… I love it. So spake the gods with guitars, 10CC. Ok they were only ok, but Dreadlock Holiday http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WUglF9nQ8Y&feature=kp is a cracker of a song, if only for that lyric. For those you out there, who don’t get cricket (seek help, truly) please preserve. This isn’t about sport – but then, sport isn’t just about sport. Ask Albert Camus. Or Bill Shankly (“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very
disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more
important than that.”).
I admit my passion for the most inexplicable of sports and for the long version, stretching seemingly interminably over five days and then ending without a result. My earliest cricket related memory is rather grim – an England star of the sixties, Fred Titmus lost his toes in a boating accident while touring the West Indies. Maybe I liked the sport because the first player I latched onto was the vastly over-weight Colin Milburn – his sheer girth appealing to my somewhat chubby self.
My first game (watching that is) was at the Oval, a ramshackle ground in South London with wooden benches that were more splinter that seating. The bleachers, the Americans call such seating and I scalded in a broiling sun those first three days with my dad, some sandwiches and my bat at my side. I never wanted to leave.
Now the Oval is a modern bowl (well, mostly), covered in advertising and much smaller. It is not exactly intimate – flashing hoardings telling you to buy a certain insurance hardly makes for a cosy backdrop, but the playing field itself is a delight.
And they play cricket there.
I’ve been happy, ecstatic even, there. I’ve been engrossed, I’ve been bored. I’ve been burnt and drenched. I’ve had a decent curry and countless s**t coffees. I even shed my first tear after dad died there – we shared a lot my old man and me, but what held us together in the tightest of bonds was that stupid, ridiculous love of sport. Sport is so unimportant, so frivolous, so ephemeral that it really, really matters. You can invest so many emotions in it without it meaning a thing.
That was the way with us, Dad and me. For many years we obtained tickets for the Saturday of the last test match of the summer which is always played at the Oval. We went with a friend each and witnessed some fine performances and some awful capitulations. But the one thing we never experienced was a elation of series victory being secured against the oldest of enemies, Australia, for the mythical Ashes.
By the millennium, I had earned enough to buy tickets for the whole five days; we took a holiday, invited different people and for four years had some good times.
Then in 2005, after a year’s battle with prostate cancer he died, in March. I was sad, of course, but if I’m honest I was mostly mad. He’d had the cancer for years, had the symptoms and hidden then, a shy man not willing to discuss, even with his beloved Barbara the most embarrassing of problems.
By the time it couldn’t be hidden it was too far gone, too many secondaries were taking hold. It’s a cliché that someone went before their time; with Dad that was too true.
We gave him a grand send off – Mum was the epitome of stoic and the Archaeologist and I did what Dad wanted which was to celebrate a life. Even as the coffin went in the ground I remained dry eyed, feeling sort of numb I suppose. It wasn’t happening to me, you see; someone else was bereaved, not me.
By this time I’d bought the tickets for the game – they sell like hotcakes and I wasn’t taking the chance of not getting them by waiting. The Australians were coming (they visit every four years) and there were some hopes we might do well.
The series, over five matches, started badly a week after the 7/7 bombings but in a rollercoaster summer, the teams arrived at the Oval with England 2:1 ahead. An England win or a draw and England would have regained the Ashes.
It went to the fifth day; it was on a knife edge and then, as the late August shadows stretched across a ground where the first test in this country was played in 1882, the game was declared over and the Ashes were back in England for the first time since 1989.
While the crowd went bananas and my uncle hugged me and the Lawyer danced a little jig, I thought about Dad – about the clenched fists and the sheer bloody joy on his face as he enjoyed seeing those Bloody Australians vanquished – and I cried. People around me were pretty emotional, it’s true, but not many had my shiny cheeks or a bee-stung nose.
I can’t really go to the Oval without thinking about the old man: about him reminiscing about test matches just after the war and the great players of yesteryear; about his hopes for such and such a player today; about his conviction that we were sure to lose (he espoused the same philosophy as Brian Stimpson, played by John Cleese in the film ‘Clockwise’ who memorably says: ‘It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.’)
On Thursday last I was back, with the Celebrant, the Surveyor and the Retailer of Fine Skiwear. England won. A new star, Chris Jordan, took a major part and how Dad would have loved his performance. But mostly, I thought about him when a thunderstorm poured down and stopped play. Dad loved those moments when the game paused and you could debate the merits of this, or the failings of that, player. I took a picture of the ground emptied of the 20,000 people who were there – they were all under the stands, supping beer and eating crap burgers and doing as Dad would have done. A perfect, summer day – straight out of Siberia. As Dad once said, in similarly bleak conditions – ‘it’s not that England play the game well, it’s that, given our foul cold weather that we play it at all.’