PACE & SPIN
Tom Holland pays tribute to the traditions of English summer cricket, a sport rich in variety, from the frenetic short-form game to languorous afternoons spent on sun-dappled grounds
For as long as there has been an English Season, there has been cricket. Matches were being played on village greens under the Tudors. In 1751, when the Prince of Wales dropped dead of a burst abcess, it was reliably reported that the injury had been sustained two years earlier, courtesy of a blow to the ribs from a cricket ball. Simultaneously, near the Hampshire village of Hambledon, a club was being founded that would set the template for all the great venues of the English summer Season: Wimbledon, Ascot, Glastonbury. Matches at Hambledon attracted the best players, big-spending spectators and notoriously extravagant gamblers. Huge expanses of tents would sprout up around the boundary. Punch was sold strong enough ‘to make hair curl’. A thoroughly good time was had by all. Today, although the festivals held at Hambledon are long gone, cricket continues to provide the English summer with an inimitable diversity of rhythms. For those who want to pop champagne corks while marvelling at the sheer beauty of which a sports ground is capable, the annual Test match at Lord’s is unbeatable. The ground itself – a fusion of ecclesiastical ambience with occasionally space-age architecture – perfectly sums up a game that is at once deeply traditional and ready to embrace change. If you can only spare a few hours, rather than five days, there is the polychrome glitz of the T20 tournament: a swaggering, cocksure round of matches in grounds across the country, complete with coloured uniforms and gyrating cheerleaders. And then, of course – for those who know that to sample cricket at its absolute, glorious best it is necessary to play it – there is the summer-long delight that comes from turning up to fixtures weekend in, weekend out.
For my team, the Authors XI, the season begins as it always begins, in a scrubby corner of north London. Nothing speaks more romantically to us of April than arriving in Victoria Park, greeting the same opposition we have been playing for years, and then, against the backdrop of distant Canary Wharf, getting soundly thrashed. Every match that follows throughout the summer has a similarly distinctive feel. Some games are played in the heart of the city, and some in the wilds of the countryside; some are played on the parched wickets of August, and some amid the falling dew of October. All, though, offer the same comforting reassurance that the festivals of the church would surely have provided a mediaeval peasant. The years go round; but the seasons endure.
TENTS WOULD SPROUT UP AROUND THE BOUNDARY; PUNCH WAS SOLD STRONG ENOUGH ‘TO MAKE HAIR CURL’
Tom Holland bowling for the Authors XI at Stourhead. Above: the aristocratic teams of Kent versus Surrey in 1775. Right: a trading card from 1905
Above right: a straw-hat tower during a Test at Old Trafford in 1938. Right: a match in progress in the Lake District
The Queen meeting the England team at Lord’s in 1956. Above: an illustration showing the 1937 match played to mark the 150th anniversary of the Marylebone Cricket Club