In June this year, I headed to the Old Blighty to soak in as much of the summer’s sporting action – well, mostly cricket – as possible. It was novel in multiple aspects – the experience at the grounds, the crowds and their various states, running into cricketers like they were civil citizens and not royalty, the contrast from home was stark. And yet, so much about the game – and this is why we love it game so much – made you feel at home. Rasping cover drives, 300+ run chases, and even a track that evolved into a spiteful turner.
In this two part tour diary, I recount by two month old experiences – cricket and otherwise – over the course of that memorable week.
Arrive at the Heathrow and step out. Android welcomes you by erasing Whatsapp history on sensing a geography change. A new, “UK” version is installed, and off I go. The first thing I notice is the level of customization of everything for handicapped people. Signs everywhere and for everything.
Clear immigration and head to the Punjabi climes of the London Tube. As we cross the suburbs, there is increasing chatter in Hindi and Tamil, as more and more people get in.
No standing in the train though, not yet. “Off-peak” hours – Delhi would want to know what that means. While on Delhi, a sizeable crowd gets down on the Piccadilly Line’s Green Park station. I sheepishly wonder if AIIMS and Rajiv Chowk are coming next.
At Hammersmith station, Jason Roy and Eoin Morgan are spotted, in that trademark “folded hands with elbow facing you” pose, grinning from a hoarding, endorsing the NatWest T20 Blast. It is a tournament I was keen to watch, but did the more English thing (or is it?) by choosing the long form County Championship. It is a decision I know I wouldn’t regret, save for the weather playing spoilsport. Fingers crossed.
It is only two days before the ODI at the Oval, and the series has already started with an unprecedented 400+ score from England. Right after the World Cup, as this was trip was being drawn out, watching McCullum’s New Zealand was on the top on my list of things to do.
Pick up the London Pass, see more familiar names there, where I used to own a few houses and hotels. In Monopoly, anyway. Head down to The Strand, where I catch Jim Dale perform. The comedy makes me laugh out loud, and I immediately get cold stares from the black-hatted London upper class, who only seem to applaud in unison, for everything. I continue, though, as I realize I’m the only one in a full-sleeved casual jacket, as opposed to the prim and ‘propah’ Englishmen around.
Walk to Trafalgar Square and catch a young band perform to end the day. TV crews and cameras are housed here all the time, as I would discover over the next couple of days.
The day in-between, if you will. One of the recurring themes of the trip is how much people read on the go – newspapers, Kindle, paperbacks, you name it. This is partly due to enough space to sit and stand on public transport, I imagine. As peak hour traffic hits, though, I notice people crunched for space listening to NPR, WNBC Radio and The Bugle on their phones. Content consumption, as they say. Wolfing it down here.
A lady holds a Waterstones cover with a magazine inside. “Click and Collect” are the words on it. The future is here, it seems.
Read a print edition of the Guardian. Check. Visit Windsor Castle and watch the Changing of the Guard. Check.
Westminster Abbey. Check. Thames unlimited cruise experience. Bonus check.
Onwards, match day.
A bit of early morning outrage to start the day, as I pick up the Telegraph and read a column criticizing Manchester United and pandering to a Liverpool audience. Or so I think, anyway. A little shot of happiness, seeing how fatter the sports supplements are compared to the showbiz section. Priorities right, gentlemen.
The Oval. No magnificient first sight or anything. Middle of the urban jungle, amid a residential area. Big sixes could fall on Londoners walking or on their rooftops.
Bunch of reporters discuss Jos Buttler’s innings from Edgbaston as they alight from the Tube.
Matt Prior has just retired the day before, and he’s the first former cricketer I see as I settle into my seat. Straight away, he’s snuck in and looks dapper in a grey suit. A word on the ground here, though. As pretty as television makes it look. The gasometer is there, to my right, as the Laker stand fills up slowly. Men taking turns to watch Morgan through their binoculars, as he dispatches a few throwdowns from Mark Ramprakash. A few tens of sandwiches have been consumed already.
My neighbour for the day arrives, and asks his friend if he wants some “Beeaaah? Laaagaaah?”. They discuss Ian Botham cartoons from the ’80s, specifically this “11 Bothams” one by Simon Bond. They also talk of a time when men were dressed as Nuns and as “Cheesus”, giving away wine and cheese to everyone. Kevin Pietersen, fielding at the boundary, was offered the same, and said, “Can’t have the wine, pass the cheese please”, and had a bite between two deliveries. Stuff of online forum legend, these anecdotes.
The Sky-BBC TMS commentary pod has been bought, at a slightly expensive 10 Pound price. It isn’t, given you can keep it for a year at all International fixtures. But for me, here for a single game, it pinches the pocket a bit. An hour later, Bumble on air reminds me why it’s all worth it, as he starts singing, “We dint staaaart the faaayaaah”. The whole commentary box erupts into laughter and is lost for words. Ian Smith’s “Oh Bumble Bumble, anytime, anywhere” sums it up. I quickly focus my 20x zoom camera towards the diagonally opposite commentary box, only to see a faint silhouette of Smith. The camera’s done well.
Predictably, as the lager seeps in, talk of the Ashes starts in bursts, across the Laker stand. New Zealand have posted a 300+ total. Kane, ably assisted by Ross Taylor, puts in yet another shift. The camera, by now, is out of charge. I sneak into the Surrey Cricket Club shop, only to find overpriced souvenir everywhere. I happily settle for some literary gold – and coincidentally the least expensive item on the shelves – David Frith’s history of the Guildford Cricket Club, yet another idyllic, bucolic setting in the countryside, and quite possibly, the actual origin of the game itself, in the history of mankind – Kreckett, as they used to call it, back in the 1500s.
Paul Nixon – oh, he of 2007 World Cup and ICL vintage, is down behind the stands, at a sponsor event for the ECB. A few Englishmen take pictures, introducing themselves and discussing random Leicestershire memories. There is no hustle, just a few pictures taken, as the crowd sips more lager and laugh at some of the questions. A kid asks Nixon to show him the ideal wicketkeeper’s routine. Nixon, in turn, makes all of us repeat after him. 15 squats later, I need a sandwich, desperately.
Walk around the ground’s periphery, only to discover Roy and Hales plugging away at the target, from the delayed Sky feed under the OCS Stand. As an outsider, adore the discipline of a half-inebriated crowd to not move in and out of stands during the over. Rush back to seat as drinks are taken. Trent Boult gets a loud cheer, along with Captain Baz, wherever he moves. Has there been a more loved side from Down Under to visit these shores?
Twilight passes, and the Oval, bathed in sunshine is a sight to behold. The skyline seems an afterthought, as Morgan’s nimble feet and quick hands ensure England seem quite unlike their World Cup selves already.
It starts raining as the day ends, and Oasis rings through the ground. The crowd croons to Wonderwall, as beer snakes make their way through stray, uninterested men with wry, kids-these-days smiles. Rashid and Plunkett try, but England can’t get there. What a day of cricket this has been. A potential thriller only ruined by the weather. Can’t get more English, eh?
A sighting of Mark Nicholas as he throws serious questions at Morgan, followed by friendly old banter after going off air. A few laughs, and they are all gone. All I’m left with is a Kiwi swearing at Sky for blocking his view of the presentation ceremony. “Didn’t pay a hundred quid for that”. Can’t argue against him there.
A dog on the train, with a couple who’ve trained him to travel with them everyday. Resist the temptation to imagine that scene in Gurgaon. You’ve been a good host so far, England.
To be continued…