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Cricket: the joy of a ludicrous game

Reflections on England vs the West Indies.

"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.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.