We don't like cricket, we love it.

26 Aug

The GrangeDuring the last 30 years, whether as somebody playing, watching or writing about cricket, I have become wearily familiar with the lazy stereotypes and hackneyed generalisations which are often peddled by those who denigrate the sport. You know how the script goes: “It’s a toffs’ game” , or, heaven forbid “an English pursuit”. According to the people who spout these views, football is a pastime which unites the whole of Scotland, whereas cricket is synonymous with public schools and privilege.

Perhaps, therefore, it is overdue for those of us who love cricket to start fighting our corner with more passion, greater forcefulness, and less acceptance of simply wrong-headed views. From my perspective, it has so many qualities to commend it – and a history and heritage which extends from small mining communities and steelworks teams to Borders fastnesses and Gordonians and Grange - that it can truly argue it was, and is, founded on proper egalitarian values which are worth highlighting to the ignorant.

Ample confirmation of this stance will greet anybody who takes the trouble to visit Freuchie and survey, on the clubhouse wall, the photographs of such luminaries as Sir Ian Botham, Tom Graveney and David Gower supping ale in this Fife village, surrounded by a host of other, lesser-known individuals, whose contribution to the organisation’s cause during the past century can’t be underestimated. It’s this intermingling of the illustrious and the unheralded, the world traveller and the bucolic local hero, which typifies the best aspects of cricket history in Scotland: the former Australian captain, Kim Hughes, amassed a stack of runs as the professional at Watsonians, and returned to Myreside this summer; both halves of the formidable West Indian opening pair, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, have plied their trade for the former Scottish Cricket Union; and a Test-class group of stellar figures, including Rohan Kanhai, Terry Alderman, Malcolm Marshall, Bob Massie, Adam Gilchrist,  Clive Rice, Justin Langer and Rahul Dravid, have lent their lustre to an adopted country and been astonished at the depth of affection which exists for the sport throughout Caledonia – and has done since the 18th century.

That is one reason why it is exasperating to hear people still express surprise when Scotland are pitted against the Australians, for instance, as if cricket was a recent invention, north of the Border. On the contrary, it was thriving long before the SFA or SRU had come into being and Clydesdale could hardly have realised, when they created a winter team to maintain their player’s fitness in the off-season, that were giving birth to Glasgow Rangers FC. Yet, whatever the revisionists might claim, the cricketers were there first and they were parading their skills, regardless of class or background. Nor, mercifully, have the authorities in these parts had to grapple with sectarianism or racism, which have caused serious problems in other sports. Instead, there has always been an inclusive philosophy, without anybody obsessing over what school you attended.

So why don’t we bang the drum a little louder? And proclaim the rising participation numbers, the rapid spread of Kwik Cricket among the younger generation, the nurturing of a thriving women’s circuit, and the success of a club, such as Arbroath United, whose officials and precocious players have a genuinely refreshing attitude to making converts? Why don’t we meet the critics head-on and ask why they have a problem? Of course, they are perfectly at liberty to dislike cricket, but that doesn’t permit them to brand the vocation as “snobby” or “elitist”, And if you want any clearer illustration of why so many of us in Scotland cherish it so much, then the glorious summer’s day when the Australians came to Hamilton Crescent in 1989 should provide a few clues.

On the one hand, you had Allan Border, the tough-as-old-boots skipper of the baggy-green ensemble and such larrikins as Merv Hughes in the ranks; on the other, there were men in the mould of Bruce Patterson, Iain Philip and the Hibs goalkeeper, Andy Goram, who later represented Rangers and Scotland with distinction. 5000 fans packed into the arena and the atmosphere was electric. And while the Scots lost – against opponents who thrashed England that year – the occasion served up a cornucopia of vim and vignettes.

One of these memorably involved the clash between the aforementioned Goram and Hughes, whose brief encounter was akin to a scene from “High Noon”. The football star subsequently told me that it was something he would never forget and the gleam in his eyes, once he began talking about cricket, demonstrated the extent of his passion.

“Prior to coming to Scotland, I had no idea that cricket was such a big deal, but there again, why shouldn’t it be?” said Goram, who has worn the whites for a diverse collection of sides, including Penicuik, Uddingston, West Lothian and Freuchie. “I will always remember the buzz around the crowd when the Aussies came to Glasgow. I had been at the dinner with them on the Friday night, and we had all got on like a house on fire. Anyway, next day, when I walked to the crease, to this huge cheer from the crowd, Merv was bowling and I said “Hello” to him before I got ready to bat.

“I imagined that he would be the same genial guy from the previous evening and he certainly wouldn’t send down a bouncer first ball. Some hope! Sure enough, he dropped one short, it fizzed through the air and nearly took my head off. Then, when I looked up, he was standing directly in front of me, “You should have stuck to effing football, mate!”, he bellowed. “You’ll soon be wishing you were back at effing Easter Road.”

“But the thing is I am crazy about cricket and the money doesn’t matter, because the camaraderie and fun are so obviously wrapped up with the keen rivalry in the leagues. I began playing when I was 12 and I have never lost a fraction of the excitement and anticipation which cricket generates. There is no fighting, no real bad blood or anything like that. Just a bunch of lads who are nuts about the game on the pitch, enjoy a few beers and a chat in the clubhouse, and throw themselves into 100%, whatever the standard. People should be more proud of Scottish cricket – it has an awful lot going for it.”

Let’s rejoice and embrace that sentiment, rather than persist with a self-deprecating mindset or any apologies for being involved in a pursuit which excites, energises and evokes reverence in thousands of us in every part of Scotland. Inevitably, there are afternoons where not everything progresses smoothly and even whole summers – such as that of 2012 – where the rain casts a saturnine shroud over the domestic programme. But there are also plenty of other days and seasons where the game thrives, bolstered by a myriad of unpaid volunteers, scorerboard operators, sandwich makers, grass-cutters, part-time painters and heaven knows what else. And where an individual of Dravid’s class can cast his gaze over the Scottish environs and conclude that the sport is in rude health.

Dravid

“I had not remotely envisaged I would meet quite so many interested, knowledgeable, committed people, but from the far north to the extreme south, I have walked through club gates and the reaction has been amazing, from seven-to to seventy-year olds, from experienced officials to folk, who had obviously never been to a match before,” said Dravid, reflecting on his spell with the Saltires a decade ago. “From what I saw, the talent exists for Scotland to advance on the global stage. But, in my opinion, it is just as important that you look after the grassroots, where there is incredible enthusiasm.”

These words are important, become they spring from one of the most intelligent men on the international circuit. Yes, it might be that the Scots are in transition and it may be asking a lot for Kyle Coetzer and his compatriots to beat Michael Clarke’s personnel when the combatants square up at the Grange. But, of this I have no doubt: there will be no seedy underbelly to the contest, nobody betting against their own team, or creating headlines for all the wrong reasons. Instead, Coetzer – one of life’s inherently likeable characters, who has just become a father – will go out with the approach that he and his colleagues have got nothing to lose.

And besides, Scotland have already defeated the Aussies – back in the mists of time in 1882. Which is more than their football or rugby counterparts have ever managed against Brazil or New Zealand. Not many people outwith the cognoscenti are aware of that accomplishment. But that is because cricket aficionados tend not to toot their own horns.

Well, maybe we should, of only to dispel the prejudices and ill-informed comments.

We don’t like cricket, we love it, and we’re Scottish. And we are on the rise!

 

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