A return to Lord’s

Two years on from the gripping World Cup Final, there are few pops and bangs this year at Lord’s

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Merses profundo; pulchrior evenit. No matter how low things get, they return all the more glorious. The words of the poet Horace, not one of life’s gloomsters, were deployed by the historian H.S. Altham in the 1940 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack to raise wartime spirits. He described visiting the Long Room at Lord’s, its treasures sent away for safekeeping, and looking out upon the “wondrous green” turf, with Old Father Time turning serenely above the Grand Stand. The sight brought him reassurance that misery would be transitory. “It would take more than totalitarian war to put an end to cricket,” Altham reflected.

More than a pandemic too, though Horace might have struggled to spin the return of cricket to Lord’s after the fallow summer of 2020. There was not much pulchritude in England’s efforts against New Zealand, where they lost the toss, saw an opponent make a double hundred on his debut, collapsed when it was their turn to bat, had a day washed out by rain, made a pig’s ear of their run chase and then banned their best player in the match because he had sent some racist tweets as a teenager. Things felt comfortingly back to normal.

The ground had been divided into zones, like postwar Berlin

Lord’s was a different place when these two sides last met there for the World Cup final in 2019. I began that day in prison, as one does, a guest of the newly-ordained chaplain Father Jonathan Aitken, and saw him open his priestly innings at Pentonville before heading down the Euston Road to watch another miracle. When the match was finally won by England’s Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, after the teams had tied twice, in normal time and in a super-over, I had 45 minutes to write 800 words on it for the next day’s Times as fireworks and drunken celebrations exploded all around me.

Two years on, there were few pops and bangs, save the obligatory Champagne at precisely seven seconds past 11. Covid restrictions had limited spectators to 7,000 and the place had the sort of soporific atmosphere you find around 2.30pm on a normal Test, when most of the crowd are still at lunch.

Lord’s has changed its appearance since 2019. The new Compton and Edrich stands, looking like giant car wing mirrors either side of the media centre, work well, though the top decks seem to be such sun-traps that one wonders if the architects have shares in aloe vera. The upper seating is also so steeply raked people might need crampons and sherpas. “It seems ironic,” my companion remarked, “for that to be named after Denis Compton when he’d have never been able to get up there with his knees.”

The ground had been divided into zones, like postwar Berlin, for Covid security and woe betide anyone who tried to pop from their seat in zone B to see a pal in zone A. Face masks had to be worn when walking round the ground, which made it harder to recognise old friends. “Who’s that?” was the constant cry on the periphery, echoing the “How’s that’s” in the middle.

At least the stewards were apologetic. When one broke up our group drinking in the bar at the back of the Warner Stand, which has a good view of the pitch, it was done with sympathy. “I’m really sorry but you can’t drink here,” he said. “Yes, I know how stupid that sounds. We can’t allow mingling standing up. But you can drink sitting next to each other there.” He gestured to an empty row of seats, six feet away.

How timid we have become. On 29 July, 1944, play at Lord’s was interrupted by the distinctive sound of a falling German doodlebug. As the whine grew louder, the cricketers flung themselves to the ground and the spectators tried to hide behind their seats. The missile landed in Regent’s Park and play resumed with Jack Robertson nonchalantly hooking Bob Wyatt two balls later for six.

If only there had been such adventure on the final day of this match. Set a generous 273 in 75 overs, which allowed plenty of time for both sides to have a crack at the win, England batted for the draw from the off. As the afternoon drifted and the required run-rate rose, I watched three wagtails playing tag on the outfield, confident that no England batsman would hit the ball near them. Dominic Sibley is not the sort to empty bars even at his most daring. The opener here restricted himself to two shots — the block and the leave — which carried him through to the close on 60 not out from five and a quarter hours at the crease. PG Wodehouse once wrote of Trevor Bailey, another blocker, that he “awoke from an apparent coma to strike a boundary”. Catatonic Sibley hit only three of them.

The missile landed in Regent’s Park and play resumed with Jack Robertson nonchalantly hooking Bob Wyatt two balls later for six

For some, this sleepy effort may have justified Bill Bryson’s comment on cricket: “By the time games finish, all your library books are overdue.” For us purists, denied it for so long, even this game of join-the-dots was enough to keep us there until it was put out of its misery.

While the Test was suffering a death by a thousand missed cuts, we could dream of happier days — for Lord’s always encourages nostalgia. I found myself thinking of Francis Thompson’s poem At Lord’s, written as he faced death from tuberculosis in 1907, and adapted its famous closing lines to include the two World Cup heroes of 2019 who were missing this match but will come again.

“For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast/ And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost/ And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host/ As the run stealers flicker to and fro, to and fro: / O my Stokesy and my Buttler long ago!”

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