April 16 2010
The county cricket season began earlier this month when Worcestershire beat Middlesex by 111 runs at their beautiful New Road Ground, overlooked by the cathedral and home to the best teas on the circuit if you can wangle a pass to the Ladies’ Pavilion. The breaks for lunch, tea and homemade cake seem as much part of the fabric of the game as white flannels and red-leather balls. But there are times when the conventions of English cricket can seem, at least to outside eyes, baffling.
Veuve Clicquot, the official champagne supplier to the England team whose fizz is sold alongside the scones, jam and cream in the Harris Garden bar at Lord’s, ran a competition last year to find the best professional cricketing photograph of the previous 12 months. The winner, Aussie freelancer Philip Brown, won for his brilliant portrait of England batsman Ravi Bopara attempting to hook a ball only inches from his nose.
His award, which included a Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Methuselah and a cheque for £5,000, was presented during the tea break of the Lord’s test against the West Indies in May. A charming French female executive of the champagne house, there for the presentation, surveyed the scene. She was particularly amused by the pavilion, packed with predominantly male MCC members in their blazers and bacon-and-egg-coloured ties. “You English,” she mockingly observed. “I think you like to form clubs just so that you can keep people out!”
A fair comment at times, no doubt. But, in truth, the modern English cricketing authorities are making ever-more determined efforts to welcome “outsiders” to the club. This summer’s international calendar will feature a four-test series between England and Pakistan, which will run from July 29 to August 26. But before those contests, English grounds will host two test matches between the Pakistani and the Australian teams – one at Lord’s and one in Leeds. It will be the first time a test not involving the home side has been staged in the UK since 1912.
It’s a great idea, designed to help Pakistan, which has been denied international visits since the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in March 2009. Indian and Pakistani sides can always count on passionate support at places such as Edgbaston, where Pakistan will play two 20/20 matches against the Aussies and the atmosphere inside the grounds – complete with drums, trumpets, whistles and flags – should rock.
Pakistan were no match for Australia down under this winter, but there was an intriguing subtext to those encounters involving allegations of “ball tampering”. This is not a coded description of some furtive sexual activity but a reference to the age-old habit of bowlers picking at the seam of a cricket ball in the hope that it will “reverse swing” and be difficult for the batsman to play. All countries have been guilty of the practice, but in Perth in January, the Pakistani captain, Shahid Afridi, was caught on camera actually trying to take a bite out of the ball. He was subsequently suspended for the next two matches.
Hopefully, no rogue teeth marks will be detected on the “cherry” this July but, however they fare against the Aussies, I reckon Pakistan will struggle to retain the World 20/20 Cup in the Caribbean next month, and I will be backing Sri Lanka to win the contest at 6-1 with Ladbrokes.