February 18 2012
England’s cricketers have just lost a three-test series against Pakistan and are in the middle of a series of one-day games against the same opponents. The third contest takes place today, Saturday February 18, but, due to security concerns, Pakistan is off limits to visiting international teams, and Pakistani home games have been switched to the United Arab Emirates instead. Today’s match, and the three 50-over contests to follow, will be staged at the International Cricket Stadium in Dubai, with the finale scheduled for Abu Dhabi on February 27.
The idea of England playing cricket in the Middle East may seem bizarre to the game’s more traditional supporters, but the facilities at the Dubai ground, which is less than three years old, are hard to fault. I saw Pakistan play Australia there in 2009 and I can testify that there is abundant comfort and shade for the spectators, lavish accommodation for the players and press, and state-of-the-art floodlighting. There’s a lush green outfield too, though the pitches are slow and flat, favouring the spin bowling that recently bamboozled England’s out-of-form batsmen. But then the enduring appeal of cricket lies in its ability to excite and surprise wherever it’s played.
That potential for unexpected drama – a sudden wicket, a boundary, a dropped catch – has been captured in countless literary works, from LP Hartley’s The Go-Between to the acclaimed 2008 novel Netherland by the Irish-born Joseph O’Neill. But cricket’s most passionate literary admirer of the past 50 years has been the late Harold Pinter. The Nobel Prize-winning dramatist adored the game, which he learnt to play as a boy in east London in the 1930s. From 1972 until his death in 2008 he was first captain and then chairman of The Gaieties Cricket Club, which was founded in 1937 by the music-hall artist Lupino Lane and boasted many theatrical and literary members.
Pinter never wrote a play expressly about cricket, though the four characters in his 1975 classic No Man’s Land – Hirst, Spooner, Foster and Briggs – are all named after distinguished English cricketers of the Edwardian era. And watching Pinter plays such as No Man’s Land, The Caretaker or The Homecoming, you are conscious of the unerringly similar patterns between events on stage and the action on the cricket field. Each is a battle for territory and possession, featuring sudden bursts of drama interspersed with poetic reveries and longueurs. Appropriately, Pinter’s love of the game was celebrated at “the home of cricket” in September 2009 when the Gaieties played, and beat, the Lord’s Taverners 11, after which a group of cricketing thespians, including Jeremy Irons and Bill Nighy, assembled in the Long Room to read extracts from Pinter’s work.
The playwright would have been exhilarated by England’s triumph over Australia in last winter’s Ashes battle down under, and the old rivals are due to resume hostilities on English soil in 2013. In the meantime, there’s a tour of Sri Lanka coming up and a tough home series against South Africa this summer. It should be a thrilling year – and one that Pinter would have savoured – but I fear that England’s position as the world’s number-one test-playing country is in jeopardy. I’d back them to lose that ranking by December at 4-6 with Ladbrokes.