Looks at the relationship between rock stars and cricket
Worcestershire’s New Road has been graced by cricket’s greatest names, but they still talk of the stellar celebrity line-up which appeared on the dressing-room balcony there in 1987, a top trumps trio comprising George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Elton John.
All sports love the stardust bestowed by celebrity support, and cricket is no different. But is it a passing fad or even a love of something other than the game which piques the big boys’ interest as with the rock royalty above?
Elton is more closely associated with football and his beloved Watford, a tribal association borne of geography given his upbringing in nearby Pinner. His credentials for liking cricket are less clear, but he did tour New Zealand at the same time as England’s cricketers in 1983, forming a friendship with the likes of Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham, Bob Willis and Graeme Fowler.
Celebrities can be fickle, but Elton obviously enjoyed their company as the association endured for a few years. I wasn’t a part of that ’83 tour, but I do remember Beefy asking me the following summer what I was doing after play as we stood in the slips together at Lord’s against the West Indies. “Why?” I asked. “Coz Elton’s invited us all to a party at Old Windsor,” he replied, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We went too, a splendid but curious affair that involved about eight of the England team, Elton and his band, and his then wife, Renate.
While George Harrison’s presence was a one-off, Eric Clapton became a regular at Worcestershire in the late 80s though I suspect, like Elton, it was the cult of Botham which attracted him more than the cricket. A bona fide English hero, Beefy’s derring-do, his incredible feats with bat, ball and beer vat, were the stuff of myth and legend by then, and nothing drives celebrity culture more than them.
Like Elton, Clapton is a generous man who gave me and my Essex colleagues one of the more unforgettable nights of our playing careers when he played for us down a backwoods pub that was Beefy’s local outside Worcester. Just Eric, a Fender Strat he’d swapped for one of Beefy’s Duncan Fearnley bats, a small amp he’d bought that afternoon with the proceeds of a card game and a gaggle of culture-starved cricketers. It was fantasy, nirvana and elysium rolled into one all washed down by some decent ale – a magical memory which that Essex team talks about to this day.
Worcestershire did have one celebrity who supported the county, though I doubt many of the players knew who he was. Stan Webb was a guitarist inspired by the same American bluesmen as Clapton, and he played in a band called Chicken Shack in the late 1960s and early 70s. He’d appear at the start of play with a cheery wave from in front of the pavilion and a cry of “see you afterwards,” though that often proved futile given he was often sleeping off the effects of a six-hour drinking spree by the time stumps were drawn.
Mick Jagger’s love of cricket is well known to all, though it may have something more to do with his Australian-born mother than his Kent birthplace. Mick has certainly not shied away from doing the hard yards to see some cricket, travelling to Guyana to watch England in 1997/98 and Calcutta to watch the aborted 1996 World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka. Indian fans set fire to Eden Gardens that night when their team started losing, which made it a scary place for the riot police let alone a man in a white linen suit which Jagger was wearing in homage to cricketing tradition.
Celebrity gloss has acquired a strange power in the new millennium. Whereas institutions like the MCC once eschewed such associations considering them gauche, they now embrace them to the point where Lord’s Tests can be spent just as easily spotting famous faces as watching the cricket.
There is even talk that the MCC may fast-track Theresa May into the club, the Prime Minister having admitted to being both a fan of cricket and a certain Geoffrey Boycott. With Ed Miliband also professing a fascination with Boycott, I’m at a loss to explain what it is that attracts politicians to a stodgy opening batsman – other than that they all probably need to get out more.
In India, one’s fame, especially at cricket grounds, is usually indicated by a V. So enclosures bearing the sign VIP are for anybody who can afford a ticket for a seat with the back still attached. It then goes up a notch to VVIP, which means you probably get some shade and a buffet lunch thrown in. The final designation is VVVIP, which equates to Bollywood stars and other cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, the modern day maharajahs of Mumbai and Kolkata. Then you get access to everything the club or stadium offers including, at one venue in Mumbai, a siesta room.
British actors and writers have long retained strong links with cricket. Lewis Carroll was said to have played regularly while Harold Pinter, something of a cricket obsessive, had his own team, the Gaieties. Indeed, Pinter even wrote a poem about the game, which he sent to Simon Gray, a friend and fellow playwright. “I saw Hutton in his prime; Another time, another time.” When he asked Gray what he thought of it, Gray quipped: “I’ve not finished it yet.”
Stephen Fry is often spotted in MCC’s box while Stephen Tompkinson, another actor, has been known to watch England at home and abroad. Those pythons John Cleese and Eric Idle are also cricket fans of longstanding, though not everyone remains loyal for as goodly amount of time. At the bizarre launch of the 1999 World Cup, Caprice Bourret, a model from California, was one of the tournament’s ambassadors, wearing a skimpy outfit and professing a deep love of cricket. That World Cup, held in England, was a flop, which may be why Caprice, apart from being linked briefly with Kevin Pietersen in 2005, has not been sighted near a cricket ground since.
That is why celebrity followers of cricket tend to fall into two camps; those who enjoy and follow the game for the pleasure of watching it in all its arcane glory, like Ray Davies of the Kinks; and those who are more attracted to the personality cults of certain players.
The first set stick around but the others, like the cricketers they revere, move on once the fireworks are over.
Clapton would become a regular at Worcestershire but I suspect, like Elton John, it was the cult of Botham that attracted him more than the cricket
Old pals: Ian Botham and Eric Clapton enjoy time away from cricket
The bell tolls: Writer and actor Stephen Fry is a regular visitor to Lord’s
One of the boys: Elton John, in shades, with members of the England team and, far right, David English