Yes, I know the world is in a mess. I know too that the leadership in this soggy little island are running around like decapitated tadpoles and treating us all like naughty children but I want to rant today about a far more important matter than the Coronabug and inept politicians. I refer of course to the possible death of that most British of institutions, the cricket tea.
I mean, think of an idyllic English summer – they happen occasionally – and what is the first image that springs to your mind? Yes of course, you will picture a cricket match in progress on a lovingly tended village green.
You will see in your mind’s eye an ancient oak tree just inside the boundary. Beneath it a village elder dozes in his deckchair, lulled by the thwack of leather upon willow and the droning of bumblebees in a nearby hedge.
Picturesque imagery perhaps but it really does happen – or did in gentler times.
In the nets by the pavilion, number eight in the batting order is putting in some last-minute practice against the bowling of his twelve year old son, as he awaits his summons to the wicket and his chance of glory or humiliation.
Meanwhile, from those on the pitch come distant cries of ‘well bowled!’, ‘good shot!’ and ‘howzat,’ carried muffled on the breeze to their watching friends and families. What idyllic pictures my memory produces!
But the real action of the afternoon will be taking place in the pavilion itself, where the wives, sisters and girlfriends of the home team are busy preparing the centre-piece of the occasion. For the clock on the medieval church tower, visible above the thatched roof of the Lamb and Flag, is creeping round to 4.15pm. It will soon be time for tea and what a prospect that is for players and spectators alike.
Under the firm direction of the club chairman’s or team captain’s wife, the women are bustling about, exchanging village gossip as they carry dishes heaped with cakes and sandwiches – egg, cucumber, chicken, ham and good old Robinson’s strawberry jam – to the trestle tables on the grass outside. As I write these words, I can hear it all.
‘I say, Penelope, would you give me a hand with the tea urn? I think we’re just about ready for curtain up.’
Okay, I admit that idyllic rural cricket matches are few and far between in the frenetic age of the twenty first century but cricket has been a major part of my life. I played a great deal of village cricket in the nineteen sixties and still believe that a match on a village green, with all its attendant rituals is about as close to Heaven as mere mortals can experience.
So how depressing it was to learn this week that the cricket tea is under threat from the game’s authorities – and that even after life returns to something like normal (God willing, before next cricket season) the idyllic summer afternoon of my fading memory may never be the same again.
For those who missed the story, the threat comes from the Sussex Cricket League – the world’s largest, compromising three hundred and thirty five teams from a hundred and forty clubs – whose members have voted permanently to remove the requirement to provide fully blown teas, which has been suspended anyway because of the Coronabug pandemic.
The vote, by one hundred and fourteen to eighty nine means that home sides will no longer have to lay on food for themselves and the visiting team during the innings break (though they will still be expected to offer cold drinks or a measly cup of tea).
Said a spokesman for Forest Row Cricket Club, which plays in the league and voted for the resolution: ‘We think it will encourage new players. For too long cricket has had the stigma of cucumber sandwiches and a little bit of cricket.
‘Times have changed and not everyone wants teas. ‘Lots of clubs don’t have a tea lady or enough volunteers.’
Well, I hate to break it to those who voted with the majority – the type I suspect, whose idea of a riveting bedtime read is the latest edition of Wisden – but most who take part in amateur matches are not much interested in a sweet cover-drive or an unplayable yorker. Nor do they care all that much who actually wins, although of course it will add to the jollity in the Lamb and Flag later in the evening if the home team takes the spoils.
No, they are in it for the time-honoured ritual of the day, in which the tea interval plays a part as essential as the post mortem in the pub.
Do away with the sandwiches and cakes and what are you left with? One bunch of flannelled incompetents bowling at three sticks of wood, while another lot try to hit it with a carved lump of willow. How many would wish to give up a whole afternoon for that – let alone turn out to watch it?
As the late, great writer, critic and cricket reporter Sir Neville Cardus once observed, going to a match solely to watch cricket would be like going to a pub solely to drink beer. Include a lavish tea in the afternoon interval, however, and the match becomes part of a centuries-old ceremony that ranks with the church fete and the am-dram Christmas pantomime among the great social events in the village calendar.
It is an occasion that brings together young and old, landowner and labourer, postmistress and plumber, in a celebration of the sheer beauty of the occasional English summer afternoon. As for the true contest of the day, this has little to do with the two teams on the pitch. The real competition is to determine which of the rival villages can put on the more magnificent spread.
Will the ladies of Chalford Hill in Gloucestershire outdo last month’s efforts by those of Stow on the Wold with their Victoria sponge, chocolate-covered eclairs and those delicious melt-in-the- mouth scones? Surely not – now that was a tea to remember.
I have played cricket all over the world and have performed at every level apart from the Test match arena but my days of playing village cricket in the nineteen sixties and on tour with the Kenya Kongonis in later years stand out in my memory as beacons of what civilisation ought to be. Can there be any ritual more enticing than the sheer pleasure of a cricket tea? I really do not think it is possible. There are sandwiches of every sort, chocolate biscuits, cakes and even home-made cream horns and frothy sponges. No matter the stage of the game itself, these delights are there to be wolfed down and enjoyed.
But don’t just take my word that cricket isn’t cricket without a slap-up tea. Read the great Henry Blofeld, veteran of Test Match Special and fully accredited National Treasure, who was fulminating against the Sussex league’s decision in a letter to The Times last week.
‘Sir,’ wrote Blowers, ‘the tea interval has, since the game began, been one of cricket’s most charming, intrepid (wrong adjective there Blowers old chap) and surely immovable institutions: sandwiches, occasionally scones and strawberry jam, cakes and a huge battered tin teapot and mugs, some of which have lost their handles . . .’
On and on he goes, painting an elegant picture of the central role tea plays in the game, before spluttering: ‘Why can’t the petty bureaucrats of the Sussex Cricket League mind their own business?
‘I dare say that taking this large dollop of romance out of the game is all about saving half an hour. Talk about cutting off your cucumber sandwich to spite your batting average.’
Well said Blowers. I am right behind you and feel that we old codgers have to do something to protect the game that Britain gave to the world.
One club at least in that dratted Sussex league – the Horsted Keynes Horsemen – say they will continue to provide teas for any opponents who are happy to feed them in return.
‘In fact,’ they go on, ’we are working on a new pavlova recipe.’
Good for them and I hope other clubs will follow their example. The Coronabug has already inflicted lasting damage on too many of our traditional pastimes and pleasures. Please don’t let it be cited as an excuse to suck the social heart from the most English of Britain’s legacies to the world.