The Writings of Ingrid Pitt

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England Their England

From Agincourt to cricket on the beach - Ingrid Sees England at its best.
England Their England by A.G. Macdonell

Original cover of England Their England by A.G. Macdonell

As a late convert to cricket I guess my viewpoint must be substantially different from most of its devotees. The Summer Sundays of my childhood were not spent defending three bits of flotsam, stuck in the sand, with a suitably shaped piece of jetsam, so even now the rules seem a little exotlc.

My first exposure to English summer madness came in 1968 when I was over here for the first time to make "Where Eagles Dare". Clint Eastwood expressed surprise that any game could be played for five days and then be declared a draw so arrangements were made for interested members of the cast to spend a day at Lords. My father had been up at Oxford around the turn of the century and used to tell tales of what the English did with their Summer afternoons. It was a bit like Tom Lehrer"s story of Sir Walter Raleigh ringing his agent and telling him about tobacco and was always good for a laugh. The chance to see the teams in action was too good to miss so I got myself invited. Clint had to stay in Austria for some reason or other but our host appeared only a little disappointed when I turned up for the treat. I didn’t see much cricket. Most of the time was spent in the bar. It was a mammoth non-event as far as I was concerned but I do remember thinking how sexy the players looked in their virginal white playsuits.

Harold Gimlett

Gimlett the man

By the time Kerry Packer had burst on the scene and tried to deck the teams out in more sexually significant colours I was living in England and married to a Somerset man - a school mate, separated by a few years, of Harold Gimlett, no less. Summer days, when the crows were high in the trees and the motorway was only a deep-throated roar in the background, I would stake out my deckchair and yell encouragement or give friendly advice until I was gently informed that a polite ripple and a sotto voce 'well played' would have the desired effect. Now I'm as quiet as a snick through the slips. Only occasionally, in the presence of a particularly brilliant six by Viv Richards or an incisively descriptive gesture by Mike Gatting, do I let my Slavonic side out of the bag and show that my conversion is only superficial.

In the last few years I have made a few inroads into the practical side of the game. Chris Chrisafis, executive producer of such stiff upper lip epics as 'Sea Wolves', 'Wild Geese' and 'Who Dares Wins', was responsible for filling in some of the gaps in my education. On Sunday afternoons he would gather together enough bodies to make a couple of makeshift teams. After a barbeque lunch and a dip in the pool there was a ritual selection of teams, a pitch was marked out and implements supplied. Chris was all for more realism and nipped down to Lillywhites and purchased full size cricket bats and genuine, leather clad, balls. Gently it was pointed out to him that, as the majority of the team consisted of pre-teen kids and renegades from the Swinging Sixties, it might be a reasonable concession to use a soft ball.

He wasn't easily persuaded but we threatened to go on strike if he didn't see sense and he grudgingly gave way.

A few Sundays of that and I was really ‘au fait' with the finer points - like doing a W.G.Grace and refusing to step aside just because some idiot had scattered the bails.

W G Grace

W G Grace and a straight bat.

It was also about this time that I was pointed in the direction of A.G.Macdonell's dissertations on "England, Their England'. The general story of a Scot studying the English I found mildly funny but, as it seemed to take place in an England I didn"t recognise, it was a bit hard going. Until I came to the chapter on the cricket match. Nothing has changed! In spite of Packer and his rainbow men, one day matches and protective helmets, cricket on the green is still the hallmark of England at its best. Until a foreigner recognises that, he doesn't understand the English character.

Years ago my first husband, an American, tried to interest me in baseball. I went to matches, listened to discussions and did my best to become a convert. Trouble is that baseball is a simple game made difficult. The ball is thrown to be hit. If the striker can't hit it he's out. In cricket the ball is bowled to be missed and if the batsman gets in the way he gets hurt. I thought was well demonstrated in the Larwood saga of ‘Bodyline”. At that time, it seems to me, the Aussies, as a civilised nation, were in a state of flux. Without a true identity of their own they were tending towards an American way of life. Nothing wrong with that except where cricket was concerned. They felt the ball should aimed where they could hit it. In that they were superb, as their chief exponent, Don Bradman, forcibly showed. The gritty Brits knew that for all its elegance and grace, the ancient game of cricket is just an extension of Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo, Tobruk and the London Underground in the rush hour. Since then the Aussies have discovered themselves as a nation, taken the corks off their hats and played the game with commendable verve.

I suppose the only aspect of cricket I find off-putting is the tendency in recent years for the batsmen to hide behind a wall of protective padding.

I put my point to Graham Barlow, of Middlesex and England fame

Harold Gimlett - the biography

Harold Gimlett - the biography

Graham's usual demeanour is of a happy-go-lucky playboy. In spite of suffering agony from some form of arthritis he still strenuously worked out to keep himself in tip-top shape. My suggestion that modern cricketers were a bit limp wristed and couldn’t compare with such eminences as Freddy Trueman, the Close’s, Alec and Eric, Denis Compton, Len Hutton and the like brought forth a justification spiel which made me more cautious about airing this particular observation in the future. It’s a shame though. What can be more stirring to the blood than watching Botham, habitual sneer in place, lofting balls into the stands and keeping the pitch damp with frequent expectorations to the poppy crease- sans helmet? Or Malcalm Marshallsymbolically polishing the ball on the reddening front of his pristine whites? And what about the saintly Gower? Blond, blue-eyed. A body made for delphic dancing. And such a sweetie. I once button holed him at a party and ran on about my obsession with cricket and he smiled and nodded. It wasn"t until I tried to wangle an invitation to the next test at Lords that he developed interests elsewhere. He got sacked shortly after that. That'll teach him I thought, but here he is, back again, strolling to the crease with the svelte of a bolero dancer and the hair of a Marcell model.

My interest in the game hasn't lapsed although I must admit to a tendency to nostalgia. Not first hand nostalgia but a sort of second hand longing. I suppose, predictably, the man who gets to me most is Denis Compton. I'm sure the scratchy old newsreel pictures don't do him justice but to see him nipping down the wicket on twinkle toes to crack a ball back over the head of the bowler or sweep a ball to leg, one knee on the ground, brings out the goose pimples.

I hope I'm wrong but, at the moment, there doesn't seem to be anyone of his ilk about. Poor old Diddy Gower does his best. Gatting is – Gatting. There doesn’t seem a lot of steam left in Botham’s boiler - pictures of him flexing his pectorals and promises of a leaner more dedicated Botham conjures up a Boring Botham rather than a phoenix clutching the Ashes.

But, let's not forget our manners. As a guest invited to the game I mustn't complain. Along with cops without guns, a Prime Minister castigated for her resilience and success, cars on the wrong side of the road, the rapidly disappearing red telephone box, water shortages in the middle of a deluge and the sexiest men in the world, cricket is the lynch-pin that holds together and makes England the only country worth living in.

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt