New Season Is Upon Us
It’s that time of year again when hope springs in the heart of Scotland’s cricketing community. Training and net sessions are in full swing, friendly fixtures have been lined up, ahead of the start of league action in the coming weeks, and even the threat of a late blast of winter’s worst won’t discourage the myriad aficionados.
The only mystery for people such as myself is that so many Scots remain surprised at the game’s popularity. They’ve been playing at Kelso since 1820, Rossie Priory since 1828, Grange since 1832 and Fauldhouse Victoria since 1835.
And when you consider that many clubs were founded between then and 1852, including Penicuik, Clydesdale, Brechin, Drumpellier, Selkirk and Kilmarnock – this was more than 20 years before the Scottish Football Association was established – it’s clear the sport has been at the heart of countless towns and villages since time immemorial.
So why does it still attract raised eyebrows in some quarters? I recall Ian Botham telling me there was no reason for Scotland to have an inferiority complex and he was right.
He said: “I know that week in, week out, there are thousands of Scottish players involved in various competitions which are as hard-fought as anywhere else in the UK.
“I’ve watched them and I can see the only difference between Scots and their counterparts from Somerset, Yorkshire, Lancashire….wherever there is a patch of grass and and a bag of bats, balls and pads, is that they speak in a different accent. They don’t love the game any less.”
Yes, it is true that 2016 might be a difficult summer, in terms of gaining media exposure, given the lack of high-profile domestic fixtures planned for Scotland and the probability that the TV schedules will be saturated with European Championship football and the Olympics, but this isn’t the moment to focus on the negatives. Quite the contrary.
Frankly, April might have been the cruellest month for T S Eliot, but none of us who love cricket should share that sentiment.
Now, of course, cricket isn’t to everybody’s tastes, and I speak from experience. The late Robin Williams once described it as being like “baseball on valium” and, on one occasion, when I was chased down a street in Paisley after asking a group of young lads for directions to Ferguslie’s ground, and tried to hail a cab, the driver inquired if I had drugs in my briefcase and replied, after I told him I was trying to get to the cricket: “You’d be better off with drugs in this part of the world”.
That was in 1991, but there are still areas of the country where the old perceptions or misconceptions apply. It’s an elitist pursuit, it’s an English pastime which has no place in Scotland, or it’s solely for private-school Ruperts with silver stumps in their mouths. Don’t worry, I’ve heard all this before – and worse.
Yet the fact remains that Scots were actively involved in cricket long before there was any football being played in Glasgow or anywhere else in the land of the Tartan Army. I recall having a conversation with the late Independent politician Margo MacDonald and she was as knowledgable on this subject as everything else in her life, mocking the notion that the summer sport was reserved for the upper class.
“It’s just ignorance,” she told me, with trademark candour. “I have been to matches all around the country and I know there are people involved in cricket from every part of their community and you certainly wouldn’t say the same about a lot of rugby and golf clubs in Scotland.”
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 views which are simply wrong-headed.
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 Border fastnesses and Gordonians and Grange – that it can truly argue it was, and is, founded on proper egalitarian values.
Ample confirmation of the position will greet anybody who takes the trouble to visit Freuchie and surveys, on the clubhouse wall, the photographs of such exalted cricketers as 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 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 formidable West Indian Test duo Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes both plied their trade for the former Scottish Cricket Union (now Cricket Scotland), and a stellar group of international stars, including Terry Alderman, Malcolm Marshall, Bob Massie, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Rahul Dravid have lent their lustre to an adopted country and have been astonished at the depth of affection which exists for the sport throughout Scotland – and has done so since the 18th century,
That is one of the reasons why it is exasperating to hear so many people expressing mystification when Scotland and cricket are mentioned in the same sentence.
There’s a history and rich heritage, reinforced when one studies the work of cricket lover and writer Richard Young, whose book “As the Willow Vanishes” chronicled how the game cast a spell from Fauldhouse and Ferguslie to Armadale and Arbroath.
Indeed, whatever the revisionists might claim, the cricketers were there first in many central-belt communities and around Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, where generations have paraded their skills, regardless of class or background.
Nor, mercifully, have the authorities been forced to grapple with the insidious effects of sectarianism or racism which have blighted other sports. Instead, there has always been an inclusive philosophy, without anybody obsessing over what school you attended.
I spoke to Craig Wright, the former Scottish captain recently and he was as frustrated as anybody as the lingering stereotypes.
Craig loves his football – and, as an Aberdeen fan, he has had plenty to celebrate in the last three years – but he shares many folk’s conviction that there should be room for other activities in his homeland which don’t depend on Ray Winstone plugging betting firms at half-time every week for 11 months a year.
“Nobody’s arguing that football isn’t the No 1 game in Scotland, but that doesn’t mean we should focus on it 100 per cent,” said Wright.
“There is so much positive stuff happening, whether in terms of the number of kids coming through the system or the way cricket has expanded across the whole country. I don’t mind people having a negative view on it, but that doesn’t mean we have to buy into what they are saying.
“Naturally, we don’t have the same following or support as football, but we aren’t that far behind rugby and I’m proud of how the sport has developed and crossed all different borders.”
I still recall watching Australian’s larrikin-in-chief, Merv Hughes, playing against Scotland’s Andy Goram at Hamilton Crescent in Glasgow in 1989, when 5,000 spectators packed into the Partick arena.
“I had been at the dinner with the Aussies the night before and we had all got on like a house on fire,” said Goram, who donned his whites for a variety of clubs when he wasn’t in goal for Hibs, Rangers and Scotland. “Anyway, the next day, when I walked to the crease, to this huge cheer from the crowd, Merv was bowling and I said: “Hello, mate”, before I got ready to bat.
“I thought he would be the same genial guy from the previous evening. Some hope! Sure enough, he dropped one short, it fizzed through the air and it nearly took my head off. Then, when I looked up, he was standing directly in front of me, bellowing in my face: “You should stick to effing football, mate. You’ll soon wish you were back at effing Hibs.” It wasn’t exactly friendly!”
These spats usually don’t last long. Cricket, for the most part, has a greater number of off-the-cuff sledging incidents than most other pursuits, but these don’t put a dampener on the camaraderie.
Cricket Scotland has worked hard to spread the gospel and create a flourishing women’s scene, and boys and girls play together at junior level on a regular basis. It has also – and this is worth accentuating – broken down multicultural barriers, which is something which has manifestly not happened in Scottish football. Majid Haq is the country’s record wicket-taker and Safyaan Sharif played a pivitol role in the recent T20 world cup. And watch out for Harris Aslam this summer.
You don’t see a similar development at Hampden or Murrayfield.
I’m proud of being in thrall to cricket and so are thousands of others. We don’t decry or dismiss football, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all.
Inevitably, there are afternoons – and even, occasionally, whole so-called summers – where the rain casts a saturnine shroud over the domestic programme. But there are also plenty of other days and seasons, where the game flourishes, bolstered by a myriad of unpaid volunteers, scoreboard operators, sandwich makers, grass-cutters, part-time painters and decorators and heaven knows what else.
So why not send out the message: “We don’t like cricket, we love it, we’re Scottish and we are on the rise”?