Rambling Ruminations on Cricket
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday July 24 2011
One major thing prevents me from being fully accepted into Sri Lankan society. It is not my pink face and red nose or my meagre Sinhala/Tamil language skills. It is my lack of interest in cricket. I’m sorry if that is a shocking admission. Before you set in train my deportation let me, like a News of the World reporter, make my excuses.
Kumar Sangakarra spoke about cricket in Sri Lanka being part of the colonial legacy. The game did not take on in Ireland because nationalists regarded it as a symbol of imperial oppression and cultivated Hurley and Gaelic football as means of building a national identity.
My Irish name and passport are not excuses because I was born and brought up in Gloucestershire, the county of WG Grace, Wally Hammond, Tom Graveney, Arthur Milton and Tom Goddard and not forgetting the “sound but not spectacular” Jack Crapp.
There was a furniture shop opposite our doctor’s surgery run by Tom Goddard. Goddard was an imposing figure over six foot three with massive hands. At one time he was the fifth highest wicket taker in first-class cricket. In 1951, he retired at the age of 51 because of pneumonia and pleurisy. He returned to try to reach his target of 3,000 wickets but injury forced him to give up on 2,979.
My father took me to the Wagon Works ground, where the star attraction was Arthur Milton. Milton was the first Gloucestershire player since WG Grace to score a century on his England Test debut. Jack Crapp was one of Milton’s early mentors. Only Hammond and Alf Dipper completed more centuries for Gloucestershire, and Milton passed 1,000 runs in a season 16 times. In 1959 he was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. The boyish, slender, fair-haired Milton also played football for Arsenal and England. At his best, he was a spectacular outside right, possessed of fine acceleration, a classical body swerve and neat control.
Denis Compton also played football for Arsenal and England (as did his brother Leslie) while being best-known as a cricketer.
Compton was one of the first sportsmen to go into media. His handsome features helped to sell a rather greasy hair preparation called Brylcreem.
In pre-Murdoch days, the debonair Compton joined the BBC’s commentating team for test matches. For some reason my father took a dislike to him. “Compton’s drunk again”, he would solemnly intone.
I don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. In the 50s and 60s I did. For cricket I would do both at the same time. I would prepare my own scorecards and sit intently in front of the TV with the sound turned down and the BBC Radio Third Programme turned up listening to the ball-by-ball commentary. Even when rain had stopped play. The banter between the commentators was entertaining. Brian Johnston was the catalyst. An Old Etonian and Oxford graduate, Johnston had won the Military Cross for his bravery during the war, when he took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy. My father was also there burying the bodies. Legend has it that traffic on Britain’s motorways ground to a halt as motorists listening to the Test Match Special had to pull over to the hard shoulder to control their mirth when Johnston said: “The batsman’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey”. Johnston dissolved into giggles when he said Botham was out because he couldn’t get his leg over. On another occasion he said: “There’s Neil Harvey standing at leg slip with his legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle”.
In those days cricket seemed to me a meditative kind of endeavour. Test Matches lasted five days and there could be stretches of deadly boredom. An Observer account of the batsman Chris Tavare noted that watching him bat was “a bit like waiting to die”. That was part of the experience, part of the pleasure even. One could relish small parts of the ritual, the way the batsman patted the wicket, or the bowler polished the ball. The players, dressed in plain white, without helmets, could almost be priests of some ancient cult.
Harold Pinter once wrote: “I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing God ever created on earth, certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.” He has also said it is a “very violent game, however friendly it may seem.” Pinter’s plays have been compared to cricket: people standing around, apparently unrelated, in situations of excruciating tedium, occasionally uttering gnomic remarks before making inexplicable exits. Beckett’s plays also spring to mind. Samuel Beckett actually gets a mention in Wisden. He was a left arm seamer and opening batsmen who played two first class matches. Beckett once worked as James Joyce’s secretary. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a passage of about 400 words in which references to 32 players appear.
Sponsorship in cricket is not a new phenomenon- even before Denis Compton became a Brylcreem Boy. In 1861, a Melbourne catering company, Spiers & Pond invited Charles Dickens to perform in Australia. But Dickens declined., Spiers & Pond moved smoothly from literature to cricket, and asked an English team on tour. Some senior players accepted an offer of £150 apiece to travel to Australia and play a state-wide series of matches. The Spiers & Pond tournament was a great success. In 1863 the Melbourne Cricket Club invited more players. Eventually, the English cricketing establishment reciprocated, with ultimately humiliating consequences for the home team.
While I join with most Sri Lankans in applauding Kumar Sangakarra’s Cowdrey speech, I must confess that I had been getting rather irritated at seeing his face everywhere that I go. I appreciate that the man has to make a living, This commercial overkill seems to me to be part of the deterioration of the sporting ideal that he himself spoke about. If I am in front of a TV set when cricket is on, I will watch it and probably become addicted to it. However, the zapzapazap style of presentation and the truncated time-span is a long way from the meditative experience I used to love. Tom Stoppard once said: “I don’t think I could take seriously any game which takes less than three days to reach its conclusion”.
Once, against Colin Cowdrey’s Kent at Bristol, home spectators were getting anxious at Arthur Milton’s phlegmatic approach. He stepped out of character and won the match with a theatrical flourish that was usually alien to him, Milton drove a boundary for his second hundred. In private moments he would admit how much he would have liked to go to university to pursue his love of mathematics. He meticulously paced his 56 centuries and always kept an eye on the pavilion clock. He received an honorary MA from Bristol University in 2002. After his sporting career ended, he was coach at Oxford University in the days of Imran Khan, Chris Tavare and Vic Marks. Milton then chose to work as a postman and later to deliver papers. “I loved the quiet of the early morning, looking at the stars. People used to say I’d missed the big money of present-day sport. I told them I was still a millionaire, out on my bike as life stirred so excitingly.” He died in 2007.