Friday, March 24, 2006

A Celebration Of The English Way Of Life

What with cricket being right back in the headlines, after Freddie's boys magnificent comeback against India last week, yer actual Keith Telly Topping thought he'd post this - it's an extended and slightly updated version of an article he wrote for his semi-regular Home Thoughts To Abroad column in the American magazine Intergalatic Enquirer a couple of years ago.

And, in celebration of this, here's a photograph which yer actual was surprised to find published in Wisden Cricket Monthly sometime in the 1980s taken at an international charity match at Northumberland's beautiful county ground, Jesmond, in about 1982 or 1983. That's the great Barry Wood (Lancashire, Derbyshire and England) signing autographs for a line of young children and, just behind yer actual Keith Telly Topping and his father sitting in the crowd. You can always spot Keith Telly Topping at a cricket match, dear blog reader, as he's the one with a big white arrow sticking out of the top of his head..
I love cricket. At its very best, cricket transcends sport and becomes something close to an art-form. Americans, by and large, just don't get the game - as evidenced by a 2004 episode of The Jay Leno Show when the host attempted to ridicule one of his guests, the actor Keanu Reeves who, during a stay in Australia had recently become interested in the game.

Reeves, according to most reports, put up a stout and defiant defence almost worthy of Geoffrey Boycott on a sticky wicket at Brisbane. He said that he couldn't understand how anyone could enjoy, for instance, baseball and yet claim to find cricket 'boring.'

I'd, further, go on to suggest that anyone who ever saw Ian Botham, Mike Proctor, Viv Richards, Dennis Lillie, Shane Warne or Freddie Flintoff in their prime and still thinks cricket is boring needs to visit either a neurologist or an optician because there's something wrong with either their eyes or their brain.

For those who are unlucky enough not to have the game as part of their cultural background (so, that's everyone who lives in a country that wasn't part of the British Empire in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century), it can, I admit, be a source of desperately confusing befuddlement. How can something go on for so long, for example (sometimes as much as five or six days) and still not produce a definitive result?

And as for the LBW law, what the hell's THAT all about?
Cricket's socio-political origins, listed annually in Wisden’s Cricketers Almanack, and recently expanded upon in Derek Birley’s superb A Social History of English Cricket, are shrouded in mystery. What is known for certain is that the first probable reference to the game was made in Royal Wardrobe Accounts of 1299-1300, when a sum of six pounds was paid so that the fifteen-year-old Prince Of Wales (the future Edward II – yes, the one who ended up with a red hot poker up his unmentionable) could participate in 'creag, and other "plays"', with his garçon boyfriend, Piers Gaveston.

The sport probably first came to these shores with the Normans, whose particular form of French would become the official language of England for some three hundred years after the Conquest of 1066. The Norman word 'criquet', probably a diminutive of the Old Flemish 'krick', meaning a stick, was the dialect name for a variant of jeu de crosse. Norman French also had a word 'wiket', meaning a small gate often used by shepherds as part of sheep pens. Together with the unusual curved shape of many early cricket bats used until the turn of the Eighteenth Century, which somewhat resemble a shepherd's crook, this has led some scholars to speculate that the game's origins may have been in the farming communities of Kent and Sussex. Even the red leather of cricket balls may have been a nod in the direction of a sphere of dyed sheep's fleece used in this pastime during it's primitive early days.

Variants on the game were recorded throughout the Middle Ages - pila baculorea (‘club-ball’), which Edward III banned in 1369 as 'detrimental to his war effort against the marauding Scots' and ‘stool-ball’. The latter, a game somewhat like skittles but using a stool as a target, was also forbidden by royal proclamation (this time by Henry VIII) along with other ‘idle games’ – such as football – which ‘interfered with the practice of archery essential to the defence of the realm.’

See, even in the Middle Ages, the Bi Knobs didn't want us plebs enjoying ourselves ...

Subsequent to this, Cromwell’s Commissioners proscribed ‘Krickett’ throughout Ireland in 1656, stating that ‘all sticks and balls should be burnt by the local hangman.’ The late Seventeenth Century is full of references of parishioners being prosecuted for playing cricket on a Sunday, indeed, as late as 1796 a match between Eton and Westminster public schools at Hounslow was played in defiance of the Eton headmaster, one Doctor Heath, who flogged the entire Eton XI (and their scorer!) on their return from a match that they, co-incidentally, lost by sixty six runs.

Yet, within a few years, Eton and Harrow had commenced their annual match, at Lord's, with a game in 1805 in which the Harrow XI was captained by the young Lord Byron. A decade later, Sir Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (and the Englishman responsible for more DEAD FRENCHMEN than any other), would be describing the remarkable (and unexpected) victory of the British army and their allies over Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo as having been ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’. In 1841, when Prime Minister, Wellington ordered that a cricket ground was to be made as an adjunct to every military barracks in the Empire. A sure and certain sign that something which was, once, banished by the establishment had become a fixed and important part of it.

Of course, any form of change in the game is often violently resisted by the old establishment – the advent of one-day cricket and the T20 competition, and of crowds actually, you know, enjoying themselves (what a radical suggestion!) still excites much debate within the cricketing community – sadly, most of it remains along class-lines. The novelist Simon Raven (a man whose work this blogger greatly admires) is an classic example of this stuck-in-the-1920s traditionalist view of the game. In 1995 he wrote an article in Wisden Cricket Monthly. The main burden of the piece was Raven’s hostility to all forms of change in the first-class game. His pleasures, he stated were ‘far removed from the considerations of the “football yobs” at one-day matches.’ He liked the ‘peace and decency of the longer game … it takes up much time, which the modern world would like to turn into money.’ For which, it would appear, read Simon would prefer to be sitting – virtually on his own – at Canterbury, or Hove, or Chelmsford or one of the other county grounds, watching some dull four-dayer grinding to an inevitable draw than, for instance, being in the crowd on the last day of The Oval test last summer with England poised to win back the Ashes for the first time in eighteen years from a brilliant Australian side.

What a pity that, even in the world of Flintoff, Pietersen, Warne and Lee, you'll still find some old Tory whinging about something.

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