He’s not the son of God

Cricket fans are the ultimate non-conformists

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Did you know Jesus was a cricket fan? According to Tom Holland, historian of Christianity and lover of cricket, The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy translates a lost Syriac text that recorded the young Christ playing with bat and ball. 

Sadly, scorecard scrolls do not survive, and no video footage exists to reveal his technique, but it is tempting to imagine Jesus producing miraculous hitting and bowling with prodigious swing. With his famous catch in the Sea of Tiberius, he must have been an asset in the field, too.

I only recently heard about the talents of young Jesus, but I knew already he was a cricket obsessive. I have seen him in the stands at several test matches and, more often than not worse for wear, swilling pints of lager in the Eric Hollies Stand at Edgbaston for Twenty20 finals day.

The Lord moves in mysterious ways, it is true, but of course I doubt whether it really was Jesus in the stands on all those occasions. I suspect the Second Coming, when it happens, will be a more dignified affair than Christ being chased around by drunken disciples and inebriated nuns.

Why do cricket fans do this? Why, in this most conservative of sports, do fans don crazy outfits on fancy dress days at test matches and drink themselves silly? How did the sport that used to look down on crowd noise — other than polite applause — come to embrace the madness?

Money is one obvious answer, of course. Twenty20 and Test matches are the great earners for English cricket. Ticket sales, television rights and whatever can be sold on the ground — a little merchandise, and a lot of food and booze — are what bring in the money. Test match venues once allowed fans to bring their own bottle. Now, apart from Lord’s, which is owned by MCC, a members’ club, everything you drink you need to buy at the ground.

Fans bringing young children to matches sometimes complain about coarse language and laddish behaviour

And television demands entertainment: colour, noise, raucousness. Where Henry Blofeld once gently described buses driving past the ground, or pigeons settling on the square, and discussed the cakes sent in by Test Match Special listeners, now we have cameras and commentators talking about fancy dress, fans precariously carrying pints, and grown men chasing one another along the gangways. And with social media, even the clubs’ official Twitter accounts are getting in on the action.

But is there anything very wrong with this? If television demands it, and if after a few drinks this is what some supporters get up to, is it not simply what the viewing public wants, both at home and in the grounds? And if it is what the public want, who wants to say no?

For some it is starting to get a little out of hand. At the first Test match between England and New Zealand at Lord’s at the beginning of June, spectators had to intervene as a drunken yob spilled beer over an elderly neighbour and then tried to assault him when he complained. Fans bringing young children to matches sometimes complain about coarse language and laddish behaviour. And clubs keen to attract more supporters from Asian communities have noted concern about the rough behaviour of some in the crowd.

Of course it is easy to be overly pious about all this. Cricket — like all sports — is vital to those of us who take it seriously enough. But it is also supposed to be fun. There is no need to watch it in a hermetically sealed bubble, joyless and silent. England players say they love playing in front of voluble crowds like those at Headingley and Edgbaston. And we all have our favourite examples of noise and wit.

Embracing the madness: pints and sombreros in the stands

There was the great Ashes victory by two runs for England against Australia at Edgbaston in 2005. There was the magical bowling spell by Stuart Broad, in 2015 on his home ground at Trent Bridge, when he took eight Aussie wickets for just fifteen runs, and England bundled them all-out for only sixty. And there was the famous run chase, in which Ben Stokes almost single-handedly carried England home to beat the Australians by one wicket at Headingley in 2019. 

For each of these moments, it felt like the crowd — the noisy, sometimes coarse crowd — willed the players on their way to victory. Certainly, if you watch the Amazon Prime series that for eighteen months filmed the Australians behind the scenes, you will know the hostility of English crowds bothers them more than a bouncer in the ribs.

And then there is the humour. The fan who shouted to Phil Tufnell, “Lend me your brain,” before adding, “I’m building an idiot”. The songs that almost broke Mitchell Johnson … before Johnson returned to break England. And, more touchingly, after a day of cheeky and abusive songs directed at Shane Warne, the sung admission, which led to Warne welling up and doffing his cap for that famous photograph, “We only wish you were English.”

Of course there are limits to raucous behaviour, but there is a clear link between the drinking and the fun. As the vicar noted at my own wedding, Jesus performed his miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana when the guests were already well drunk. If Christ really had been in the Eric Hollies Stand all those times, it might explain a few things.

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