This Summer there are no fewer than three five-day Test matches in London, as well as the Women’s World Cup. The first and third Tests are at Lords and the second was at The Oval in south London (though the series has now moved on to Old Trafford). This was billed as the 100th Oval Test Match, which is incorrect, because more than 100 Test cricket matches have been played there. It’s just that the marketing people only counted the ones played by men. A real dropped catch on behalf of Surrey County Cricket Club and the ECB, especially given the England women’s team’s glorious triumph earlier in the Summer.
I like the fact that the cricket is being played just ‘up the road’ from me, though I never got around to joining Surrey. My heart still belongs to Worcestershire, I’m afraid, the lazy days at New Road, listening to the bells of the Cathedral ringing on the opposite bank of the Severn, as tea is served. (During the 1970s and 80s Worcestershire ‘teas’ claimed to be the best in the country.)
I initially experienced first class cricket (as opposed to the sort you played on the park or at school) via the radio. As for so many others, Test Match Special was the means whereby the action, or lack of it, was brought to life. Commentary was always precise, the listener had to be able to envisage the field placement, so at each change of ends a commentator would describe exactly who was standing where (‘three slips, a mid-off and a gully’). I appreciate that, for many, these words are jibberish, but please indulge me, this mystifying code has meaning for some. Like so many sports, cricket has a language all of its own,
This includes terms of art – words describing specific rules, equipment or activity within the game. So, the ice-hockey ‘puck’, the football ‘penalty shoot-out’, the golfing ‘putter’. Then there is the patois which grows up around a sport ( see Parlez-vous Bike? ). The latest example of this in cricket is the use of the inelegant ‘fifer’, a contraction of ‘five for’ i.e. a bowler taking five wickets for however many runs. Personally I hope it doesn’t catch on, however often the Sky commentators use it.
For cricket commentary, like cycling commentary, is an art and elegance is part of it. I first learned about wine from listening to John Arlott digressing when rain stopped play at Headingley (actually more interesting than the cricket, which was, if I recall aright, a succession of England run outs, courtesy of Geoffrey Boycott). Like David Duffield and now Carlton Kirby and others on Eurosport, there is an art to talking about nothing very much happening for long periods of time, though at least the cycling commentators get to describe the countryside flashing by and the various homages to the race. The frequency with which Henry Blofeld could say ‘There’s a red bus going down the Wellington Road’ was limited, though Brian Johnston seemed to be able to talk on any subject for how ever long was necessary.
I understood the geography of England by its County Cricket grounds – Taunton, the square towered, solid, farming West Country home of Somerset, Grace Road the red-bricked, but old and not quite industrial Leicestershire ground, Kent’s ancient Canterbury ground with its old lime tree within the playing area (decapitated during the early part of the 21st century, but replaced by a newer tree).
I also spanned the world via cricket grounds, listening to Test Match Special late at night on a transistor radio beneath tented bedclothes. The WACCA, the GABBA, Newlands and, most exotic and attractive, Sabina Park and Mohali. Place names, like those in the shipping forecast¹,full of romance and allure.
All the commentators were male, of course, as were the players and it didn’t occur to this ten-year-old tomboy that this was a problem for her. The grown-up world was delineated by gender, but not my world, not then. Later I raged silently at my exclusion, from this as from so much else which was attractive and fun (and well rewarded), though I was lucky enough to attend a school which encouraged girls to play the game. I was also fortunate enough to live at a time and in a place where girls and women were being afforded opportunities which their mothers could only dream of, so I’m not complaining. Though I do, of course, because there are plenty of women who don’t enjoy those freedoms and choices, even now.
So we return to that 100th Test Match banner on the gas holders at Kennington. I hope, if it’s still there, that some enterprising female ( or supportive male ) with climbing gear defaces it soon.
¹For non-UK readers, the shipping forecast happens nightly on BBC radio, alerting sailors of forthcoming weather conditions in the seas around these islands.