Bowled Over By The Spirit of Cricket at Headingley

Geoff Boycott celebrates his 100th 100 in different days in 1977 at Leeds. (pic (c) David Hickes

Spirit of Cricket Shines through at new-look Headingley

Whatever the true politics behind the reason for Pakistan and Australia de-camping to Headingley,  the MCC’s much-lauded Spirit of Cricket, emblazoned around the ground, continues to shine through at this most nomadic of Tests.

In the shadow of the new-look, newly inaugurated Carnegie Pavilion – in the eyes of many at Headingley, either a masterpiece of modern design or, on reflection, a gaudy gallimauphry of glass - bonhomie continues to be much in evidence.

Years ago, I was lucky enough to watch – as a student and press runner for my press photographer father and grandfather– the thrills of both Boycott’s 100th 100 and the famous Botham/Willis Test at this hallowed, if sometimes maligned ground.

In those days, a line of poplar trees, the type Sir John Betjeman might have liked, lined the Kirkstall Lane end and the players stepped out of the curiously aloof pavilion which flanked the wicket to the side of the ground.

As Botham, Gower, Willis, Emburey, Gatting ,’ Lambie’ and the great old guard took to field in the salad days of my 20s, back then I always felt, at sainted Headingley on sunny Test Saturdays, God wasn’t only in his heaven, but he was wearing a knotted handerchief on his head and perhaps holding a warm pint of a certain well known brew in His hand looking down on Leeds.

Long before then, stalwarts of the game feared that media tycoon Kerry Packer’s ambitions plans for a World Series of Cricket would turn the gentleman’s game into one not so much for ‘flannelled fools’, but a One Day ‘pyjama party’, and in doing so change the game and glorious Headingley for good.

Given the domination today of Sky Television and another well-known Australian-media tycoon, cricket, and Headingley, suddenly, seemed a six-hit away from days of Peter West, Johnners, and John Major’s much-vaunted image of England as one of ‘old maids and long shadows on cricket grounds across the land’.

Compared to then, the media circus certainly seems to have come to town.

The famous Western Terrace, the habitual abode to the Yorkshire lads and their inventive chants, is taller and more neatly arranged; the poplars have long given way to a new Eastern stand and a glaringly brilliant tv screen; the lofty seating on top of the Winter Sheds has been transformed into the daunting Pavilion and the wide vistas of the old place seem to have given way to a feeling of general magnitude, if slight claustrophobia.

But the spirit of cricket, is still firmly in place, if a little, paradoxically ‘in your face’ as they say.

The MCC – keen to impress to all-comers the disciplined nature of the game, especially among youngsters – flashes ‘Respect’ messages across the large screen at Headers, and adults  - no doubt the children of Boycott’s pitch invasion of 1977 - are politely reminded they must no longer run onto the pitch at the close of the game or face possible criminal prosecution.  

Perhaps the new ‘spirit’ is necessary. While all businesses need ‘bums on seats’ at the end of the day, as talk of an economic double dip mounts, cricket needs it terraces filling just as much as its needs its debenture holders, investors and corporate members,  just like every recession-hit industry. And which isn’t?

As protrusive as the likes of Sky and the Carnegie Pavilion are, they are, nonetheless, quite possibily  cricketing salvations. 

The Pavilion is the result of a unique partnership between Leeds Metropolitan University and Yorkshire County Cricket Club and will deliver a dual-use building – the ultimate in coalition design for the credit crunch era.

During the academic year, it will operate mainly as a university teaching faculty and, during the summer holidays, mainly as a world-class media & hospitality facility for the cricket club.

Satellite tv rights have pumped £millions more into the game and other associated add-on values which would not have possible – or imagined – in the days when the poplar trees last flanked Headingley.

But how much has the spirit of the game changed?

As a neutral watching two of the games giants, perhaps we all need to learn from the spirit of the new game and age, and that of our overseas friends in Pakistan and Australia.

Cricket was traditionally, the last emblem of the English reserve; in cliché as least; in the south, cucumber sandwiches and warm beer and taverners; in the north more usually the gritted pint of bitter against a bracing wind.

To those gentlemen and lady spectators who recall National Service and the Suez Crisis, respect was drilled into them. But against the worst debt crisis in living memory, perhaps the English need to shake off the last of any Colonial reserve and start hitting a few metaphoric sixes?

As a guest in the NW of the ground yesterday of a well-known Asian accountant from Adel, who shall remain nameless to spare his blushes, instead of the bacon sandwich of my 20s with HP sauce, I was treated to a feast which reflected the tradition warmth of my gracious hosts and their culture: champagne with smoked salmon; mango and passion fruits, wasabi with soy sauce, cracked lobster, Mumtaz curries especially shipped into the ground; lemon water, figs, spiced ginger and Chablis, rich trifles and a range of sweets the likes of which I had never seen nor could have imagined.

More to the point, like all those, Australian , Pakistani and Yorkshire folk around me, (maybe it was the laced exotic puddings of my genial host) but a sense of respect  -  not just for the game but also of bonhomie for ones fellows- pervaded the ground.

It will be interesting to see how the new Con-Dem coalition embraces its attitudes to cricket in England, and, by argument and extent, indeed of the nature ‘Englishness’; whether it reverts to John Major’s ideology or whether a more all-inclusive attitude pervades.

Flicking through the programmes at the ground and finding an internet advert for Lords Cricket Ground, whose tagline proclaims itself : ‘A celebration of all that’s English’, I found myself questioning what that might have meant.

In the meantime, as I left the ground, walking past the spot where my father and grandfather would have snapped the Test heroes of the past with their 400mm lenses, and, in my mind taking a snapshot of where the poplars once graced the ground, I felt, perhaps, the spirit of cricket, was alive and well after all.