Thursday, September first 2011, the county cricket ground at Worcester: a splendid late summer day, the cathedral reassuringly distinguished across the river, the ground pleasantly filled by a couple of thousand people. This is the England which ex-Prime Ministers make speeches about. Many people say it is the most beautiful cricket ground in the country and some say in the world. The group of ladies sitting behind me, supporters of Worcestershire, but also of Birmingham City Football Club, are a huge bonus to the occasion, because they are extremely funny on a number of subjects, including the comparison between Bruges and Venice, travel on the cheaper airlines, the difference between what fans and owners want out of football and the US visa waiver form. (“It said did I support the Nazi Party. Well, surely, I’m too young?) I have been looking forward to this week and to this day for a long time, sandwiched as it is between a period of work and a period of travel. Along with the rest of the large Lancastrian contingent in the ground I see it as an opportunity to watch our county make steady progress towards the Holy Grail of a first championship since 1934.
But if the setting is Heaven, the plot is from Hell. Lancashire, already eighty runs behind on the first innings, go out to bat and the batsmen are dismissed with alarming regularity. At lunchtime the cognoscenti gather around the pitch (something you’re not allowed to do in the more populist forms of cricket). It looks harmless, level and blond, a batsman’s paradise, but it contains the secret trap of “variable bounce” which makes bowlers gimlet-eyed and ambitious and puts the devil of doubt into batsmen’s minds. A smartly dressed man remarks to me that he was born in 1941 and has always wanted to see Lancs (as we usually call ourselves) win the championship. “And now, I suppose, I never will,” he adds bitterly. This is not just blind pessimism, but a reference to the shared belief that this year the county are playing most home games not at Old Trafford, Manchester, where the weather and the pitches are thought to disadvantage us, but in the leafy surrounds of Aigburth, Liverpool.
After lunch the Worcestershire bowlers finish their job, bowling us out for 86, leaving themselves a mere five to win. At three o’clock on a beautiful day we are all trooping home, a “four day” cricket match over in a day and a half. The ice cream man is understandably furious. But this is the real thing – cricket (and life) as Nature intended. There is nothing neat or packaged about it. You are not guaranteed a result or even a game, let alone success. Just over five years ago, I wrote an essay in praise of the County Championship, comparing it to the Anglican Church and provincial theatre, as English institutions which have passed their peak, but still have great strengths. I particularly praised the friendliness and eccentricity that you will find among supporters of the four-day game. In some ways it has actually prospered since then because the kind of idiots who become sports journalists and administrators – and who fall for simple fallacies like post hoc ergo propter hoc – were all for getting rid of it in favour of a smaller, city-based, competition. Australia were best in the world and they only had six “first class” teams, so . . . . Well now England are officially the best in the world and the equivalent idiots in Australia are filling column inches with speculations about changing their structures. The County Championship has proved its ability to produce players of the highest calibre. Arguably, to win the championship is the most prolonged achievement in sport, with up to 64 whole days of play, though fans of baseball are entitled to point out that if you win the “World Series” you have played a minimum of one hundred and seventy games. Anyway, my only consolation, driving out of Worcester, is the most basic one – that there is always next year.
Early evening, September 15th 2011, the kitchen of a remote farmhouse in Languedoc. After walking all day in the Monts de L’Espinouse in temperatures verging on 30 degrees my only thought is about whether there is enough beer in the fridge. Then the voice from upstairs announces, “Lancashire have won the County Championship”. The information has arrived by text from my youngest son, himself a supporter. And it’s a miracle – or, at least, a near-miracle given the number of unlikely necessary conditions which had to be met. They had to play well and win the last two games. The September weather had to hold. Most unlikely of all, Warwickshire – leaders and favourites – had to be thwarted. Until the last possible moment this seemed wildly improbable, but then Hampshire, already relegated, totally outplayed in the first innings, following on, stubbornly, selflessly, determinedly stuck it out to deny Warwickshire a victory. Wonderful, brave, lovely Hampshire!
For days I wake up smiling, thinking of aspects of this happy event. It was an heroic victory, by a team financially poorer than it had ever been before and deprived of its traditional ground. Bookmakers had made them favourites for relegation and a prominent local journalist had announced that they were the weakest county playing staff of his lifetime. There one rather cheap-rate overseas player, Fawaz Maharoof, who was not the kind of global superstar we had previously employed in this role and, in any case, given his call-up by Sri Lanka and subsequent injuries, he played very little. This was the victory of lads from Bolton and Bury and Blackburn, many of whom had been previously written off as not quite up to it. But they had team spirit: there are many stories of recent years of famous Lancashire players on mobile phones in changing rooms discussing million-pound advertising or television deals with their agents in front of teammates paid a fraction of those sums. None of that this year. And they had a coach – Peter Moores – who really, seriously knew what he was doing. In my experience as an observer of team games this is extremely rare.
For me there is something pretty wonderful about the juxtaposition of Lancashire’s championship with England’s number one status: not just that we are the best of the best, but also the confounding of a form of managerial radicalism which is one of the curses of modern life. There is a problem? Restructure the institutions! In sport you fail to qualify or to win, we must change everything. Sport is particularly vulnerable to the tinkerers and institutional theorists because failure is so well defined. But has tinkering with the educational system or the constitution done us any good? Better, usually, to soldier on, learn from your mistakes and appoint the best people when a vacancies arise. So there is great satisfaction that England has become number one at cricket not on the basis of some invented urban meta-clubs with state-sponsored “academies” attached, but on the the basis of the likes of Lancashire CCC (founded 1864).
My other intellectual problem with this concerns the question of how would I explain to the majority of the population who just don’t get it how satisfying all this was for me and many people like me? Cricket is not religion, but it is like religion in that for some people it is at the core of life while to others it means nothing at all. It’s not as if it has no rivals. I had a third granddaughter born this year and a son who plonked a BAFTA on the kitchen table with a bit of a smirk on his face. Even in sport, I’m involved in lots of different ones and my own cricket team won a big silver cup this season and the little football team of which I’m a shareholder actually made it to the Premiership and the world stage a couple of years ago. There are many sources of pride and pleasure in life and this one would seem ill-suited to competing with most of the others – an obscure cricket competition, watched by relatively few people and won by a bunch of blokes I’ve never even met. But, I have seen Lancashire win competitions – named for John Player, Gillette, Benson and Hedges and Nat West, for example – in full stadiums in front of large television audiences. Those occasions were good, but not as good as this. I think fans of first class cricket actually revel in the complex and obscure nature of the game in the same way that fans of minority musical genres do. I note that of all the congratulatory messages I had (as if I had anything to do with it!), most of those which weren’t from Lancastrians were from Indians.
Sporting success as a fan is a different dimension of pleasure, not comparable or tradable with other aspects of life. The nature of pleasure is dependent upon whom you share it with. Weirdly, there is a scene in Triumph of the Will which reminds me of being a Lancashire fan. It involves clean-cut young men standing up and saying “Ich bin ein Saarlander . . . Ich bin ein Bayerischer . . ” etc., but then going on to say that they are all Germans. And the reason it reminds me is that the citizens of Burnley, Blackburn et al. make a fair old fist of seeming to loathe each other in the context of football, but come together to support Lancashire at cricket.
This pleasure will last a long time and can ultimately be expressed only in sacred clichés: we have come to the party; we are over the moon; the monkey is off our back and now we can treat each game as it comes. And even that defeat at Worcester was a cloud with a silver lining because one of its consequences was that Worcestershire stayed up so we’ll be able to go to that lovely ground again next year.