Being there: reflections on being part of the crowd

Cricket on television is a fine thing. To be able to watch action from across the world, all year round, with high definition cameras revealing every change in the bowler’s grip, every rotation of the ball, every movement of the bat. As armchair spectators we are spoilt. And when the pundits and analysis are good, the experience is further enhanced.

Yet television also takes something away. By its very nature it must make the experience uniform; the director controlling our eyes, the commentator telling us how to interpret the unfolding drama. That is all to be expected, but in recent years – and especially in this current World Cup – the cricket authorities appear to want to take the innate uniformity of the medium and control it. Every match, on every ground, is to be the same celebration of cricket. No dissent allowed, no negative thoughts – as Michael Holding’s disagreement with the ICC revealed – no dull matches can exist. Even the jollity of the crowd must be replicated at every stop  – cameras zooming in on likely looking groups of fans, prompted to cheer and wave on demand. A phenomenon touched on by @NickScribbler here.

How different from the actual experience of the spectator, which is far from uniform. Thousands of people at the same match having thousands of subtly different experiences, influenced by their seat position, their mood, their expectations, their companions, the strangers seated around them. It’s something I’ve been reflecting on while watching this particular tournament from my armchair. So please forgive the solipsism of a quick trip around my own experiences of being there. Five of them anyway:

Warne

A quarter of a century on and the memory is somewhat of a haze. I recall the train to Manchester, viewing the overcast skies with suspicion. Fortune was on our side and a short sprinkle of rain during the lunch interval was the worst received. A large crowd but not a full house; a smattering of empty seats here and there? Seems strange for an Ashes Test so perhaps I am mistaken. What does stick in the mind’s eye clearly are the exchanges between spectators: the Neighbours theme tune ringing out from a group of Englishmen, a few pints to the good, in a somewhat weak attempt to goad nearby Aussies; chants of “Sydney 2000” received in return – the Manchester 2000 Olympic bid was still a thing back then.

I remember a successful morning, with a tumble of Australian wickets and a promising partnership between Gooch and Atherton. Then, some time after lunch, with one opener gone, Gatting is at the crease, four runs to his name. The tannoy announces a bowling change. The sound doesn’t travel well and the name is muffled. “Who’s that coming on?” someone close by asks loudly. “Think it’s Steve Waugh” responds his friend.

Of course, it wasn’t. It was the new young blonde leggie from Victoria. On televisions around the world something special was witnessed – the ball drifting to leg, pitching and ripping past the bemused English number three, taking with it the off bail. But from the seats behind the cover boundary we were none the wiser. We’d seen a twirl of arms, the Aussies up in celebration and Gatting trudging off. The scoreboard said bowled but, for all we knew, he’d played around a straight one. We had no radio in the ear to enlighten and the big screen, at an angle, with sunlight falling on it, was all but useless.

I can’t remember when I finally saw what happened. Perhaps there were highlights that night, maybe on the coverage the next day. The ball of the century it was said. I was there, I was watching, but I didn’t see it.

Kirtley

Relocation to Sussex put me in handy striking distance of the County Ground. A Hampshire supporter from childhood, it was a chance to enjoy many a day’s cricket as a neutral. One of the first opportunities came with Sussex v Somerset in the, then, National League one day competition. I didn’t think I’d end the day punching the air as lustily as the dedicated Sussex locals around me.

The day started as it should – sunshine, beer, and good cricket. Murray Goodwin particularly impressive with the bat. As the Somerset reply began though, a day’s drinking began to have its effect on a small group of Somerset fans seated behind us, and one of them started to reveal an odious side. A bald loudmouth with a rubbish Liverpool FC tattoo on his arm sat shirtless, raining ignorance and abuse on the Sussex fielders. Alarmingly, he appeared to be in charge of a young boy – 10, 11 years old perhaps – who gleefully joined in the fun with his own string of startling obscenities, much to the amusement of his adult carers. In fact they seemed to find every shouted insult hilariously funny. When one barb towards Mohammad Akram crossed the line into racial abuse I, and others, turned to stare but nothing was said or action taken – a piece of regretful cowardice that stays with me today. I hope I would not stay silent now.

The effect was to – for a few hours at least – turn me into a vocal and heartfelt Sussex backer. The game was swinging Somerset’s way and it had become personal. I desperately did not want this oaf to have the pleasure of a win. Into the final over and the game was still in the balance – six needed for scores level, seven for a Somerset win. It was a new batsman – Andy Caddick – on strike; James Kirtley with the ball. Caddick could hold a bat, no doubt, and that’s where the wise money had to be.

Kirtley was having none of it and produced a brilliant final over. He didn’t try for the ‘pick n mix’ deliveries of yorkers, bouncers and different types of slower ball you’d see today. Just six good length deliveries, swinging and seaming. Six deliveries, six swishes of the bat, six balls carrying through to the wicket-keeper undisturbed.

I was up on my feet in full-throated celebration. How circumstance can drag you in.

[Important caveat: I’ve been to Taunton on several occasions and find Somerset supporters some of the most welcoming there are. Every team has its idiot.]

A Lord’s final

A chance to introduce a friend to the pleasures of a day at the cricket is always a satisfying experience. When it is at a Lord’s final for their home county, doubly so.

2012, the CB40 final. Hampshire versus Warwickshire, and I’m taking a Hampshire-born friend along to the cricket for the first-time. The sun is out, Lord’s is only half-full but still buzzing; if he doesn’t get bitten by the live-cricket bug here, he never will.

The cricket is good. Runs from Jimmy Adams and Sean Ervine posting a decent total, and a simply beautiful response of an innings by the ever-stylish Ian Bell. Yet, something isn’t right. We enjoy the beer and the conversation, but I sense he is not getting as drawn in to the competition as I am. I have a suspicion why – the seats. We’ve saved a few bob by getting tickets for the Edrich Lower and are sat at the back. It’s fine for me – I’m just focused on the action – but it doesn’t really give the full Lord’s-on-a-sunny-day experience. More like watching cricket through a large letter-box. Plus the crowd is pretty subdued down here, perhaps for the same reason.

We decide to chance our arm and join the massed Hampshire ranks on the upper stand. It’s full – at least the part we emerge into – so we hang around the back, trying not to look suspicious. A steward approaches, so we quickly move to the nearest vacant seats. The group seated behind inform us that we’ll probably be fine for the rest of the match as the family whose seats they were had departed after one of the children had an entire pint (accidentally) emptied on them.

The day is transformed. Lord’s opens up before us and the crowd is humming. It helps, of course, that the match goes down to the last ball – one run needed, the retiring Neil Carter on strike for the last time in his career, Kabir Ali with the ball, keeper Michael Bates standing up. A low full toss, a swing and a miss; typical superb glove-work by Bates doing the rest. The Hampshire faithful roar and, satisfyingly, my debutante friend is converted.

KP

Twenty years on from Warne’s ball to Gatting, I, and the friends who accompanied me in 1993, decide we must return to Old Trafford for the Ashes Test to mark the anniversary. A late decision mean that tickets have to come from a re-sale site and they are not cheap. Still, naively, I connect the overdraft-busting price with an expectation of a superior selection of seat.

I’m wrong. We’re in the cheap seats. The temporary construction which, these days, would be described as the ‘party stand’. It’s not a massive issue – for many years the cost of a Test Match ticket necessitated sitting in the rowdiest of stands and, with one exception (South Africa at Headingley 1994), had been a perfectly satisfactory, if noisy, experience.

It is probably the advance of age, but Manchester in 2013 proved the point when I could no longer be part of the party. Please don’t misunderstand, that Tests in England bring noise and celebration and fancy dress is great; I just can’t be part of it anymore. I want to watch the cricket too much.

There was no trouble, no aggression, no problems. It was just – as afternoon turned to evening – how incidental the cricket seemed to become for many of those around me. As the final session progressed, beer snakes were held aloft, men attempted to orchestrate Mexican waves, and the singing and dancing became constant. It was becoming difficult to concentrate on the field of play.

One moment sticks particularly. Kevin Pietersen was back on strike, having just moved to 96. A chance for an Ashes century, perhaps that very ball. All eyes are on the middle. Or, at least, they should be. As, with Mitchell Starc nearing the top of his mark, the man directly in front of me stands up, loudly declares “bar”, checks with each of his companions “beer? beer? beer? beer?”, and disappears off down the steps to the concourse. Starc delivers, KP lifts him over point and his century is secured. It would turn out to be his last for England. It would be my last in the party stand.

Cook

I must be something of a good luck charm for Alastair Cook. Every time I’ve been at a match and seen him bat, he has scored a galleon of runs. I could reminisce about seeing his double ton in the unusual environment of a day/night test, but I’ve already gone someway towards that here. I could have chosen his final Test innings; a memory that will last for a long time. Instead, it is his 95 at Southampton against India that remains the fondest memory.

The context was a bad winter and early summer for both England and its skipper. The team couldn’t win and Cook wasn’t scoring runs. No century to his name in over a year. The media were full of pundits calling for his head and Twitter seemed to be dominated by voices that would have happily pulled the plug on his captaincy and his Test career already.

My faith in the captain was undimmed but he needed to score some big runs soon. Heading to Southampton I wanted three things: a cracking day’s play, an England win and some Cook runs. My fear was that I would be watching amongst a group of spectators ready and waiting to pounce if the last of those did not happen.

I could not have been more wrong. As Cook took the field, the reception was one of the warmest I’ve experienced and it was repeated with even more gusto either side of lunch (48 not out) and tea (82 not out). When he fell five runs short of the century, there was a silent disbelief – so inevitable three figures had seemed – followed by a standing ovation of the sort usually reserved for match-winning innings.

What struck me most was how personal the reaction of the crowd had been. This was not a crowd routinely cheering its team and its leader; this was genuine warmth and goodwill towards a special cricketer. To a spectator, we wanted him to emerge from this slump and to do well. It wasn’t forced, it was a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, and it was very special. I suppose sometimes the experience does feel uniform, the crowd moving as one.

Being there. It’s an odd old thing.

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