What is village cricket?
The cricket field itself was a mass of daisies and buttercups and dandelions, tall grasses and purple vetches and thistle-down, and great clumps of dark-red sorrel, except, of course, for the oblong patch in the centre – mown, rolled, watered – a smooth, shining emerald of grass, the Pride of Fordenden, the Wicket.’
Shortly after writing “England, Their England” more than 70 years ago, Archie Macdonell “awoke and found himself famous”. While we will never know precisely how pivotal a part chapter seven played in this transformation, Macdonell’s imaginary account of a cricket match between a Kent village and Mr Hodge’s visiting team from London remains a legendary piece of cricket literature.
It reflects its time, when England had recovered a measure of equilibrium after the Great War, and a mere six years before the country was plunged into another. For Macdonell himself, who became an author after being invalided out of the army, the idyllic picture he painted may have presented a felicitous contrast to some of his own experiences.
‘Blue and green dragonflies played at hide-and-seek among the thistle-down and a pair of swans flew overhead. An ancient man leaned upon a scythe, his sharpening-stone sticking out of a pocket in his velveteen waistcoat. A magpie flapped lazily across the meadows. The parson shook hands with the squire. The haze flickered. The world stood still.’
There have been subtle changes in the intervening years, but the broad purpose of village cricket remains the same: to be fun. This crucial trait is admirably – at times hilariously – conveyed in Macdonell’s ensuing description of the match. While there is no doubting the supreme status of Test cricket then as now, consider that his hook was published less than a year after the Bodyline tour of 1932/33, when the game in its upper echelons was far from fun. .
Macdonell was not the first to immortalise village cricket in literature. Charles Dickens’ account of the game between Dingley Dell and All Muggleton in “The Pickwick Papers” is briefer but no less empathic. Mr. Pickwick himself points out that to play such cricket, you do not necessarily need to be any good. ‘l, sir, am delighted to view any sports which may be safely indulged in, and in which the impotent effects of unskilful people do not endanger human life.’
Dickens sets the village scene: “A few boys were making their way to the cricket-field; and two or three shopkeepers who were standing at their doors, looked as if they should like to be making their way to the same spot, as, indeed to all appearance they might have done, without losing any great amount of custom thereby.” But unlike the splendid tie that concluded the Fordenden match: “Dingley Dell gave in, and allowed the superior prowess of All Muggleton”.
Village cricket conjures much in the imagination. A patch of land, perhaps in sight of a parish church, with a pub at hand, barrels charged for close of play. A duck pond, or river, into which a discerning, well-upholstered batsman can deposit the ball on the full. A rudimentary black scoreboard, decked by numbers on dented metal, less than pristine white paint on black. And even a copper beech inside the boundary; local rules apply if you hit it.
A smattering of easy chairs beyond the boundary edge for elderly, moustachioed spectators, the smoke from their pipes drifting lazily into the ether. Perhaps even the odd parasol in proper sunshine, and a picnic table here and there for those who are making a day of it. Maybe a rug or two as well, adorned by the delightfully curvaceous figures of the team members’ girlfriends. Enthusiastic wives (why so?), prepared to beaver away in rudimentary kitchens at the back of rickety pavilions to produce teas of varying standard, but almost invariably including cucumber sandwiches and cupcakes.
Above all, the sounds that are inseparable from the scenery. The quicker bowler’s grunt of self exertion, the consummate meeting of leather with willow, the whirr as the ball is propelled towards the boundary, the call for a run (and possibly the ensuing comedy), the thudding feet of the intervening fielder, and the appeals, their tones born of enquiry, bravado, or downright delight. Has much changed since Dickens’s time? In many respects undoubtedly so, depending by degree on how individual grounds are situated, and how villages have developed or declined. Certainly the present laws on drinking and driving have curtailed the after-match alcohol intake in places where home is more than walking distance away. The age of feminism has reduced the number of wives prepared to give up their Saturday afternoons to make tea, the quality of which may have declined (or conceivably improved) in consequence. Many attractive grounds have simply ceased to exist, built upon to cater for a growing population.
There has also been much development since Hambledon in Hampshire, the most famous cricket village of them all, was in its prime during the 18th century. Leagues have been formed, as has the national village knockout cup, the final of which is played at Lord’s every September. The Cornish village of Troon, which memorably won it twice in a row in 1972 and 1973, and again in 1976, shares the record of three wins with St. Pagans in Glamorgan, winners in 1981, 1982 and 1991. Linton Park, Marchwiel, Goatacre, Elvaston, Caldy and Shipton-under-Wychwood have each raised the trophy twice.
Cricket itself has changed enormously, and continues to evolve at a frenetic rate at first-class level. Villages too have altered, along with the comm unities living in them. But it is still perfectly possible to find village cricket played in much the same manner as described above.
A favourite cricketing tale concerns the ball, hit so hard and high that virtually every fielder fancied his chances of catching it. “Thompson’s catch, leave it for Thompson!” exclaimed the captain. The converging fielders spread once more, and the ball fell harmlessly to earth. Thompson was away on holiday. If that didn’t happen in a village, it jolly well should have done.