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Location: Wellington, New Zealand

April 16, 2006

Clement on cricket

This is from this year's Wisden

Love is all around, and come to the front if you don't want chips
Sir Clement Freud heads off to find out what the Twenty20 fuss is all about in our Wisden exclusive

THERE was so much I did not know: that it was called Twenty20, not 20-20 like my eyesight used to be; that they played in differing coloured pyjamas; that there were rules about who could field where for however many overs; nor that it happened at Old Dear Park.

I had thought this would be a location peopled by elderly, cardiganed Newberry Fruit-eating pensioners. Turned out to be Old Deer Park; I resent ageism of all kinds.

The occasion — where they were kind and welcoming and let me drive almost into the pavilion because of my lameness — was an evening fixture: Middlesex v Hampshire, but for the fact that each county has an added name like Crusaders and Hedgeclippers (I might have got that one wrong) and they start when you rather expect cricket matches to finish.

The evening was fine and, as the pavilion is situated on the east side of the park and the sun has this habit of setting in the west, you don’t see a lot, unless you have brought dark glasses.

The crowd was around 3,000, mostly men arriving from work, with a few marauding gangs of teenage girls whose movements from one side of the ground to the other had less to do with the cricket than the male spectators. Middlesex batted first; one could not see a great deal, but whenever there was a boundary or a wicket, a disc jockey-ette played a snatch of loud music: a couple of bars from Oklahoma, a burst of the Trumpet Voluntary, a roll of drums accompanying a band I did not know . . . but then there are not too many bands I do know. Lew Stone was one I remember fondly.

I lived as a child in St John’s Wood, northwest London, spent my summer Saturdays at Lord’s with a bottle of Tizer and applauded good shots, quite often shouting “Good shot, sir!” as my hands met. Middlesex were my team in as much as Surrey were not. Nothing south of the Thames had much going for it — though Middlesex seem to be playing there now — and brown caps were sartorially poor.

I collected cigarette cards and wished my parents smoked. Price kept wicket for Middlesex; I was a wicketkeeper at school and very much admired the fact that Price kept without a long stop. My long stop won the fielding cup.

I digress. At Old Deer Park the crowd chatted and queued for beer; when there were significant bursts of music they came out to see whether it was a boundary or wicket. But what surprised me was the fact that there was little in the way of partisanship. No breathless hush in the close tonight, let alone ten to make and a match to win.

Middlesex lost wickets at a rate of knots. When the requisite 20 overs had been bowled in the prescribed hour and a quarter, there came a blast of Love is All Around and I went and queued in the bar where they served light meals: burgers and chips, sausages and chips, pizza and chips. When I was still 15 people back, the woman behind the counter called: “Anyone who doesn’t want chips come to the front.”

So I did. “No chips?” I was going to ask for “a lobster cocktail, easy on the tabasco” but my courage failed and I had pasta. It was all right, though I wouldn’t have gone to Richmond for it.

We had friendly announcements such as one doesn’t get at Lord’s.

“Please help the stewards by using the large red bins for your rubbish.”

“Please watch out for flying balls, especially if you have children.”

I chatted to a nice woman behind the Middlesex shop counter, seriously considered buying a picture of Mr Shah and talked to a man who explained what a “free hit” was.

Hampshire (the Hawks, I have just remembered) batted competently, kept the music flowing and were always going to win . . . which they did almost in time for there to be a beer match. Hardly anyone applauded, everyone looked content and there was still time to do all sorts of other things before it got dark, like have another beer and thank the stewards for their kindness and hospitality and mutter “bad luck” to people wearing the MCC tie.

“Where have you been?” asked my wife when I came home just after 9pm. I told her I had been watching cricket and listening to music.

She said don’t be silly.

* Past his 81st birthday, Sir Clement Freud has just ended his term as rector of the University of St Andrews. He is a columnist on the Racing Post, having begun sports writing, for The Observer, 50 years ago. His varied career as a writer and broadcaster was lightened by 14 years as a Liberal MP.

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