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Original Issue


A famous author and player explains what the game really means to all good Englishmen

American summer visitors to England often ask to be shown a cricket match, but few of them watch it very long. Nothing is happening, they complain. There is no excitement, no cheering, only an occasional clop. "Does it really go on like this all day?" they ask. "It does," I tell them. "And is it true that sometimes at the end of it all there's no result? It's what you call a draw?" "That's so," I say. "And you yourself used to spend most of your summer playing a game like that?" "I did." "Well, what's the point to it?" To that question there is one answer only, but it is all-sufficing: "The men you play it with."

The average day of a club cricketer, such as I myself was, will explain what I mean. The difference between club and first-class cricket lies less in the quality of the play than in the fact that each side in a first-class match has two innings, but in a club match only one, with the game finishing in a single day. The hours of play are from 11:30 to 6:30, with an extra half hour if there is a chance of finishing the game. Three or four times a week during the summer, I would leave my London flat soon after 10, carrying in a long, narrow leather bag my bats, pads (leg guards), flannels, sweater, blazer. The match would be against one of the suburbs or near suburbs that lie within an hour's drive of Hyde Park Corner—Sutton, Surbiton, Pinner, Wimbledon—and I would aim to reach the ground with 20 minutes to spare, so as not to have to hurry over my dressing.

The players' pavilion would be half full when I arrived. The players would be of any age between 20 and 55. There would be university graduates on vacation, Indian army officers on leave, stockbrokers taking a day off, retired businessmen. Most of us would know each other or about each other, and there would be a genial atmosphere of reunion as we changed into our uniform of white long-trousered flannels and studded white buckskin boots. We would all wear brightly striped flannel blazers. Few of them would be similar. Most cricketers by the time they are 30 have acquired the right to wear the colors of half a dozen clubs, and it is their curious custom to refrain from wearing the colors of the side for which they happen to be playing. By 25 past 11 the pavilion would look like an herbaceous border.

It is now time to toss for choice of innings, and the rival captains walk out onto the field. A coin is flipped into the air. In a one-day match the winning of the toss is a big advantage, and the winner returns to the pavilion with a grin. "We're batting, boys. Frank, will you and Arthur open?" He pins a sheet of paper onto the door; it is the batting order, and the members of his side crowd around it. I shall look for my name in the lower half. I am one of those batsmen who gets runs quickly, if at all. I see myself posted at No. 8, which means that I am very unlikely to have anything to do before lunch, which is at 1:30. I arrange a deck chair in the shade and settle down to watch the cricket.

Some Americans, even if they have never seen cricket played, are familiar with the rough outline of the game, in the same way that most Englishmen are familiar with the pattern of baseball. Some Americans know, for instance, that cricket is played between two sides of 11 players; that the object of each side is to score more runs than the other; that wickets consisting of three stumps (stakes) about 2 feet high covering a width of 9 inches are set 22 yards apart; that a batsman protects these wickets with a paddle-shaped bat against a ball that is bowled (pitched) with a straight wrist and elbow; that a batsman stands at each wicket and a run is scored when the ball is hit sufficiently out of reach of the fieldsmen for the batsmen to change ends; they may change ends as often as four times as the result of a single stroke. A ball hit to the boundary counts four runs and over the boundary six runs. A batsman continues his innings till he is dismissed, which he can be in any of several ways: if a ball from the bowler hits his wicket; if he obstructs with his body a ball that would have hit his wicket; if, when he is running, his wicket is thrown down before he can reach his base; if a fly ball is caught. A side continues to bat until 10 men have been dismissed and no one is left to join the remaining batsman or until the captain decides that his side has made enough runs and declares his innings closed, in the hope of dismissing the' other side for a smaller total before 7 o'clock.

The average American may know that much about cricket and the average Englishman may have an equivalent knowledge of baseball, but neither knows the fine points of the other's game, and I have met few Americans who have appreciated that both the strategy and tactics of cricket turn on the element of time. A club side has to win its match within seven and a half hours. Runs must be made quickly, wickets must be captured quickly; a large score is useless if it is made so slowly that no time is left to dismiss the other side. A fast 25 can win a match, a slow 60 lose it. Your eye is always on the clock. That is what makes cricket such a fascinating game to watch and play, and that is why a drawn game is a match with a result. One side has prevented the other side from winning.

As I take my seat in a deck chair under the trees, I shall be hoping, thinking in terms of time, that by lunch my side will have made 150 runs for the loss of not more than four batsmen, 250 runs being a good score for a side in a one-day game.

To the uninitiated onlooker the first half hour of a one-day game will seem singularly placid, but in fact the atmosphere is tense. Much depends on that half hour. The batsmen are getting used to the condition of the pitch. A warm sun following a night of rain makes the ground susceptible to spin. The bowlers are fresh. A new ball is used at the start of every innings, and while the shine is still on it and before the seam has been battered flat it can be made to swing in the air disconcertingly. Each delivery needs careful watching. The batsmen are not running risks. Very often during the first quarter of an hour more than one of them will be dismissed. If that happens, the play becomes more cautious still and conversation in the deck chairs under the trees grows desultory.

After half an hour or so I shall probably say to the man next to me, "Let's see what the bowling's like." That is an invitation to saunter around the field and stand by one of the white sight screens which are set at each end of the ground. They are in a direct line behind the wickets, so that the ball may be watched against a clear background. It is only when you stand behind the bowler that you can tell if he is making the ball turn, in which direction and how much. We stand there for a few minutes watching, commenting on the technicalities of the play, then we move on, talking of other things. We have known each other off and on for maybe a dozen years, and we have a lot in common.

We rejoin the others under the trees, and the morning passes slowly. Possibly batsmen are dismissed more quickly than had been expected, and by quarter past one I find myself next man in. I retire into the pavilion and prepare for action. Every cricketer carries two pairs of trousers—his fielding pair, which are creased and spotless, and his batting pair, which are crumpled by his leg guards. I change my trousers, buckle on my pads and adjust my "box," a small triangular stomach guard that is strapped under my trousers, and return to my deck chair.

It is an anxious period for me. No one likes going in to bat five minutes before lunch. There is no time to settle down to an innings. As soon as you have, as the phrase is, "got your eye in," it is time to return to the pavilion. You concentrate on not being dismissed. And, since a negative attitude is invariably self-destructive, you very often are. It is depressing to sit down to lunch with your innings over and no runs in the score book against your name. You pray that another wicket will not fall. It is a great relief when finally lunch is signaled.

There are those who maintain that a cricket lunch is the raison d'être of cricket, and it is a thesis that can be defended. Not that you enjoy a Lucullan banquet: you are served veal and ham pie, or perhaps what the French call an assiette anglaise, with lettuce and potato salad, followed by a fruit tart and cheese, and washed down by the warm draught beer that really does manage to taste good in England. No, it is in no sense a banquet, but it is a very gay occasion. The two teams mix together at the table, since most of the players know each other. They have long stores of gossip and reminiscences they can draw upon. The talk is animated and uncontentious. It is punctuated with bursts of laughter. Time passes quickly, and at 10 past 2 the captains need to remind their teams that play will be starting in five minutes. Once again I buckle on my pads.

At this point, though I have been on the field three hours, I have taken no exercise whatsoever, and so far as the conduct of the game is concerned I might just as well have been in my flat in Chelsea.

The remainder of the afternoon will be admittedly more athletic. I shall have my innings at the wicket. Before I go in, I shall receive from my captain instructions whose nature will depend on the state of the score sheet and the position of the clock. He may say, "Alec, we need runs quickly, chance your arm," or he may say, "Whatever you do, stay in. We don't want to have the other side batting for an hour yet." But whatever the instructions, I am as likely to be dismissed by the first ball as I am to make the 25 runs that were asked of me. How many times have I traveled a hundred miles to receive a single and fatal ball.

But, anyhow, whether I am out first ball or survive at the wickets for half an hour, by half past 3 I shall be out on the grass as a fieldsman, and there I shall remain, except for a 20-minute interval for tea, until half past 6 or 7. I shall be on the move all the time, chasing and stopping balls. A fly ball may be hit in my direction—and if I hold it, I shall be delighted. I may be given a chance to bowl. In cricket the bowlers are changed frequently. The game may provide an exciting finish, with the last two batsmen at the wickets and 20 runs needed in a quarter of an hour. It may end in easy victory for one side or the other. It may peter out into a draw. But however the game ends and however negligible my personal contribution to the result may be, at five minutes past 7 I shall be back in the bar, quenching my thirst in a tankard of warm beer, and feeling that I have had a thoroughly good day.

I could not have felt that unless I had thoroughly enjoyed the company of my fellow players, and that includes, in equal measure, that of my opponents. Of the nearly eight hours that I had spent upon the field, five would have passed inactively in conversation. To me it is the most fascinating game, but I should never have played it after I left school, where it was compulsory, unless I had genuinely enjoyed the company of the men with whom I played it.

I have described the average day of a club cricketer, but in a sense that is not an average day at all, for I have described it in terms of sunlight with deck chairs set out under the shade of trees. Such days are not too frequent in an English summer. On how many mornings as I left my flat have I looked up apprehensively at a gray, bleak sky. How often as a fieldsman have I shivered in a sweater, with numb fingers. How often have I scampered to the pavilion as a storm swept across the ground. How many hours have I spent huddled in a greatcoat, listening to the patter of rain on corrugated iron.

It might at a first glance seem extraordinary that a game like cricket should have been invented in a country with such a capricious summer climate. The game has proved very popular in the British Colonies and the Dominions, in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, the West Indies, but those are countries in which summer really is a summer. Only a handful of International cricket matches have been finished at Manchester over the past 10 years. There is only one explanation for the English love of cricket: it is that cricketers genuinely like each other and enjoy spending hours on end in each other's company.

I have played cricket with many hundreds of men and I have only once or twice met a cricketer whom I did not like. Cricket is a game in which the player is subjected to infinite disappointment. His day may be ruined by bad weather. He may have no personal success. He may either be out first ball or not get an innings. He may not be put on to bowl or if he does he may fail to get a wicket. A fly ball may be hit to him and he may fail to catch it. Usually when you miss a catch it means that you get the wrong part of your hand to the ball, and when that happens your hand is hurt. Yet, at the end of such a day, you return home thoroughly satisfied with your excursion. If you do not feel that, then you are not the right person to play cricket. And, in point of fact, you will soon cease playing it.

Looking back over 30 years of club cricket, I remember most gratefully not the exciting finishes, nor the afternoons of personal success, but the friendships that I made through it. Cricket provides the perfect setting for building friendships; it provides leisure, which is so rare in modern life. I have heard it said that men rarely make friends after they leave college. They are too busy. They have only time for business associates on a short-term basis. That is not true of cricketers. Between the wars I made some of my best friends on the cricket field, and though I have retired from club cricket I see them still. Yes, that truly is the point of cricket: the men you play it with.







Alec Waugh has been a prominent English novelist and author of travel books and biographies for the past 40 years. His books include Island in the Sun and his latest, Fuel for the Flame. He travels extensively and has a gourmet's interest in food and drink. He still watches cricket and rugby and he plays some golf.