January 5, 2017

Skating to midwicket, hiking to long-off

There's nothing quite like playing cricket in an unusual venue to reacquaint yourself with the essence of the sport

Cricket on ice: practise your slide © Danny Martindale

Cricket is a game so mired in tradition that sometimes it's the unexpected match that reminds one of its true beauty.

During practically every game of Sunday cricket, one of the younger members of the batting side is sent out to umpire with strict instructions from their captain regarding sportsmanship, even-handedness and honesty: "Now remember, with an lbw shout, just take a deep breath, count to five, consider all the possibilities and then... give it not out." Cricket, by dint of its astonishingly reactionary nature, has a "say no first, contemplate perhaps maybe having a flirtation with indulging in some independence of thought later" attitude towards change. And yet, for all its "I'm sorry, sir, but you appear unencumbered by any hint of a patterned silk neck ornament" punctiliousness, it is difficult to imagine a game that is played in a greater range of circumstances or on a greater variety of surfaces than cricket.

From the shifting sands of Godwin to the minutely manicured strips at Lord's, via (or so I'm told) the car parks of Beirut, cricket can be played anywhere, and it often is. It is indicative of cricket's downright perversity that for all its suffocatingly comfortable swaddling in tradition, when it does go off-piste, to mix my sporting metaphors, it does so in style. Cricket doesn't finesse the cover drive, it switch-hits.

Cricket as a game is fractal in nature, inasmuch as, just like Mandelbrot's visual representations of these mathematical things, it is self-similar: at every level of magnification it displays the same quirks. The cricket we play on the beach may appear to the casual observer to hail from an entirely different universe to the cricket played over the five days of a Test match at Lord's or the MCG, but to those who know the game, the essence, the very cricket-ness of cricket is constant from the one to the other - what Plato would have termed the ideal form.

It is for this reason - that while cricket appears to require so much accuracy, so much precision in preparation, its essence is true throughout - that when it is played in unlikely places it is both shocking and profoundly comforting. Unheimlich, as Freud would have said.

Writer EV Lucas wrote on a game played on January 17, 1891 by teams that included luminaries such as ex-Sussex wicketkeeper Harry Phillips. It was, perhaps, a little early for a pre-season warm-up, and certainly a little cold, but this game was notable not for the time of year, nor for the venue, as Sheffield Park was, at the time, quite the destination for touring teams - it was, after all, Lord Sheffield of Sheffield Park who presented the Sheffield Shield to the Australians, and they've been fighting over it ever since - but for the surface on which it was played. It may have been at Sheffield Park but it wasn't on the cricket ground: it was on the lake. Of course, the lake was frozen at the time.

Cricket was often played on ice. I say often, but of course I mean several times. Clumber Park, Horsted Keynes and Cuckfield also played host to cricketers on ice. At Sheffield Park, some of the players donned skates, while others wrapped their feet in cloth in the hope of achieving greater traction. It's not altogether clear that either tactic proved entirely successful. The match was abandoned after tea (the batting side having amassed 109 for 7, not including extras, which were written down on the scorecard as "innumerable"), but that was enough time to allow Lucas to make several key observations regarding the rather unconventional surface, not least that "cricket on the ice demands pirouetting".

Lucas wrote* this rather delightful description of how play was different on ice:

"In summer, the batsmen, in running, just touch the popping crease with the tip of their bats and hurry back again; in winter they shoot a dozen yards past the bowling crease, beat the ice with their feet, wave their arms round their heads, plunge their bodies backwards and forwards, and then start for the other wicket ... cricket on the ice is more exciting than cricket on the turf."

A few years later, in 1894, the same Lord Sheffield whose lake had been so sorely tested found himself aboard the Lusitania as it bobbed gently up and down the fjords near Spitzbergen. It was August, and Lord Sheffield, accompanied by his de facto secretary, Alfred Shaw, the Nottinghamshire professional and bowler of the very first ball in Test cricket, hit upon the idea of an impromptu innings, on deck, under the midnight sun.

The highest level of the game - 5752 metres, to be precise © AFP

Shaw later recalled the event**, which quite possibly included one of the finest spells of bowling in history:

It was Lord Sheffield who suggested a cricket match at this weird hour and amongst these eerie surroundings. The idea was promptly taken up by all on board. Wickets were pitched, a ball improvised, and at a quarter to twelve on the night of August 12, 1894, this strange game commenced. Of course, I had to bowl, and Lord Sheffield opened the batting. Between a quarter to twelve and half-past twelve, I had bowled out practically all the gentleman passengers and officers, certainly forty persons all told.

Shaw fails to explain what was used for a bat, which leads one to the inevitable speculation that either he or his boss was in the mould of Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin, and never left home without a stout piece of willow, just in case. This, of course, gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "he carried his bat".

Fast forward 120 years, and a flippant remark about there only being one way David Harper would ever play cricket at the highest level led to his herding a cast of luminaries and ne'er-do-wells, including Heather Knight, Makhaya Ntini, Claire Connor and Ashley Giles up Kilimanjaro in order to play the highest ever game of cricket, in the crater of this dormant volcano, 5752 metres above sea level. Mindful, perhaps, of the problems of playing on less-than-generous surfaces, a roll-up wicket was taken, along with official spectators, to ensure that it was a "real" game. Harper's inspirationally potty idea was not played simply for fun, however, as the weather-shortened game raised almost £180,000 for charities, including the Rwanda Cricket Stadium appeal.

So much for non-traditional venues. Every year, in Brighton, I play a game on Christmas morning along with another 20-odd hardy souls. It's invariably rather chilly, somewhat on the muddy side, and with an outfield that redefines the word "lush", ringed by a cycle track replete with inappropriately clad, scowling cyclists hell-bent for lycra. We're wrapped up to our eyeballs and the innings break is taken up by thawing fingers on hot mince pies. The wicket won't take pace or spin, there's no appreciable bounce, even less carry, and there's an awful lot of slipping and sliding. Definitely a toss to win. And yet, for all this, it's quite the perfect game. Why? Because, at its heart, the game only resembles cricket in terms of its attitude. You see, if you strip away the fripperies, all that's left is the spirit of the game. On the ice, under the midnight sun, halfway up Kilimanjiro, on Christmas morning: it's the closest you're ever likely to get to the ideal form of cricket.

Happy New Year to all.

*E. V. Lucas, 'Cricket on the ice', in All in a Day's Cricket, ed. Brian Levison (Constable, 2012)

**Alfred Shaw and EV Lucas as quoted in Cricket in the Park: the Life and Times of Lord Sheffield 1832-1909, by Roger Packham (London: Methuen, 2009)

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nerk on January 8, 2017, 22:49 GMT

    Top notch article. Enjoyed immensely.

  •   Gulu Ezekiel on January 6, 2017, 8:55 GMT

    A game of cricket was last year played in a coal mine, the lowest depth ever I believe

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