It Makes You Think

Last Tuesday it was exactly forty years since I went to my first game of professional cricket.

Makes you think, that.

The match was a John Player League game between Surrey and Warwickshire, and it took place at my local cricket club, Sunbury, in the far south-western corner of what used to be known as Middlesex. I was seven years old.

I can remember little about it, apart from the fielding side (Warwickshire, led by Alan Smith, his career as a TCCB bureaucrat still ahead of him) coming out of the low-slung pavilion (where, as a fourteen and fifteen year-old, I was later to change) with an old-fashioned static television camera pointing at them over the picket fence. I don't know why the camera has stuck in my mind, but it may have something to do with the fact that in those days the John Player League was a competition which owed much of its identity to television.

Although I have some hazy memories of the 1972 Ashes series, most of my cricket-watching up to that time had consisted of Sunday afternoons in the company of Peter Walker (the former Glamorgan player, not the man who at the time was a minister in Ted Heath's government), Jim Laker and John Arlott. For anyone who doesn't remember it, the John Player League's reputation was built on a combination of artificially shortened bowlers' runs, packed venues (which were very often club grounds) and pulsating matches. There was a whole match on BBC2 every Sunday afternoon. Until its lustre started to fade in the early eighties (which can be traced to the fact that more top-class sport was being played on Sundays and hence its television hegemony was lost) the John Player League was an absolutely central, wonderful, part of English sporting culture. The thought occurs, not for the first time, that it was Twenty20 before Twenty20 had been dreamt of.

I can recall precisely nothing of the action, but little reinforces the feeling of a bygone era more than the fact that the senior player on either side was a man generally known as MJK Smith, who was a former captain of England and who had made his first-class debut in 1951. Not only that, but, with his specs and his air of distracted academic diffidence, he now seems in the memory to exemplify the way the game was. Despite the billboards essentially advertising cigarettes (hard enough in itself to believe now), the ground, the stumps and the players' clothes were white and unsponsored. I doubt if anyone, least of all the likes of David Brown, Norman McVicker or Bob Willis, did much diving or sliding in the field.

In the era of the IPL, of saturation international cricket, of Cricinfo and of Twitter, it seems like a different world. The distant past invariably does. Perhaps the best way to capture this is to reflect on the fact that if someone was then the age I am now and was reflecting on having seen his first match forty years earlier, he would have been talking about a match that took place in 1933, the summer after Bodyline.

Now that really makes you think.


Anonymous said...

I heard myself say 'cricket's long history' recently. Your post makes me realise not only that this phrase is untrue but that we use it self-deceptively to reassure ourselves about cricket's future: 'the game's survived two world wars', etc. In fact, take a third enthusiast in 1933 looking back at the 40 years of cricket he or she had followed and we're virtually at the start of the organised game. Cricket, in the form we appreciate it most, might survive but it won't be because of the inertia of age, but because cricket followers really want it.

Sorry - that might not have been the reaction you expected to a piece celebrating your 40th anniversary as a spectator. Hope I get to buy you a drink next week to celebrate that and some fine Test cricket.

Brian Carpenter said...

I never know what to expect, Chris, and it's an interesting view, if not one that was consciously in my mind when I wrote it.

Worth discussing over a beer at Lord's, I feel.

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