The Captain doesn’t want to play

What happened to Boris as a child that he hates cricket so?

Artillery Row

“There’th thomething tho forlorn,” said William, “about an empty cricket ground.” The words come from Shadows on the Grass, the witty and obscene memoir of the novelist Simon Raven about his schooldays, undergraduate life and his time as a subaltern. He was one member of a post-war cohort of Charterhouse boys that included Jim Prior, MP; Peter May, who in 1955 succeeded Len Hutton as captain of the England cricket team; Conrad Dehn, QC, a distinguished barrister; and Lord Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, father of the current leader of the House of Commons, and the lisping William to whom Raven attributed the words above. 

The dialogue between the would-be sophisticated schoolboys moved quickly on from the aesthetics of cricket grounds: 

“What else would you expect it to be in March?”, said Conrad the realist. “What we want to know is this: what is all this balls you’ve been putting round about shagging giving people syphilis?”

“My motive is twofold,” said William: “first, to see how many people are stupid enough to believe it; and secondly to discourage shagging, since my church holds solitary vice to be a mortal sin.”

The country’s cricket grounds have been empty and forlorn this summer, after the government closed them because of the Covid 19 pandemic. It was not until Saturday 11th July that club cricketers were allowed to play again. The logic of this is hard to understand. Cricket is a non-contact sport in which social distance should come naturally, and not just between gentlemen and players – each fielder has his patch of grass to patrol, and the captain can direct them remotely by hand movements from the other side of the pitch. When May and Hutton played, the bowling side often celebrated the taking of a wicket with no more than an understated clap and perhaps a “well bowled”. At Old Trafford in 1956, Jim Laker took 19 Australian wickets – an unparalleled achievement. After he dismissed the wicketkeeper Len Maddocks to win the game, he shook hands with the non-striker, reclaimed his sweater from the umpire and walked sheepishly to the pavilion – as though any demonstrative celebration would have been showing off. This self-restraint disappeared many years ago. Those who saw England win the world cup final last summer will recall the celebratory pile up of cricketers in light blue shirts, and might be forgiven for thinking it was a tight win for City in the Manchester derby. 

Boris may be headed for a political inferno in which the cricket-loving Rishi Sunak takes his job

In Bushy Park, Teddington CC used the opening day of the delayed season for a trial game of new players, including your correspondent. Before the first ball, the umpires gathered the teams together to explain the current dispensation – the government had laid down rules to ensure that men standing dozens of yards apart on an open air cricket pitch did not increase their risk of Covid 19 infection. At all times and in all things, compliance was to be our watchword. If a wicket fell, it was forbidden to “high five” the bowler, although the harshness of the law was tempered to allow a celebratory knocking together of elbows. Bowlers were prohibited from using sweat or saliva to shine the ball, and just in case any of them should negligently do so, play would stop every 6 overs for a hygiene break. In response to the cry of “Sanitiser please, Simon”, the 12th man would carry on to the pitch a dispensing bottle filled with what appeared to be a combination of brylcreem and napalm, and each of us queued up to squirt it into our palm. It was only a minority of players who, after applying the noxious cocktail, still retained much sensation in their hands, although this could be a blessing when one fielded a well struck drive. 

One wondered about the motives of a government which was willing to foist these futile regulations on a harmless amateur game. It seemed unlikely that Simon and his sanitiser was all that kept us from an early death. Perhaps 40 years ago at Eton, Boris Johnson was overlooked to play for the Colts 4th XI on Agars Plough and has never forgotten the slight or forgiven the game. William Rees-Mogg was not a distinguished cricketer. Further on in Shadows on the Grass, he goes on the attack against the scorn of Simon Raven and Conrad Dehn: ‘ “If there is one kind of sinner,” said William, “who will be thrust into the Seventh Circle of the Inferno, it is the kind who is deterred only by motives of worldly caution. You are both destined for Hell. Dehn because he is a Jew who scoffs at Jewry; and you, Raven, because you are an onanist”.’

Johnson has shut down the country in the name of our health; in that action, at least, no one could accuse him of being motivated by worldly caution. But he may nonetheless be destined for Hell, or a political inferno in which the cricket-loving Rishi Sunak takes his job. 

There is much about Teddington CC to appeal to the traditionalist – the beauty of the ground, the crispy bacon rolls, and the fact that for decades the Under 11 team has been coached by a man referred to as “the brigadier”. Despite the absurd innovations in the name of hygiene, the day went much as one might have expected in any season – the catching was indifferent and the wicket-keeping variable, and there was talk about getting fit for the big match against Isleworth. The players mostly kept to the rules, and even the spectators complied. Bushy Park has many red and fallow deer, and three handsome red stags watched our game from the square leg boundary. Their rut does not start until September, and they can be expected to observe suitable social distancing for now. Fingers crossed the risk level will have been lowered again by the end of the summer, and they can lock horns without having to sanitise first. 

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