the crowd, drink beer slowly, eat food slowly, catch up on your emails, do some birdwatching, think about the futility of life and the absurdity of not having a choice about being born, contemplate entering a religious order, plot the foul murder of your enemies, look at a sparrow once killed by a cricket ball, grow a fine beard, compose poetry, stab your own knee with a pencil to make sure that you’re still sentient, listen to Lancastrians singing ‘Oh, lancy lancy! Lancy lancy lancy lancy lancashire’ like drunken sailors, get divorced and remarried, scratch your own hay-fevered eyes out for fun, make friends with improbable people, bear grudges towards the unaware, flirt with a barmaid, flirt with a barman, get short-changed, be bought drinks by a generous stranger, lose money hand over fist, listen in to seedy conversations, admire the boundless enthusiasm of cherubic children, be curmudgeonly to a fault, go home.

If you take out a membership you upgrade this experience to encompass The Pavilion. Here you find beasts that not even medieval European mapmakers had the creativity to contemplate as existing in yet ‘undiscovered’ areas of the earth.  Things in improbable outfits (although always conforming to the dress code) with hideous facial hair and loud barking voices. But every one of them a sound chap. Wrap yourself in an air of insouciance at such eccentricity and enjoy the deep comfort of the greatest place for watching sport in the world.

4) Women’s cricket

I haven’t been fortunate enough to go to a women’s international as yet but I have been to a county game (many years ago). The women’s game has all the skills and pleasure of the men’s. Visit my friend Raf’s blog for a far more knowledgable advocate of the game.

Park/club cricket

My own level but one that can be appreciated by the spectator. No tickets required. Turn up to watch mixed ability cricket where players of all ages compete in a weird mixture of sporting class, striving mediocrity and cheerful incompetence. Often there’s a bar in the clubhouse but why not bring your own if you’re a bit skint? There’s nothing more flattering to the club cricketer than to have had an impartial witnesses to his or her exploits who could avow, ‘Yes! I saw you take that skier at mid off. It was magnificent.’

Alexandra Palace Cricket Club

Alexandra Palace Cricket Club

Looking over the illustrations in this post I realise that there’s one thing that I watch at all forms of the game and that is the sky over England. The sky is the protean witness to all this toilsome play and it never disappoints as a backdrop to the game.

Constable, I’m sure, must have been a cricket-lover.

* I must emphasise that I am not anti-baseball. One of the best evenings of my life was watching baseball in Oakland and falling in love with the game. But that was in California, not north London.

** They also play Test matches at the Oval south of the river

*** Surrey play their cricket at the Oval but I’ve only ever used the nets there so won’t comment on the viewing experience.

**** Although this week I varied my repertoire by being out stumped for the first time in my ‘career’.

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