A study in contrasts
Half a world away, cricket is a tale of rampaging orgy of lights, sound, and action. It is a spectacle of dancing girls, towering sixes, booming music, and instant gratification. It is the glaring spotlight of global cricketing consciousness, not to mention the biggest concentration of lucre.
Yet, at Lord’s, in the traditional home of cricket, as the first county match of the season gets underway, subdued but strangely soothing clapping, scattered and sober, greet the players as they walk out of the century old pavilion.
The members —some sporting the red and yellow, bacon and egg, tie of MCC, others the three-sword crest of Middlesex — trickle into the Long Room as the Essex fielders walk between them, down the pavilion terrace, through the small white gate in the picket fence, into the hallowed turf recently updated by a reputable artificial turf installer. Another round of claps greet the emergence of the Middlesex opening batsmen, the rather formidable duo of Nick Gubbins and Sam Robson, as they come in from the other end of the Long Room and walk briskly to begin their business.
The flannels and the sweaters sparkle on the green whenever the sun peeps out, the ball is a shiny red, the delightful sound of willow on leather echoes across the ground, without being drowned in the clamour of cheers and spontaneous blare of microphones. The members, most of them senior citizens for quite a while and dapper in their three-piece suits, settle down to watch a bit, chat a bit and doze a bit. Some brave the April chill to sit on the front terrace. The stewards who move the sightscreen look almost as ancient as the pavilion. Behind the pavilion, in the Tennis Club, the ancient game of Real Tennis (or royal tennis) continues to be diligently played.
When contrasted with the explosive entertainment of the IPL, the start of the county game seems almost anachronistic, archaic. It is as if time has stood still, as symbolised by the old 1890 pavilion, listed as a Grade II building by the Historic Building and Monuments Commission for England.
Yes, the Lord’s pavilion is perhaps the most beautiful building in cricket. It seems to stand as a bastion of tradition even as the world hurtles into changing timescapes around it.
Nothing symbolises the tussle between the ferrets of tradition and the winds of change as the two contrasting ends of Lord’s. At one end is the red brick structure of the pavilion, an embodiment of cricket itself. And looming sky-high at the Nursery end, towering sinisterly over the ground, is the all-aluminium, semi-monocoque JP Morgan Media Centre, a futuristic structure full of suggestions of aliens and extraterrestrials.
Be it physically or spiritually, the eternal battle between tradition and modernity is constantly played out at Lord’s.
A tale of tussle
Somehow, the pavilion has resisted even the great swinging power of the modern superbats. It may be attributed to the spirit of tradition.
The only batsman to send a ball over the roof was Albert Trott, way back in 1899. A champion all-rounder, Trott had burst into the cricketing scene with spectacular feats with both bat and ball for Australia in his first Test series when Drewy Stoddart’s team had visited in 1894-95. And then for some inexplicable reason, he was omitted from the party when his brother Harry had led the Australians to England in 1896. A disgruntled Trott travelled as well, independently, seeking to make his own way into the cricketing world. Within a couple of years, he qualified to play for Middlesex and then went on to play for England against South Africa.
When Joe Darling’s Australians visited in 1899, this former-Australian cricketer played against them at Lord’s as Middlesex took on the visitors. And with the great Monty Noble bowling from the pavilion end, Trott swung his bat, hit the ball with a resounding crack, and shaded his eyes to follow the path of the stroke. It rose and sailed, all the way over the pavilion, and where it landed is a tale of multiple versions. The accepted story is that it dropped on the far slope of the roof, struck a chimney pot and landed behind the building, in the Grove End Road garden of the dressing-room attendant Philip Need.
Not one other man has been able to match the feat in the history of the game, even with the enormous power of the modern willow. It is said that in 2010 Marcus Trescothick, captaining Somerset, was offered £1 million to emulate Trott. However, perhaps the indomitable traditional spirit of the pavilion rose up and thwarted the attempt, and continues to do so. Matt Prior has managed to break a glass of the dressing room window, but then he did it with his bat from within the building, in a manner defying the very tenets of cricketing spirit.
The indomitable spirit of traditionalism comes with its caveats, though.
Till 1999, women were not allowed in the pavilion during the playing hours. By then, the England women’s team had waded through 65 years of Test cricket, encompassing 71 Test matches and 125 Test cricketers. Unfortunately, the only exception to the no-women policy did not benefit any of these women Test cricketers, and was in place to enable Queen Elizabeth II to enjoy the cricket and enter the ground to meet the teams.
When Diana Edulji, the captain of the Indian women’s cricket team and one of the 484 women Test cricketers to have played the game till 1999, was refused admission in 1986, she voiced that the name MCC should be changed to MCP.
In this day and age, it does seem ridiculous that the rule was not changed till 1999. It took the MCC a century after Albert Trott’s massive hit to look at themselves in the mirror and realise that they were being bizarre.
Edmonds and Emburey
The tussle between tradition and modernity has always been the story, and often the conflicts were due to losing sight of the practical in the maze of ritualistic rules.
As is illustrated by this memorable anecdote.
In the 1980s, Middlesex was a formidable team. Led by Mike Brearley, they had a champion batsman in Mike Gatting, proven professional in Clive Radley, a fearsome fast bowler in the West Indian recruit Wayne Daniel, the more than useful seam bowlers Simon Hughes and Mike Selvey, and the formidable spin twins Phil Edmonds and John Emburey. It is not surprising that they won the Championship in 1980, 1982 and 1985.
This team had just changed in the dressing room and were walking across the Lord’s turf to their practice nets in the Nursery Ground when a voice from the balcony ordered them not to walk on the grass. Obviously, the voice belonged to a MCC official. After all, Middlesex only rents the ground.
“Stupid old fart,” Gatting swore under his breath. Later, Hughes wrote, “The MCC hierarchy is renowned for not wanting its beloved grass walked on. Ever, preferably.”
But there was little else to be done. The team turned around, walked out of the pavilion, and around the ground to reach the Nursery Ground along the long route. All except two men.
Emburey and Edmonds, the spinners who played so many Tests for England, did not believe in more than a few short steps. Walking out of the pavilion, they got into their cars and drove the distance of about 250 yards.
The story has its moral. If traditions are too rigid and meaningless, enterprising men find ways around them. It is both interesting and noteworthy that Edmonds came up with the idea, given that he is among the most successful businessmen among cricketers.
Eye to eye
The pavilion is flanked by two stands named after two Middlesex and England captains, Plum Warner and Gubby Allen.
One cannot find two other cricketers in the annals of English cricket history who can possibly be more aptly described as the face of the establishment. Warner, the Grand Old Man of English cricket, captain of England in the first decade of the twentieth century, a man who worked tirelessly to spread the game across climes and did more than anyone else to create the curious myth of the Gentleman’s Game.
And Allen, a fast bowler in Jardine’s side who refused to bowl Bodyline, captain of England sides in the 1930s and 1940s, the face of MCC and Lord’s after his playing days. (We will ignore the fact that there is a belief among some of the historians of the game that Allen was actually the illegitimate son of Warner.) Rather we will look at the appropriateness of the magnificent pavilion guarded by the Warner stand on one side and the Allen stand on the other. Perhaps because of being named after the more venerable of the two men, the Warner stand is currently under renovation.
Directly opposite these stands are two more, at the other end of the ground, named after two of the best cricketers produced by Middlesex.
Flanking the space-age Media Centre on either side are the Compton and Edrich stands, named after Denis Compton and Bill Edrich. Who can forget the excitement of Compton at the wicket, with his thrilling style of running out at the bowler? The knight in shining armour, the most glamorous of English cricketers. And Edrich, alongside Compton, was one of the rocks of the Middlesex and England side after the Second World War.
At the same time, these two men were perhaps the most anti-establishment cricketers ever, with a magnificent resume of flouting team rules, breaking curfew and drinking sprees. They enjoyed themselves, and people enjoyed their cricket. Compton was the pin-up boy of English cricket, and Edrich married five times, with only Hugh Tayfield, the South African off-spinning great, rivalling him in that regard among established Test cricketers.
When these stands were erected, Compton was said to have expressed dismay that the two stands bearing the names of his buddy and his own did not happen to house a bar.
It seems extremely symbolic that the Compton and Edrich stands stare directly at Warner and Allen at the other end, underlining the eternal tussle at Lord’s.
The conflicts continue to be played out in subtle and blunt lines every day.
The white flannels and sweaters in four-day county games bear the jersey numbers of the cricketers, football style. The county sides compete for the Royal London One Day Cup and the Natwest T20 Blast, with Lord’s filling up in the evenings, and playing host to cheerleaders, erupting flames and loud music.
Some members have voiced concern over the guests of other members not abiding by the rigid dress code of the pavilion. In fact, the dress restrictions are relaxed to a large extent during the T20s, but it seems there are still gentlemen and ladies who keep disregarding them.
This tussle is witnessed, as well as symbolised, by Old Father Time. The weathervane presented by Sir Herbert Baker, the architect of the Grandstand, he now stands atop the scorer’s box on the Mound Stand, in the perpetual pose of removing the bails.
He was damaged during the Blitz attack, and has been struck by lightning. But he continues to stand there.
Much like the trappings of Lord’s.