As soon as you realize that your memory stretches for more than forty years, it has a tendency to bring you up short. And when the nature of that memory relates to cricket, the thing which has been an absolutely central part of your existence for as long as you can recall, well, you can find yourself writing about it.
Last Tuesday it was exactly forty years since I went to my first game of professional cricket.
Makes you think, that.
The match was a John Player League game between Surrey and Warwickshire, and it took place at my local cricket club, Sunbury, in the far south-western corner of what used to be known as Middlesex. I was seven years old.
I can remember little about it, apart from the fielding side (Warwickshire, led by Alan Smith, his career as a TCCB bureaucrat still ahead of him) coming out of the low-slung pavilion (where, as a fourteen and fifteen year-old, I was later to change) with an old-fashioned static television camera pointing at them over the picket fence. I don’t know why the camera has stuck in my mind, but it may have something to do with the fact that in those days the John Player League was a competition which owed much of its identity to television.
Although I have some hazy memories of the 1972 Ashes series, most of my cricket-watching up to that time had consisted of Sunday afternoons in the company of Peter Walker (the former Glamorgan player, not the man who at the time was a minister in Ted Heath’s government), Jim Laker and John Arlott. For anyone who doesn’t remember it, the John Player League’s reputation was built on a combination of artificially shortened bowlers’ runs, packed venues (which were very often club grounds) and pulsating matches. There was a whole match on BBC2 every Sunday afternoon. Until its lustre started to fade in the early eighties (which can be traced to the fact that more top-class sport was being played on Sundays and hence its television hegemony was lost) the John Player League was an absolutely central, wonderful, part of English sporting culture. The thought occurs, not for the first time, that it was Twenty20 before Twenty20 had been dreamt of.
I can recall precisely nothing of the action, but little reinforces the feeling of a bygone era more than the fact that the senior player on either side was a man generally known as MJK Smith, who was a former captain of England and who had made his first-class debut in 1951. Not only that, but, with his specs and his air of distracted academic diffidence, he now seems in the memory to exemplify the way the game was. Despite the billboards essentially advertising cigarettes (hard enough in itself to believe now), the ground, the stumps and the players’ clothes were white and unsponsored. I doubt if anyone, least of all the likes of David Brown, Norman McVicker or Bob Willis, did much diving or sliding in the field.
In the era of the IPL, of saturation international cricket, of Cricinfo and of Twitter, it seems like a different world. The distant past invariably does. Perhaps the best way to capture this is to reflect on the fact that if someone was then the age I am now and was reflecting on having seen his first match forty years earlier, he would have been talking about a match that took place in 1933, the summer after Bodyline.
Now that really makes you think.
Different Shades of Green, 30th June 2013