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Sunday, July 25, 2010

I went to the Cricket Instead

Just as Americans a bit older than me can tell you where they were when Jack Kennedy was shot, so English people know where they were on the afternoon of 30 July 1966, the day England won the football World Cup (Scots also remember, but only because it is seared upon their soul).

Me too. I was at the cricket, the first day of Canterbury Week, Kent v Leicestershire, to be precise.

Had the World Cup started a month earlier, everything might have been very different. But by early July I was already entranced by the other great sporting event of the summer of ’66: the Test series between England and the West Indies. I watched the opening World Cup game, a monumentally dull nil-nil draw between England and Uruguay, and lost interest after that.

As far as I remember, the opportunity to go to the cricket with a family friend arose on the morning of the final. Displaying wisdom beyond my seven years, I unhesitatingly grabbed it rather than watch the biggest football match ever played in England, thus absenting myself from the most significant shared national experience between VE Day and Lady Di’s funeral.

It was an early lesson that cricket watching would require stoicism and fortitude; only 25 overs or so were possible, my hero Colin Cowdrey got a duck and the whole thing was finished by a hailstorm in mid-afternoon.

Good choice, nevertheless.

Later World Cups are also reminders of days at the cricket.

By Mexico 1970 I had developed more enthusiasm for football, but cricket still had priority whenever a choice was to be made. Hence I missed Alan Mullery’s goal that put England one-nil up against Germany in the quarter-final at Leon because I was on the way back to Herne Bay from a Sunday League game at the lovely Crabble Ground in Dover (Kent chased down Northamptonshire’s 239 in the last over). Martin Peters extended the lead, but the Germans began their long period of domination in finals games between the two countries, and came back to win three-two in extra time.

Failure to qualify in 1974 and 1978 meant that England’s next World Cup finals match did not take place until they played France on 16 June 1982, when I was watching Ian Botham reverse-sweep Somerset to victory in the Benson and Hedges quarter-final at Canterbury.

Four years later I listened to Peter Jones and Bryon Butler’s radio commentary on the “hand of God” game against Argentina on my way back to Bristol from a Sunday League game at Basingstoke.

As the years went on, other events vied with cricket for my time, and came off second best. In 1985, for example, I was offered tickets for, and transport to and from, a concert. Kent were playing Northamptonshire at Maidstone that day, so I turned it down. What was the concert? It was Live Aid, my friends, the greatest gathering together of popular musical talent in the history of the universe.

But at Mote Park, Roger Harper made a most entertaining run-a-ball century, so again, good decision.

Under duress, I might miss a match for events deemed significant, such as the marriages of friends of the family. When, some years later, the predictable news was delivered that the happy couples had separated, my reaction was always that they could have made more of an effort given that I had sacrificed a day’s cricket for their wedding.

World events occurring during the cricket season also remain indelibly associated with particular fixtures. President Nixon’s resignation, for example, occurred during the Canterbury Week of 1974, between the second and third days of the Warwickshire game. Surely others recall, as I do, the Royal Wedding of 1981 as the day Ken McEwan of Essex made an elegant hundred in John Shepherd’s last first-class game for Kent (plenty of people gave up a day’s play needlessly that day)?

On this theme, an old story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.

A batsman pulls away just before the bowler’s delivery stride, removes his cap (I said it was an old story) and bows his head as a funeral cortege passes the ground. When it has gone, he replaces his cap and beckons the bowler to proceed. At the end of the over the wicket-keeper says “that was a nice gesture”.

“It was the least I could do”, replies the batsman. “I was married to her for thirty-five years.”

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