In this part of the world, and for a certain category of person, April is a special time. The arrival of spring in itself can warm the soul as well the skin; the profusion of life, the sound of birdsong and the explosion of colour signifies new beginnings. Yet for some, a small collective, it suggests something rather more.
Across the world, the dates may change, and the climate may be very different, but the principle is identical, and the approach of the cricket season brings out the same mentality and activity wherever it may be. For those who care start to get ready. That might include players, who went to indoor nets in January and February, but it also includes all those who do the legwork, who prepare the fixture lists, who seed the grass on the ground, who put up the outdoor nets, who re-wire the pavilion or remove the mildew from the showers. Those who spend the first part of the month repainting the picket fence outside the pavilion, or who have silently spent the winter ensure the square is ready – year in, year out. Who go on courses to learn how to do it better, who wince every time the ball bounces badly.
When April itself arrives the same group of people then plan the coaching evenings for the kids, in full awareness that many parents regard this as free babysitting, and they do so on the off chance that one in twenty of the children who turn up may fall in love with the game and therefore could go on to be a playing member for the next thirty years. They do this even though if that player becomes exceptionally good, they will leave and go somewhere else to play a higher standard. Possibly and potentially, that might include the county programmes, meaning that all their hard work goes not to their club, but to the wider game. They will joke that what they really want is a good young player who isn’t very bright, who won’t go to university and who will stay in the area. But they know they will, and they know they will lose them. But they pay it forward, in the hope their club will benefit from the hard work someone else put in somewhere else. The circle of mutual support is a wide one.
And then there are those who have had their cricketing career, who captain the Sunday 2nd XI, batting at number nine and standing at slip, not enjoying their lack of contribution, frustrated at their waning powers, but deeply aware it was done for them in their youth. They get little thanks for it, and may well be dead before the 40 year old they introduced to the sport thirty years earlier fully realises what he did for them, who then laments that they never told him quite how important to their life he was. It was a he, mostly, but in decades to come it will be many a she too. It already is.
Or there are those who despite their full awareness of the affectionate contempt in which the players hold them still volunteer to do the scoring, a thankless, dull task at the best of times, hated by most, loved by a very few. They may have no cricketing ability at all, but choose to be involved and choose to help out. Perhaps instead they go on an umpiring course, to give up their weekends to annoy players by being human and getting a decision wrong. Come September those same people will compile the annual reports, with statistics, averages and club records.
A further subset go and watch a county match, aware of their small band of fellow travellers with whom they are often on first name terms, despite little in common but a shared passion for a game that passes most of the public by. They go when the weather is cold and grey, and they go – and are joined by a few others – when it is warm and sunny and the appeal of a cold pint with appropriate on field background entertainment is available – the crack of ball on bat, the cries of fielders as they appeal for a decision to another who has given up a substantial proportion of their life to give back to the game they were brought up with, and who are able to make a modest living from doing so.
For five and a bit months across the country, this pattern prevails. Some make the teas, traditionally they are tea ladies, more recently not so much. Many will have little interest or concern, but will drive past a village green filled with cricketers and know that a traditional element of their national character is being played out in front of them. Like Morris Dancing, they may not wish to be part of it themselves, they may even sneer at those who do it, but it is a precious part of national consciousness. John Major was laughed at for his references to it, but as definitions of a desired national character go, there are many worse that could be chosen.
Each week the same group, always a small number of people in any club, go through the same process. They prepare, they work, they give up their time for no other reason than a deep seated love for a sport. Even within their own organisation there aren’t enough of them, they do several jobs not just one. Sometimes they may get frustrated at the lack of respect they get for the contribution they make, but they do so not for fame or fortune and not for recognition, but because it needs to be done and if they don’t do it, then who will?
The rarefied atmosphere of the highest level of any sport is a world away from the day to day that makes up virtually all of the game. Yet professional sport relies on the amateur to a far greater extent than the other way around, even though they both need the other for it to flourish. But take away professional cricket, and the game would survive. Take away amateur cricket and there is simply no game at all, which is why the dismissive behaviour towards it remains one of the more despicable attitudes pervading the corridors of power. They deny it, but all involved know it is there – the ECB won’t even give the “recreational game” as they put it, elected representation to their organisation. That is the reason this band of brothers and sisters quietly get on with things, with little help, and less interest from above.
These people do it all. They are the backbone without whom nothing, nothing at all, would exist. They are a minority within a minority, they provide everything and in return get little except perhaps personal satisfaction for making a contribution to society. They are denied the right to even see their chosen sport at the top level without paying again for the privilege, they are belittled and even laughed at. Decisions are taken that make their lives just that little bit harder, and their response is to give even more time, and make even greater efforts, for no reason other than they feel it is the right thing to do, and that it matters.
Cricket is a sport first and foremost. It isn’t a business, and it isn’t the opportunity to make vast amounts of money. That may be a by product for a chosen few, but it is not the driver, it is not the raison d’etre, and those who behave as though it is should be ashamed. Those who allow it to happen should be even more ashamed, for they could speak up yet do not do so. They betray the work done across the country, across the world, to provide a background for all those who care little for their efforts to exploit.
These are the obsessives. The fanatics who move heaven and earth to ensure there is something for successive generations to complain about. They do it in many different ways, from the park in the city centre to the village Common. They support, morally and financially, all rungs of the game, and they provide the base interest that in turn creates the next level, be it County Championship, T20 or 50 over.
Yes, Mr Harrison, they are obsessives. Every single one of them. And you should get down on your knees and thank them for their very existence. And so should we all.
Brilliant piece of writing. Thank you TLG.
From the idyll and the truth behind our game’s real needs
To the idiots of the ECB and their blind greed
Thanks Leggie – an enjoyably sad read
Thank you TLG, an inspired and truthful piece!
Wow. That last paragraph. A million times yes.
Send it in to the Sports Editor at The Guardian. This piece deserves a much wider audience. Bravo.
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If only the Guardian – or any other paper – were interested in something of this nature. They have enough capable writers to do it.
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I don’t like what Augusta National golf club stands for. It’s privilege, it’s authoritarian and so on and so forth.
But what this has created is pure sporting theatre. It has history. It has prestige. It would be the prize it is if they were playing for shirt buttons. It’s sport. It’s history. It’s legacy. It’s immortality.
Sometimes we think about the money, and not the sport. It is always the sport that matters. Think Sergio cares about the tournaments he won prior to this?
Thrilled for him. I know it’s not cricket. But that was sport.
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Agreed on all counts. It’s not the money, it’s the glory. Rose showed that with his clear desperate desire to win an Olympic gold medal, and for Garcia, well there’s something special about the nearly man finally getting across the line.
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McIlroy didn’t give a stuff finishing 6th. Once financially secure it is all about the glory, the legacy etc.
I’m sorry if I think about T20 at this stage. Absolute fluff. Proper, edge of your seat sport, with history and prestige behind it wins every time. It’s why the act of vandalism our football authorities perpetrated on the FA Cup sickens me.
But that’s for another day.
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I love the Masters. It comes in the spring, and announces the coming of summer. It has those particular ingredients that keep it a distance from the Mc model of sport. It has an inner strength (as Dimitri says that isn’t always pretty.) However, it gives them the power to tell the corporates to take a running jump. “It’s our club, and we have something special so we will do it our way, and the governing body can take a running jump if they don’t like it.”
For years they restricted TV covergae to the times they wanted. Even though Sky has the first two days, they allow the weekend to be free to air on the BBC. I’m sure they could get more going “exclusive.” But they don’t. They also have the advantage of rarity. Once every year. Wimbledon is the same. “The less is more” theory. This goes against the Mc model of men with clipboards and focus groups. I’m sure Tom Harrison could explain to Augusta National if only they had another event in July, with a reduced field, played over just 2 rounds they would make a fortune. It’s what the kids want, and they will consume it it in bite size chunks on the Internet instead of sitting down and watching for 5 straight hours. Kids don’t have the attention spand for that.
Now cricket and football can’t just have one off events every year. Although they have a World Cup every 4 years so maybe they could learn the “less is more” theory. Golf and tennis don’t restrict themselves to just The Masters and Wimbledon. There are lesser events. Cricket has something called Test matches. And they should be nurtured and kept as special as possible. Played on great pitches. (you can’t have the Azalea’s but you can have the quick bouncy greens.) don’t try to cram too many into the year and reduce quality. Get the balance of exclusive and free to air right, so as to get exposure to the next generation. That requires vision, and men of integrity, who see the big picture. Not empty suits with a managment focus group degree, and a carrer in Mc marketing.
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Big piece on this theme tomorrow, Mark.
re the masters.
Remember what Mr Harrison told us, children. History is nothing. Kids aren’t interested in history. They don’t care about tradition or rivalry or famous old contests. You could scrap the Masters, the All England Championships, the Grand National and the Six Nations tomorrow and replace them with franchise system and nothing would be lost.
I don’t understand why we are so patronising to children. I got into cricket by watching test matches on the telly, aged 9. It wasn’t big sixes or diving catches that entranced me, it was brave, obdurate batting and the subtle skills of finger spin and medium pace.
This is the first cricket match I ever remember watching:
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Gould’s comments well worth a read. Confirms my thoughts if they try to boss Lord’s and the MCC around.
Great sport. For us I suppose.
The American challenge faded quite quickly. By the back 9 it was pretty much a two horse race between two Europeans. That may haven played a role in US viewing numbers.
It was great sport, and if the public doesn’t want to watch that then more fool them. If the only way to get them to watch is turn the sport into a dumbed down clown shit show then I woul prefer they don’t show an interest in the sport in the first place.
Same with cricket. If the only way they can make big money is scrap tests and have endless Mc20/20 for the sheeple then the cricket that attracted me is not the same sport I love.
Congratulations on a lovely (and very relevant, if rather bittersweet) piece of writing.
As an aside, it isn’t just cricket that’s afflicted by the Harrisons of this world. As I was reading this I was reminded of my time working for a major charitable organisation (which shall remain nameless). It too was dependent on legions of volunteers – some of whom had been involved for many decades – to do much of its work, but the corporate types (or at least the second rate, would-be corporate types who wouldn’t have hacked it in a proper business environment) gradually infested it with their focus on the “brand” and “growing the business” and becoming “major players” in sectors in which they were in direct competition with commercial outfits and arguably had no compelling reason (in terms of the charity’s objectives) to be involved. By the time I left there was a similarly vast disconnect developing between the senior managers and the volunteers – who by and large just wanted to “do their bit” to help people and didn’t give a damn whether what they were doing was part of a contract with key performance indicators and all that mullarky. Yes things change and evolve, and of course there are always real world considerations to be dealt with, but throwing out the baby with the bath water seems to be the modus operandi in Britain these days. Then in a couple of decades’ time you find that you’ve got nothing left of any real human worth.
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So good. You have described why cricket exists at all.
I had twenty rewarding years playing for a little club in a minor Sussex league. We all played (and helped out) because we love cricket, knew we had some small amount of skill but would never play serious stuff. However, a saturday afternoon playing Eastbourne Convivials was, in its way, like playing at the Oval with the everyday world shut away for a time and the next ball was all that mattered.
You get to meet a lot of nice people too
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TLG – did you sit in on my clubs AGM at all? you have literally described how our cricketing year goes.
Without a few die hards who year on year threaten that they have done enough and will retire for good, but keep coming back, I dread to think what would happen.
I think a lot of smaller / village clubs are on the brink of closing half the time.
What you describe as the hope that one in twenty might stick around is perfect. That sums up club cricket!
excellent and insightful writing for sure.
Brilliant article in as much it opens up my world – to the extent that in my 50th year I may soon withdraw my services from a Club I have long held dear.
April is always the time to attend committee meetings and renewal training courses and the average age continues to climb with length of service.
Each year the age gap between Cricket club administrators and players grows, young people are too busy to talk Clubmark, Health and Safety or utility bills.
All Stars Cricket might bring a few new families and volunteers but the foundations of our game are being slowly undermined
Lovely to hear from you Baz. Hope you are well. Assuming you are the one and only Baz from the early days, of course!
An excellent piece – as one of those persons who has long hung up his team sheets (and the ball, gloves and bat in all likelihood) you’ve completely nailed what April used to feel like. Actually it still felt quite exciting this weekend when Surrey were doing it right in the spring sunshine, shame I didn’t get to go. You’ve also reminded me of Trevor Brooking’s comment about when he retired from football is was sport, now it’s an industry. Cricket has gone the same way in my respects but somehow it’s different. For my part when I played club cricket I looked to professionals to inspire me to practise more and to dream about having my moment in the sun. I did have one or two of them I’m glad to say. But now somehow the sheen has worn off. I see though the marketing. The money making machinery.That said I’m still looking forward to several pints of the overpriced watered-down stuff with some good friends while the pros go through the motions. And while I mow the lawn I’ll continue to dream of scoring a ton – it’s a small garden so it will have to be a rapid one. Thanks again for stirring some great memories. Innit.
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Wise words from my fellow Old Jo.
We have a few more misty memories coming up. We’re feeling a bit melancholy at the moment. Like how last night’s Masters is how it should be done. Chris has another superb piece in the works for later this week too.
I never did that prep lark. Ran our work team though. If I picked up a bat now I’d still survive that but not prepared for the pain that would follow. My search for a hundred, like Peter, wasn’t to be. But I loved trying.
We’ve had two outdoor coaching sessions for the kids these past 2 weekends, and I have to say, we couldn’t have asked for better weather or a more enthusiastic bunch of kids. As me and a couple of the other coaches said in the pub afterwards, being out in the sun seeing a bunch of 10-13 year olds get 0.05% better at cricket than they were the day before was easily the most fun 2 hours of the year so far.
I do think its a shame that none of the kids get to watch professional cricket. Its very hard to explain to them what an inswinging yorker is or what a cover drive looks like. You learn so much about cricket simply by copying what you see on the telly – I feel state school kids are at a massive disadvantage because of the lack of cricket on the tv.
I do still remember my first league captain, a very good cricketer who batted at 9 so that this 15-year old could get the chance to open the batting.
I’m only in my 30s – and I’ve already held every committee position except chairman: 1st team skipper, junior coach, treasurer, development officer, you name it. I was even groundsman for one year!
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You might like the one later in the week, it’s all about your third paragraph.
Your mention of state school kids missing out because of the lack of cricket on television brings to mind an ancient memory of quite literally watching cricket on TV at primary school. The entire class (actually I think it was more than one class) were sat down in front of the school TV set to watch part of a Test. Although this certainly wasn’t normal curricular activity it didn’t seem at all a strange thing to do at the time.
The details are a little hazy at this immense distance, but I was about 8 yrs. old and do seem to recall that Bob Woolmer and Graham Roope were batting. I think therefore it was part of England’s marathon second innings in the 1975 fourth Ashes Test at the Oval – in which case it must have been the very first week of the autumn term in early September and I’d probably spent many hours during the summer holidays watching the series.
Probably the teachers were cricket fans and this was their sneaky way of not missing the action, but I certainly don’t remember anyone complaining. It just couldn’t happen now, of course. (Oh, and it seems Woolmer was not out overnight and went on to make 149 by the time he was dismissed on the final day. His century was at that point the slowest by an Englishman against Australia, but it helped England a to match saving second innings total of 538 – quite a turnaround having been run through by Jeff Thomson and Max Walker for 191 all out first time around. Heroic stuff.)