I'll Take Manhattan - Sean McPartlin

28 Oct

Cricket Scotland blogger Sean McPartlin give us his latest offering after a trip to New York City. 

Taking the autumn sun on Sheep Meadow in New York’s Central Park last month, I found myself thinking of Douglas Jardine – as you do. 

You might well wonder at the connection between the unfortunate man who skippered England during the infamous Bodyline Series and the green spaces of the Big Apple. The answer, as it always is with cricket, is convoluted but eventually obvious, I hope! 

Though born in Bombay, Jardine was generally regarded as a Scot, and spent his school holidays in St Andrews with his aunt. In county cricket circles, it is to be supposed that his taciturn nature and ruthless attitude to the game were seen, when necessary, as “Scottish” rather than “English” traits. Whatever the reasons, he was always regarded as something of an outsider. 

The argument continues over whether Jardine should bear full responsibility for the ‘leg theory’ tactic, or if  the MCC and its officials have a share of blame for permitting it. 

What is certain is that, once the telegrams started flying round the world, the whole situation was exacerbated and became more complicated. In a sense, telegrams were the 1930s equivalent of Twitter. There was little space for niceties and the tone could be misleading. Add to that the mood amongst cricket administrators and, eventually, the governments in each country, and you had a recipe for diplomatic disaster involving ‘colonial superiority’ and ‘bad loser’ hosts. 

It seems that when politics and cricket mix, there is generally only one loser, as we  have seen in various spots around the world. 

These thoughts came to me in New York because, on a previous visit, I had been delighted to learn of the existence of an NYPD Cricket League. It involved, mostly, members of the immigrant community and they played games in various parts of the city – mostly in Queens and Brooklyn. Each time I visit the city, I look out for their progress, so I was saddened to find an  online discussion wondering if the police outreach department had organized the league for the purposes of monitoring the communities rather than the love of the game. The possibility had caused some rancour and the leagues were suffering as a result. 

I sometimes think cricket can be seen as a game which is often run by the establishment but played by the rest of us; frequently, the approaches fail to mesh. Maybe that’s what makes it so fascinating? 

In the early days of Broadhalfpenny Down, the ‘Toffs’ enjoyed a wager on the game, but employed their valets, farmworkers or grooms to sweat the honest work of bowling, fielding and run making. I’m sure the landowners’ view of what was ‘cricket’ was not always shared by the horny handed sons of toil! 

In that Bodyline series, Jardine was an ‘outsider’, and Larwood, of the Notts mining community, a far cry from the hooped caps of I-Zingari. When we consider the last fifty years of the game, many of the names which come to mind are from outwith the ‘gilded circle’ in origins or behaviour. 

Close, Trueman, Hutton, Washbrook and Boycott were tolerated for their pre-eminence, but were generally considered too northern’ or ‘blunt’ to gain full acceptance. Phil Tufnell was probably too ‘southern’ and Derek Randall too ‘fun loving’ to make the establishment grade, whilst Tony Greig was too controversial, I guess – and then we come to  Kevin Pietersen. 

It’s not just a case of ‘origins’, though: Allan Lamb and  Basil D’Oliveira  seemed to display the required ‘qualities’ – but,  as writer and  former  player, Ed Smith, has noted, Pietersen’s problems seemed to stem from the fact that “he didn’t love cricket but rather what the game could bring him”, possibly making him uncomfortably similar to the occasional administrator! 

It’s a difficult circle to square, because, as in all sport, cricket thrives on the streak of rebellion, the capacity to innovate or take a risk, the careful balance of individual versus team. I suppose you could view the weight of the rule book as the ballast for the ship of genius bobbing on an unpredictable sea of opinionated ideas. 

Of course, if you are a cricket nut, you don’t go to see cricket, or watch it,  you carry the game around with you – everywhere – even in New York. The design for Sheep Meadow was entitled ‘Greensward’ and the performance area in one corner is called “Rumsey Play area” – though it’s a long way from the broad beamed Fred’s military medium  achievements. 

Whatever - Sheep Meadow  is a lovely place to relax in warm sunshine – perhaps with a book. You could do worse than Joseph O’Neil’s 2008 prize winning novel, “Netherland” – which tells of a Dutchman’s attempt to connect with New York post 9/11, when playing cricket with the Staten Island Cricket Club. 

And Douglas Jardine and his Scottish background? 

Well, Sheep Meadow was so called because, originally, sheep grazed on it. The practice was discontinued, the year after the “Bodyline” series,  in 1934, during the Depression, as the authorities were afraid that the presence of the  flock might suggest there was indeed such a thing as a ‘free lunch’. 

The sheep were moved across the river to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. 

I guess you could call it the Manhattan Island Clearances…….


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