Cricket: the joy of a ludicrous game

Reflections on England vs the West Indies.

England's Andrew Strauss bats against the West Indies.
England's Andrew Strauss bats on May 28, 2012 during the fourth day of the second Test match between England and the West Indies at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

"Majestic from Pietersen, thumping the callow debutant powerfully through the leg side. But he's gone! He's gone! Tried to repeat the shot, his hubris perhaps getting the better of him..."

It's a grey Monday morning, and I am sitting in the Mound Stand at Lord's, my internal radio commentator babbling away in my ear. England are playing the West Indies. It's the final day of what's been an enthralling contest.

The West Indies are a young team, gradually improving, and they have put up a strong fight against the English, who are, at present, ranked the best in the world.

Things change; empires crumble and fall. Thirty years ago, the West Indians were the world's best, and England were the ones in the process of rebuilding.

Even those who haven't seen the film Fire In Babylon may still have heard of the cricket the West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s played. England today are the world's best by nature of their professionalism: the steady accumulation of runs, the nagging, relentless accuracy of their bowling.

The West Indies, when they dominated, did so in greater style - through furiously fast, gracefully intimidating bowling, through swashbuckling, precariously risky batting.

Perhaps that's why they are everyone's second favourite team. That generation of men gave the world a vision of the game that's never been seen since. Some felt it was their furious reaction to the times in which they lived; a gutteral scream at the Apartheid regime, at racist cricket crowds in Australia and elsewhere, at riots on the streets of Brixton.

Perhaps it was, for some. But looking back, it stands for most of us outside of politics; a permanent testament to the joy of this ludicrous game and of the outrageous talents it can throw up, captured on grainy reels of video footage.

Many of us have come alone, to sit in quiet contemplation. A man's mobile phone rings.

"Hello, can I call you back? I'm in a meeting. Yes. Yup. Got to go."

The ball is punched through the covers, and he hangs up just as a round of applause begins. In our stand much of it, along with some hearty laughter, is directed at him. He raises a hand to acknowledge our appreciation.

"A beautiful straight punch down the ground from Bell there, leaning into a low full toss and sending it skimming past the bowler."

Kemar Roach, the West Indies' newest fast bowling prospect, is hurling the ball down at a furious pace. It smacks into the wicket-keeper's gloves, the sound echoing round the ground. The batsman standing 22 yards away from Roach will have just under half a second react to the ball, which is travelling at 90mph. If he gets his response wrong, and it hits him, it could cause a very serious injury indeed. A hundred yards away from us, there's a battle of life or death taking place.

Yet we're no baying mob in the Colosseum. Instead we sit, and nod, and dream, in sleepy reverence. Those of us who really understand the game knew how it would play out before we'd even arrived. England will most likely win. They'll gather the runs required at a pedestrian rate. Roach will throw his heart and soul into his attempts to dislodge them; he may even nip out a batsman or two, but these will be little more than surface cracks on the edifice of our innings. An old West Indian man pipes up behind me:

"Come on Kemar! These batsmen are average!"

A few of us turn around. He smiles at us. We all know which way the wind is blowing.

"Alastair Cook just slightly surprised by the bounce there from Sammy - that's forced the bottom hand off his bat. Slight grimace there, but he's not going to show the bowler any pain."

Many people think of Lord's as the epitome of privilege, class and perhaps even empire. The history is rather more complex. But it does start with an aristocrat: the Earl of Winchelsea. Having taken up the game aged 32, he played wherever he could and was no mean batsman.  He was a member of the Hambledon club - a sort of cricketing Harlem Globetrotters of its day (a mix of aristocrats and some hired professionals) and more crucially the White Conduit Club. This was located in Islington (which at the time was a village) and was born of earlier gentlemen's clubs.

It was a revolutionary time. The French were chopping aristocratic heads off left, right and centre, and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was selling like hot cakes. White Conduit Fields was a lovely venue, but it was no good for the staging of 'great matches', which had evolved out of the scratch games played between rustics. In Winchelsea's time such games, largely played by aristocrats and hired professionals, attracted huge attention and were often played for the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

White Conduit Fields wasn't the perfect setting, lacking any kind of fencing or entrances. Anyone could walk in and tell the toffs what they thought of them.

Thomas Lord was an ambitious young provincial, who was looking for a way into the wine trade to help his family out of the poverty trap into which they'd fallen. He got a job at the White Conduit Club as a net bowler (he'd learned the game in Norfolk) and general jobsworth. Astutely matching the aristocrats' desire to control their spectators with his own desire for money, he leased a stretch of land in Marylebone from the Portman family estate, with Winchelsea's financial backing. He got more money from Winchelsea's friend Charles Lennox, a wicketkeeper/bat who once shot the Duke of York, had fourteen children and died after a fox bit him.

 There was no problem with people watching - so long as they were the right sort of people; prepared to pay an admission fee, which they were. In the pre-professional era - in the absence of names like Tendulkar or Bradman - the 'Earl of' or 'Duke of' generated an equivalent celebrity buzz.  The ground could be - and was - hired out for all sorts of other purposes, like pigeon shooting, balloon hopping and even for a French hot air balloonist.

"Beautiful delivery from Gabriel there, jagging that one away from Cook off the seam. Impressive bounce and carry he's extracting here, on a somewhat jaded fifth day pitch."

Are the likes of Allen Stanford and Lalit Modi anything new? What was William Lord if not a bright, entrepreneurial upstart, riding on the desires of an elite to profit from and control the public's experience of the game? Lord's may be redolent of aristocracy, history and privilege, but it was always a ground put in place by the people and for the people.

During the lunch break, the tannoy announcer tells us we're allowed on the outfield. It's slightly ridiculous. There's nothing to see here, except perhaps a slightly closer view of the wicket upon which no game is being played. We wander out: me, my fellow slacker who's in a "business meeting", the old West Indian man behind us, onto the pristine, verdant turf, and look around at the stands that surround us, and the face of the grand old pavilion. There's nothing here but our dreams of that other life where we too might have one day walked out to represent our country on this preposterously flush surface.

"It's wonderful to see so many children out here," the man on the tannoy crackles.

There don't appear to be that many. But then I realise - there are thousands of us. We meander back to our seats, our heads littered with the half-visualised glories we produced for our country.

"Wonderful late cut from Bell there, really tucking into Samuels' friendly offerings. I can't think why they've put a part-timer on."

The game is all but up. Then a wicket falls, and England's callow youth, Jonny Bairstow (who looks like Ron Weasley and whose name suggests he wouldn't be out of place in an Enid Blyton novel), strides out. England will win this game - the question is whether Jonny - who hasn't looked at home at this level so far - will be there at the end. It's perked us all up. The ball cannons into his pad, and there's an appeal. Somewhat cruelly, the crowd joins in.

 "Come on man! Knock him over! We can do this!" shouts the old West Indian.

 We laugh knowingly. There's no other game where the crowd are more likely to be inspired by a meaningless little drama like this than by the actual result - which took five days to reach.

 Bairstow holds out, and the winning runs are struck. Slowly, we file out.

The sun, which has lurked behind a heavy blanket of grey cloud all day, starts to break through the blent air, in thick wedges around the ground.

We're sucked into the city's roar.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.