Thank you ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much indeed. It is an honour to stand before so many cricketing heroes from England and from Australia and at this, my favourite time of year. The time when that magical summer sound comes to our ears and gladdens our old hearts, the welcome sound of leather on Graham Swann.
I have been asked to say a few words – well more than a few. “You’ve twenty minutes to fill,” I was firmly told by the organisers. 20 minutes. Not sure how I’ll use all that time up. Perhaps in about ten minutes or so Andrew Strauss would be kind enough to send on a a physio, that should kill a bit of time.
Now, many of you will be wondering by what right I presume to stand and speak in front of this assembly of all that is high and fine and grand and noble and talented in the world of cricket, and to speak too in this very temple of all that is historic, majestic and ever so slightly preposterous and silly in that world? I certainly can’t lay claim to any great cricketing achievements. I can’t bat, I can’t field, I bowl off the wrong foot. That sounds like a euphemism for something else, doesn’t it? “They say he bowls off the wrong foot, know what I mean? He enters stage left. Let me put it this way, he poles from the Cambridge end of the punt.” Actually as a matter of fact, although it is true in every sense that I have always bowled off the wrong foot. I have decided, since Sunday, to go into the heterosexual breeding business. My first three sons will be called Collingwood Fry, Anderson Fry and Monty Fry. That’s if their mother can ever get them out, of course. But back to the original question you so intelligently, if rhetorically, asked. If I can’t play, what can I do? I can umpire, I suppose, after a fashion. A fashion that went out years ago around the time of those two peerless umpires, perhaps some of you are old enough to remember them, Jack Crapp and Arthur Fagg. I remember them. I remember them every morning, as a matter of fact: Crapp and Fagg. Though now, sadly, the law says we can no longer do it in public places. And I believe that may even apply to smoking too. Anyway. We were on the subject of why I’m speaking to you. I don’t play. I’m not even a cricketing commentator, journalist or writer. I suppose the only right I have to be amongst you, the cricketing élite, might derive from my being said to represent, here in the Long Room, all those who have spent their lives loving the game at a safe distance from the square. It is love for the game that brings me here.
In the forty-five years that I have followed cricket, I have seen it threatened from all sides by the horrors of modern life. The game has been an old-fashioned blushing maiden laid siege by coarse and vulgar suitors. A courtship pattern of defence, acceptance, capitulation and finally absorption has followed. When I started watching, A. R. Lewis played for and captained England as an amateur. The game could never recover surely, from being forced, against the will of many of those who ran this place, being forced to become solely a professional sport? I am just old enough to remember too the Basil D’Oliveira affair in all its unsavoury nastiness: the filth of racism and international politics was beginning to stain the pure white of the flannels. The one-day-game appeared, shyly at first. The balance of bat and ball, essential for cricket to make any sense as a sporting spectacle, became threatened, everyone agreed, by the covering of wickets which would privilege batsman, and then that necessary equipoise was threatened the other way by the arrival of extreme pace and the pitiless bouncer. The look and style of cricketers was apparently forever compromised by helmets and elastic waisted trouserings hideous to behold. Cane and canvas pads were replaced by wipe clean nylon fastened by Velcro. Kerry Packer arrived and sowed his own blend of discord. The continuing rise and mutation of one day cricket caused panic from Windermere to Woking as white balls and coloured pyjamas threatened the sanity of Telegraph readers everywhere. Rogue South African tours caused alarm and frenzy. Pitch invasions marked an end of the days when schoolboys could lie on their tummies by the boundary-rope filling in a green scoring book, until they got bored which they inevitably did, all except the speccy swatty ones who were laughed at and are now running the world. The rest of us were too busy asking the man in the Public Announcement tent to put out a message for our lost friends Ivor Harden, Hugh Janus, Seymour Cox and Mike Hunt. One turbulent decade began with John Snow getting barracked and bombarded with tinnies and ended with batsmen getting bounced and sledged. Cameras and microphones got closer and closer to the action to overhear the insults and demystify the bowling actions. The art of spin had disappeared, for ever, some believed. Cricketers wives wrote books about the overseas tours. Reverse swing seemed to arrive out of nowhere : “Not only does he bowl off the wrong foot. They say he swings it the other way.” Ball tampering became a matter of dinner party chat from Keswick to Canterbury . Clever 3-D images were painted on the grass round about the long stop area advertising power generation companies no one had ever heard of. Advertising was not only to be seen on the grass, but on the clothes, Vodafone and Castlemaine were stitched bigger and brighter on the shirts than the three lions and the wallabies and that mysterious silver feather that Kiwis seem so unaccountably fond of.
The county game was rent asunder into leagues and divisions that no one really understands; the politics and governance of cricket, with its contracts and coaches, its bloated fixture lists and auctions of broadcasting rights caused hand-wringing too, though many would rather it were neck-wringing.
Meanwhile, drugs, drinking binges, embarrassing text messages and other scandals continued to erupt like acne on a teenager.
South Africa returned to the fold as other countries entered the club of test playing nations. Kenya, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
Two of those speccy boys who used to score at the sidelines got their revenge, their names were Mr Lewis and Mr Duckworth.
To the dictionary of acronyms and initials were added ODI, T-20 and IPL. Power plays and baseball style pinch-hitters were swept in. The old lady of cricket was getting a right duffing up.
Yet, amazingly, none of these changes, professionalism, the covered wickets, helmets, day-night games, confirmed the dire prognostications of those who believed each one might hammer a stump into cricket’s fragile heart. For this same period of my cricket watching life saw some of the greatest matches in the game’s history. The 1981 and 2005 Ashes series, the Tied Test; a new aggression and boldness of stroke play that no one could disapprove of. Scoring rates went up and great batsmen emerged: Lara, Tendulkar and Ponting amongst many others. And miraculously, to keep the game balanced, Warne and Murali showed that far from being dead, spin bowling was supremely alive; even providing a new ball in the form of the doozra. Huge crowds and rising popularity in fresh territories confirmed cricket’s health. Levels of fitness and standards of fielding rocketed. And all the while, the game’s greatest expression, the 5 Day Test Match, led the way, providing the greatest entertainment, the most excitement and the deepest commitment from the players. All those mournful predictions had come to nothing. The greatest of games had triumphed again.
But now, now, in the age of the internet, just as the great, great players of the past ten years have one by one started to play their farewell matches and leave the field for ever, hideous new forces have been at work. The newly emerged South Africa became mired in scandal, intrigue and misery as the new disease of spread-betting lived up to its name and spread, spread like cholera through a slum. Grotesque emails from professional umpires hit the headlines; allegations of systematic cheating and match-fixing have become commonplace, a dismal and lamentably organised Shop Window for international cricket, its 2007 World Cup seemed to lay the game low: an incomprehensible and dreadful tragedy in the death of Bob Woolmer its ghastly and unforgettable legacy. As if that weren’t enough we were more recently treated to the embarrassing spectacle of cricket’s governors cosying up to a Texan fraudster with a helicopter and a bigger mouth than wallet.
A new kind of bitterness has entered some quarters of the game as ex-players become commentators, columnists and journalists and begin to turn on their erstwhile teammates, dispraising the current players, pouring scorn on their technique and deprecating their tactical nous. We have video of course and can see that these pundits know what they were talking about: historical archive reveals that Boycott, Botham, Gower, Atherton, Willis, and Hussein were never out playing a false shot, never shuffled across, never missed a captaincy trick, never dropped a catch, never posted a fielder in the wrong place and never bowled off line or off length in the entire course of their careers.
The benefits and the drawbacks of broadcast technology bewilder us. Hotspots and Hawkeye, referrals and replays, umpires have never been more pressured and exposed and greater more seismically structural questions have never been asked about the meaning and spirit of the game. The rewards are greater, the stakes are higher, the price of failure more public and humiliating.
So a hundred years on from cricket’s Golden Age of C. B. Fry here is another Fry, searching for a way to toast a game that appears to have become … well, toast.
We could choose to believe that and retreat into memories of an apparently innocent and gilded past. We could wash our hands of it all, or we could choose to continue to believe in the game. Not necessarily in its administrators, nor even its players, though most of them in all divisions of the game are proud and gifted. We could choose to have faith in cricket. I for one do truly believe that the game itself, as first played by shepherds in the south of England, the game that spread to every corner of the world, the supreme bat and ball competition, the greatest game ever devised, will continue to provide unimagined pleasures, that true drama will once more come centre stage, booting into the wings the tragedy and farce we have witnessed over the past decade in particular. There will be new scandals of course: that you can depend upon. Undreamt of debacles, imbroglios, furores, brouhahas, crimes, rows, walk-outs and embarrassments are waiting around the corner, quietly slipping the horseshoe into the boxing-glove and preparing to give the goddess Cricketina a sock in the jaw. But new geniuses, new historic last ball climaxes, new unimaginable heights of athletic, tactical and aesthetic pleasure await us too. It is up to the players to believe in the game and the cricketing administrators to believe in the players. But most of all it is up to us to keep the faith and be unashamed, be proud of our love of cricket. Here, in the very place that is so often called cricket’s Mecca, cathedral and temple, is the place for us all to pledge that faith. I do so happily as I raise a glass in toast, on behalf of cricket lovers everywhere to Andrew Strauss in his Benefit Year and his wonderful Team, to Ricky Ponting and his fine tourists and to cricket itself. For, to misappropriate Benjamin Franklin, Cricket is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. So then: raise your glasses, to Strauss, England, Australia and cricket.
© Stephen Fry 2009