India is in no other moods than IPL. While surfing on net for cricket, I came across this nice article on Cricket by John Major.
All my life cricket has been a joy. My sister taught me the game when I was very young, and it met a need that has never gone away.She would bowl to me as I clutched a tiny bat and tried to defend the wicket chalked on our garage door.
I was rather embarrassed by my sister’s tutelage until I learned that W.G. Grace had been taught under the eagle eye of his mother. That made me feel better, but not play better.
John Major, a keen cricketer, once scored 33 runs in 3 oversThere was no coaching at my primary school but we did play cricket. I can relive one incident that, over half a century on, still brings a hot flush of embarrassment to my face.It was a game in which, for the first time, I wore full whites, pads and gloves and had my own bat. I was expected to score runs, and that made me even more nervous ? caring too much rarely produces the best outcome, as I was to learn later in life.I strode to the wicket, took guard and prepared for the first ball. I played forward and felt the ball hit the middle of the bat.But the boy at first slip appealed, and the umpire/teacher raised his forefinger theatrically and gave me out, leg before wicket. I was mortified and, without thought, stuttered: But, but, I hit it!?Uproar ensued. Out-snarled the umpire/ teacher. Off.? He was now waving his arm like a windmill. He was right, of course, that I should not have questioned his decision.He was not right to mutter ?Bloody boy? as, head down, I walked off, shamed and burning with injustice. That teacher’s angry face is imprinted for ever on my mind, but not even he could turn me away from cricket.
To my deep disappointment my parents were never able to see me play. They had many reasons: chronic ill health, worry, the struggle to make ends meet. They were old, too.When I was six my father was 70 and my mother closer to 50 than 40. Both smoked, and their poor health was made worse by the foul habit.It would kill my mother in the end, but for many years before that, hacking coughs and shortage of breath were a daily occurrence.And they were exotics: our neighbourhood did not house many ex-trapeze artists, gauchos, jugglers, card-sharps or specialty dancers. Even as a boy I knew my parents were not to be judged by the usual criteria. Once, I was certain they would come to the match. Our school team was due to play close to our home. I wrote instructions for my parents on how to get there.I was captain and set a field with myself at cover-point and midwicket so I had a view of the entrance gate, but neither of my parents came.My father had been doubtful anyway? He was losing his eyesight, although as a nine-year-old I was not aware of that. And my mother was too ill with her interminable bronchitis. As I carried old Dr Robinson’s prescription to the chemist the following morning, I vowed I would never smoke. Cricket entered my bloodstream when I was a child and it has given me a lifetime of enjoyment and solace. It delights the eye and touches the soul.
Part of this is physical: the smell of linseed oil on willow, the feel of ball on bat, the pleasure of holding a shiny new red ball, the clatter of disturbed stumps and, on the best of days, the scent of newly-mown grass under the warmth of the rising sun.
One does not have to be talented to be besotted by cricket, as a thousand village games prove each summer. I saw this at school. One boy, whose anonymity I shall protect, practiced in the nets for hours. And often, I suspect, in front of a mirror! For every batting movement ended in a pose of classical perfection.No whites were ever more beautifully pressed, or pads or boots whiter, or bat more beautifully oiled. When, head high, he strode out to the wicket, he oozed class and confidence.Alas, he put so much into the elegance of every stroke that he overlooked the need to hit the ball, and all too soon would turn in surprise to look at his shattered stumps. He left the crease gracefully, head still high, as if he were returning to the pavilion in triumph.He was never downhearted. He would tell us he had been beaten in the flight or off the pitch; and, theorists all, no one suggested he had, again, just missed a straight one.He knew the spirit in which the game should be played and he reveled in it. Runs or not, it was enough for him to be on a cricket pitch.I was so lucky cricket was played at my grammar school; it was, with rugby, the only activity that made the experience bearable.
During one game the pitch was within striking distance of some windows, and the temptation to put the ball through one was irresistible. The prize was to be a pint of illicit beer: I was only 14 at the time, and such devilment appealed. A cross-batted heave missed the main target but did crash through an adjacent church window. The tinkle of glass brought a great cheer. It was enough. A triumph was celebrated. Not long afterwards a heavier drink, scrumpy, caused more trouble. I drank a little too much, and as I travelled home it began to extort its revenge. When my father opened the door, I was on my knees barking at him. I thought it was funny. He did not. Only my mother’s intervention saved me from being banned from cricket. I was no cricketing prodigy, but nor was I a complete mug. I had my days, and they remain precious memories: 50 runs in a house match, with the winning hit a straight four that whistled past the bowler’s nose; 33 runs scored in three overs to win a game; seven wickets for nine runs, including a hat-trick. A meagre return for my love of the game, you might think, but only if you don’t know cricket.
Runs, wickets and catches are all very well, but they don’t capture the fun of it all; the camaraderie, the hopes, the disasters, the wins, defeats and close finishes, the sunny days and the wet ones, all memories every cricketer locks away for the dark months when the summer game is in hibernation.
When my father finally lost his eyesight and all his money in the Fifties, our family were uprooted from our bungalow in Surrey to two rooms of a multi-occupied Victorian relic in Brixton. It lacked finesse but it was within walking distance of the Kennington Oval at a time when Surrey had the greatest county team of all. I camped out at The Oval during the summer as a devoted spectator. It cannot have been so, but memory insists that the sun always shone and Surrey always won. The Fifties were also a time of massive immigration from the West Indies, and many of the new Britons settled in Brixton. Our house was multi-racial for a time and it provided a good primer on poverty for a future Conservative Prime Minister. I knew the immigrants as neighbors. I played with their children. I shopped with them in Brixton Market. I saw them for what they were: men and women seeking a new life in a land immeasurably wealthier than the ones they had left behind. Others saw them in a harsher light, fearing for their livelihoods. Pessimists predicted trouble. People waited for the riots, the lawlessness. They waited in vain. The new Britons settled in. The dire predictions proved to be wrong. Instead of inciting fear, the bigots should have gone to The Oval where, when the West Indies played, it was carnival time: the atmosphere was full of fun. For those in the packed ground the painful reality of life in Brixton was put aside. Prejudice and hardship were daily companions to the new Brixtonians, but the way the West Indians played and conducted themselves in victory did much to help.
A few years earlier they had taken on England at her own game, at the very headquarters of cricket. And they beat her on merit. Perhaps no win in cricket ever had such social significance as Ramadhin and Valentine’s destruction of England at Lords in June 1950. As a result, all West Indians walked a little taller because their national cricket team had lifted their morale. When not at The Oval, I spent hour upon hour defending a Brixton lamp-post against the bowling of any passer-by. Only bad light, normally in the form of nightfall, stopped play.
In 1966 my love of playing the game came to a premature end when a car accident in northern Nigeria left me with a leg so shattered it was almost lost; but that did not mean I would never again pick up a bat. While Prime Minister, I attended a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Zimbabwe in 1991 and opened the batting in a charity match at Harare with Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The previous evening Bob had entertained us all with a selection of Australian songs, mostly unrepeatable, and we shared more beers than was wise. The following morning, Bob and I opened at a gentle pace, with him stealing the bowling towards the end of each over. I didn’t mind: I was happy just to be there. We tapped the ball here and there and ran our singles.After a few overs the wisdom of the Hawke strategy was revealed. “Off you go,” said the umpire, waving us off the pitch as he added, rather pointedly: ?Its time for the real cricketers.?Hawke had scored 20 or so, while I had fewer than ten. ?Did you know we didn’t have long?? I asked him as we trudged back to the pavilion.?Jeez, yes,? he admitted, a Cheshire cat-sized grin splitting his features. ?Didn’t you know, John? Heck ? I thought you did.? Not for the first or the last time, I noted that Australians play hard.
Forty years after I first visited The Oval, I came to know the Surrey club from the inside. During my years in government The Oval was a sanctuary where cares were put aside. Upon the morrow of defeat in the 1997 General Election, I bade my farewells to Downing Street and the Queen and headed to The Oval for a leisurely lunch and a soothing afternoon of cricket. Nor did the balm fail me.‘You had a rough decision, mate,’ called out a gnarled regular, before turning to more important matters. ‘This boy is a good bat.’ A wet day makes a conversationalist of the most taciturn cricket-lover. Once, a rain-drenched hour at The Oval was filled with a discussion about Don Bradman’s last Test innings, when the great man was bowled second ball by Eric Hollies for a duck in the final Test of the 1948 series. It is a story every cricket-lover knows, and we were debating at which end the Don was batting. Someone turned to Arthur Morris, the former Australian Test batsman, who was listening silently as he sipped a glass of red wine. ‘Surely you must know, Arthur? Were you in that team?’ asked an ignoramus.‘Yes,’ said Arthur, sipping placidly. ‘I was at the other end when Don was out. I scored 196. ‘There is a postscript to this story. As Bradman returned to the pavilion, he was stopped in the Long Room by Field Marshal Montgomery, who had famously encouraged his troops to hit Rommel for six. Montgomery barked at him: “Sit down, Bradman, and I will tell you where you went wrong.” The absurdity of anyone telling the most prolific run-getter of all time how to bat apparently escaped the old soldier. Bradman revealed this vignette in a letter to the Surrey Club many years later; he did not mention whether he had taken the opportunity to criticize the Field Marshal’s battle plan at El Alamein, but probably he did not. This was wise as Montgomery was never plagued by self-doubt. A man who can say ‘As God said’ and on the whole, he was right . . .’ is not a man to be crossed.
When I was Prime Minister, Cabinet met on Thursdays, at the same time as Test matches began. In those days Cabinet debated policy and took decisions, so the meeting lasted until lunchtime. From time to time folded messages would be brought in to me by the duty clerk. I would read them before passing them to Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, and from him they would cross the table to Ken Clarke, the Chancellor and later President of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club. Grimaces or smiles would follow. These notes drove Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine to distraction. Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary, Chancellor . . . was Sterling crashing? Was there a crisis? A ministerial resignation? No: they were the Test scores.
The game can be a bridge between opposites. The late Bob Cryer, a very Left-wing Labour MP, would always stop to talk cricket with me.John Redwood, the Right-wing Tory MP who in 1995 attempted with great gusto to pitch me out of No10, would do the same.Cricket can also bind friendships. When the Conservative Party lost the Election in 1997, John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, was among my first visitors, and as a consolation he presented me with that Australian symbol, a baggy green cap: it is a treasured possession. Four years later I was talking about cricket caps and helmets to the old Australian Test all-rounder Sam Loxton. ‘Helmets?’ scoffed Sam. ‘I didn’t even wear a helmet at Tobruk!’ Some years later, Sam presented me with an authentic Australian helmet. I was forever grateful we’d talked about helmets, not protectors ? although I doubt Sam wore one of those at Tobruk either.
A few years ago I was invited to Barbados to deliver the annual Frank Worrell Lecture. The following evening a galaxy of Caribbean cricketers ? Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Garry Sobers and Wes Hall ? attended a dinner for me at the British High Commission. Cricket conquers all differences, and I, although an ex-Conservative Prime Minister, enjoyed some memorable cricketing exchanges with the old West Indian opener Alan Rae, whose politics were very different. Someone on that lovely evening ? Wes Hall, I think ? referred to cricket as the happy game: ‘You can’t play cricket if you’re unhappy, and you can’t be unhappy if you do play cricket.’ It has certainly been true in my own life. Cricket attracts all sorts. When the actor Boris Karloff, an enthusiastic amateur wicket-keeper, visited The Oval, Surrey weren’t sure what to do with him.He was watching the cricket from the balcony when, in reply to a polite enquiry from an anxious host, he muttered in that inimitable voice: ‘Wonderful. I think I’m dead and gone to Heaven.’
Another character was the celebrated aeronautical engineer Sir George Edwards. When he was around 90, I was on The Oval balcony with him as a guest asked him, rather pompously, what he remembered of the Second World War and what, if anything, he’d done in it .George smiled. ‘I helped design the Wellington bomber,’ he said, ‘if that counts.’ I treasure that understatement: George worked with Sir Barnes Wallis on the ‘bouncing bomb’ that destroyed the great German dams but which, in early tests, kept sinking. George, a keen cricketer, knew why. ‘It’s underspin, not overspin,’ he explained. Barnes Wallis relented, and the Dam Busters took out the Mohne, Sorpe and Eder dams with a leg-break. Although cricket is the very essence of England, the skills of Bradman and Sobers, of Hadlee and Tendulkar, are evidence that the game has far outstripped the land of its birth.England no longer owns cricket. Like radar, penicillin, electricity, the steam engine, railways, the jet engine, computers and the worldwide web, cricket is an English invention; an export as potent as the English language itself.
At one level it is a game and no more; at another it helped cement an Empire and bind a Commonwealth. Its legacy is a fellowship of cricket-lovers across continents and through generations.