A Thursday evening in Acton. My eldest son has been picked to play for the under-13s, and I am as proud as Lucifer. Not that he’s going to bowl, or bat very high up the order, but he will hold on to his catches if they come his way and stop the ball before it reaches the boundary.
Like father, like son. I used to bowl, though. Bloody well. But as Marcus Berkmann says in his sublimely funny Zimmer Men, it’s the first thing to go. A few years ago I became friendly with Harold Pinter and he invited me to play for his team, the Gaieties. I averaged 0.5 with the bat over a two-innings career, but at least I only ever ran myself out, not the other batsman.
On a surreal drive back from one match (I’m in a car with Harold Pinter!) I thought I’d show how right-on I was by banging on about the obscenity of the newly opened Guantanamo Bay prison, but Pinter, garrulous and amusing, kept bringing the subject back to cricket, and congratulating me on the catch I’d taken at square leg. Which I’d only taken because the captain had moved me there the ball before.
What country dares call itself civilised that does not play cricket? (I will accept America and baseball, although that sport is a little slow for my tastes.) And when it runs in families, it glues them together. I got over my nerves about talking to Pinter when I suddenly realised that he was, when he got on to the subject, just like my dad (only left-wing; and a couple of years away from winning the Nobel Prize).
During the summer, or over the course of a winter tour, I can always talk to my father about cricket. Sometimes I think the game was invented so that, for five months of the year at least, the English don’t have to endure awkward conversations.
Anyway, back to Acton. The team’s grounds are in a private club so pricey that even God would find it hard to stump up for the fees. But if your son plays for the team, you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing. As I look around the immaculate grounds, I reflect that this is similar to my living in poverty, as I do, in W1. I’m broke, but surrounded by millionaires.
A Former England Captain has become a member; last year, I asked him to autograph my son’s bat. (The boy also has, on various bits of paper, equipment and clothing, the signatures of Nasser Hussain, Mike Gatting, Monty Panesar, and the bloke who used to do the analysis for Channel 4’s cricket coverage.)
The FEC’s here again this year; there’s a logjam of kids and cricket bags at the entrance, so he ducks under the turnstile, which I find rather charming.
The great thing about the club is that while all the members using its other facilities are fraightfully posh, the cricket team itself is run by proper geezers. (Of all the subsets of humanity, the cockney cricketer comes very close to being my favourite. Can anyone think of Phil Tufnell without smiling indulgently? He was always going to win I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, even without the hundreds of calls I made voting for him.) They’re dedicated, knowledgeable and smart, and their enthusiasm has rubbed off on the team.
Among the other parents I see only in the summer are N– and J–, whose children play, and play well, both the summer and the winter games. N– and J– are among my favourite people on earth, even though we only see each other once a week between May and July. Before Thursday’s match I found myself almost sick with worry that they wouldn’t turn up, that they might have moved, or worse. When they show up, we fall on each other as though we were old conscripts greeting each other after a traumatic absence.
They’ve helped me, in their quiet way, through the most awful periods of my life; and when the conversation gets awkward, we can move quickly back to the topic of cricket. “How are you doing?” asks N– solicitously, as if worried that I might have been on the brink of committing a felo de se over the winter.
Acton thrash the opposition so efficiently that even though play started more than half an hour after it was meant to, we finish ahead of schedule. In fact, it is a humiliating rout. Our batsmen score 16 runs in their first over, mostly past the same hapless fielder; our bowlers, few of whom I would care to face myself unless I was wearing a helmet, rip through them so quickly it’s almost embarrassing. “So this is what it feels like to be Australian,” I say, which gets a laugh. Later, my son tells me that one of his team-mates had overheard the FEC’s young son say to him: “Dad, I don’t like cricket, it’s boring. I want to play football.” Suddenly I realise how rich I am.