When we come to look at everyday leisure pursuits, it is natural to begin with a discussion of sport. The English are great lovers of competitive sports; and when they are neither playing nor watching games they like to talk about them, or when they cannot do that to think about them.
The game peculiarly associated with England is cricket.
Organized amateur cricket is played between club teams, mainly on Saturday afternoons. Nearly every village, except in the far north, has its cricket club, and there must be a few places in which the popular image of England, as sentimentalists like to think of it, is so clearly seen as on a village cricket field. A first-class match, as played between English counties, lasts for up to three days, with six hours' play on each day. The game is thus indeed slow, and a spectator, sitting in the afternoon sun after his lunch of sandwiches and beer, may be excused for having a little sleep for half an hour.
Cricket is a game impossible to describe to foreigners and they are usually unable to appreciate it. It is at times not so much a game as a kind of dignified public ritual performed by twenty-two men in white flannels and two stationary old gentlemen in white coats who are the umpires. The basis of the game is that one man stands in front of three sticks or "stumps" (known as "the wicket") armed with a bat. Twenty-two yards in direct line from him stands a fellow member of his team also with a bat in his hand and a wicket behind him. The other nine members of their team are lying about in the pavilion either watching or sleeping. Nine of the eleven members of the opposing team are disposed about the field and said to be "fielding". One of the remaining two is bowling the ball at the man with the bat with the object of hitting the wicket or causing the batsman to strike the ball in such a way that one of the men in the field can catch it. When either of these things happens, the batsman is "out" and gives place to another member of his team, and so on until all eleven of the team have batted. The batsman can also be "out" as a result of the activities of the eleventh member of the opposing team, the wicket keeper. This individual, heavily padded about the legs and hands stoops down behind the wicket waiting for an opportunity to catch the ball or to hit the wicket with it. Despite his many anxieties about the wiles of the bowler, the wicket keeper and the fielders, the batsman's main task is to hit the ball a very long way and to run to and from between the wickets while the fielders are desperately endeavouring to retrieve it. The side which scores most such "runs" wins the game.
This may sound complicated enough, but it is only a beginning. We dare not stop to explain exactly how the batsman who is at the other wicket helps the batsman who is facing the bowler. Nor is it possible to explain fully why it always seems that when the bowler has bowled six times to the batsman the game then appears mysteriously to dissolve into a slow white-flannelled ballet. To say that this is because we have reached the end of an "over" and that another bowler must now bowl at the other wicket but not necessarily at the other batsman is to pay but little attention to the fact that all the fielders take up entirely new positions at the same time. Nor dare we try to explain why, when a left-handed batsman comes in to bat, the fielders have to redispose themselves every time he faces the bowler. Only a cricketer, too, is capable of telling you which fielder is fielding in the position known as "extra cover", which at "mid-off", and which at "silly mid-on". Only the English know which are the particular solemn moments in every game when it is "done" to clap decorously - such as at the conclusion of "a maiden over", which is an over off which the batsman has scored no runs. Then it is correct - and inevitable - to clap the bowler. When a batsman's score reaches fifty he is clapped. When the side as a whole reaches fifty there must be more clapping. When a ball is fielded skilfully, that fact is also clapped to the accompaniment of restrained scattered exclamations of "Well fielded". (In very exalted circles they say "Well fielded, sir" because one of the cardinal principles of cricket is that all real cricketers are gentlemen.) Equally ritualistic is the pause when a batsman is out. His wicket is a long way from the pavilion, but he does not run back. He walks - slowly. The batsman who is to replace him shows no unnecessary eagerness to begin his own "innings". He also walks - slowly. Meanwhile the fielders have mostly fallen flat on their backs and appear to have detached themselves in body and spirit from the whole affair. When the new batsman arrives in front of the wicket ("at the crease") he takes up his position in slow motion. He glances round at the fielders as they slowly once more take up an upright position, and carefully notes just where they are placed. He takes his cap off and puts it on again. He looks round at the wicket keeper behind him. He prods the ground with his bat. He asks the white-jacketed umpire at the other end to indicate to hirn whether he is holding his bat in a central position in front of the wicket. Meanwhile the bowler pulls up his sleeves, throws the ball casually up in the air two or three times and like the crowd - waits.
If it is appreciated that there is an interval for lunch and another for tea, and that the game may be interrupted, stopped - or indeed never even started - because of rain, it will be supposed that cricket is a slow if not tedious pastime. Yet although it does not attract such large crowds as football it is as much the dominating feature of the summer calendar as football is of the winter. The important games are those for the Country Cricket Championship. There is no relegation or promotion and no knock-out cup.* There is merely a series of three-day matches throughout the summer between the "first class" county teams. In addition, under the auspices of the Marylebone Cricket Club (the M. C. C.). Test Matches are played between a team representing England and teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, I the West Indies, India and Pakistan. Most summers see I tests played with one or other of these teams, and during most winters the M. C. C. sends teams to play in their countries. I Test Matches with Australia either in England or Australia are the outstanding cricket games. Whichever country wins most of the five tests is said to be in possession of "The Ashes".**
* (A knock-out competition was started in 1963.)
** (The term originated with a mock epitaph for English cricket published in the Sporting Times, after Australia had beaten England by seven runs at Kennington Oval, 1882. This ended: "The body'will be ciremated and the ashes taken to Australia." In the following winter an urn containing ashes was presented to a successful England team in Australia; now kept in the pavilion at Lord's Ground, London, the headquarters of English cricket. (From The Waverley Encyclopaedia).)
In spite of its being a team game, cricket produces more I individual heroes than football. The names of the two most j successful batsmen in cricket history, the bearded Dr W. G. Grace of our grandfathers' days and Jack Hobbs, who was in his prime in the 1920's, are household words in England: and perhaps even those who cannot understand cricket might be moved to a less hostile opinion of the game if they had ever seen the hardly less famous Frank Woolley in action, for he brought to the practice of batsmanship an ease and grace that made an art out of a game of skill.
In the less conservative north there is a great deal of "league cricket" between local teams, played mostly at weekends. These teams often employ professionals of the highest standard and on the whole play faster cricket. But county cricket still retains its position as "first class" cricket and tries very hard to forget the rather shaming fact that if county clubs did not receive part of the entrance fees paid by spectators at test matches most of them would be bankrupt. All the counties now rely on paid professional cricketers as the mainstay of their team, but tradition requires that some "amateurs" (i. e. unpaid cricketers) must be included and also that the captain must be an amateur. This applies also to an All-England eleven. Every year there are one or two matches between all-amateur and all-professional teams: and significant of the survival of antique snobbery is the fact that the matches are known as games between "Gentlemen" and "Players" - the amateurs of course being the "Gentlemen". But the distinction should not be taken too seriously. As a kindly commentator said, "The match is between 'Players' and 'Gentlemen' but all the Gentlemen are players and all the Players are gentlemen."
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