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TOM UTLEY: No more cricket teas? Howzat for an outrage!

TOM UTLEY: No more cricket teas? Howzat for an outrage!

 Think of an idyllic English summer, and what is the first image that springs to your mind?

If you're anything like me — and there are still a fair few of us old dreamers left — you'll see a cricket match in progress on a lovingly tended village green.

Under an ancient oak tree by the boundary, an old man dozes in his deckchair, lulled by the thwack of leather upon willow and the droning of bumblebees (those with no stomach for clich├ęs should stop reading right now).

In the nets by the pavilion, number eight in the batting order is putting in some last-minute practice against the bowling of his 12-year-old son, as he awaits his summons to the wicket and his chance of glory or humiliation.

Meanwhile, from those on the pitch come distant cries of 'well bowled!', 'good shot!' and 'howzat!', carried muffled on the breeze to their watching friends and families.

Think of an idyllic English summer, and what is the first image that springs to your mind? If you’re anything like me — and there are still a fair few of us old dreamers left — you’ll see a cricket match in progress on a lovingly tended village green (stock image)

Think of an idyllic English summer, and what is the first image that springs to your mind? If you're anything like me — and there are still a fair few of us old dreamers left — you'll see a cricket match in progress on a lovingly tended village green (stock image)

Surrey CCC cricketers enjoy a traditional tea, with a spread of sandwiches, in  a match against Hampshire in September 1971

Surrey CCC cricketers enjoy a traditional tea, with a spread of sandwiches, in  a match against Hampshire in September 1971

Centrepiece

But the real action of the afternoon is taking place in the pavilion itself, where the wives, sisters and girlfriends of the home team are busy preparing the centre-piece of the occasion. For the clock on the medieval church tower, visible above the thatched roof of the Lamb and Flag, is creeping round to 4.15pm. It will soon be time for team tea!

Under the firm direction of the club chairman's wife, the women are bustling about, exchanging village gossip as they carry dishes heaped with cakes and sandwiches — egg, cucumber, chicken, ham and good old Tiptree's Little Scarlet strawberry jam — to the trestle tables on the grass outside.

'I say, Penelope, would you give me a hand with the tea urn? I think we're just about ready for curtain up!'

Okay, I admit that idyllic rural cricket matches are few and far between in my London borough, where I've lived for most of my adult life. But an inveterate townie though I am, I still believe that a match on a village green, with all its attendant rituals, is about as close to Heaven as mere mortals can experience.

Former England and Yorkshire batsman Geoff Boycott (right) chats over tea with BBC TMS commentator Henry Blofeld during a Test Match at Trent Bridge between England and West Indies in July 1991

Former England and Yorkshire batsman Geoff Boycott (right) chats over tea with BBC TMS commentator Henry Blofeld during a Test Match at Trent Bridge between England and West Indies in July 1991

But the real action of the afternoon is taking place in the pavilion itself, where the wives, sisters and girlfriends of the home team are busy preparing the centre-piece of the occasion. Pictured: A classic cricket tea at North Nibley Cricket Club in Gloucestershire (stock image)

But the real action of the afternoon is taking place in the pavilion itself, where the wives, sisters and girlfriends of the home team are busy preparing the centre-piece of the occasion. Pictured: A classic cricket tea at North Nibley Cricket Club in Gloucestershire (stock image)

So how depressing it was to learn this week that the cricket tea is under threat from the game's authorities — and that even after life returns to something like normal (God willing, before next cricket season), the idyllic summer afternoon of my dreams may never be the same again.

For those who missed the story, the threat comes from the Sussex Cricket League — the world's largest, compromising 335 teams from 140 clubs — whose members have voted permanently to remove the requirement to provide fully blown teas, which has been suspended because of the pandemic.

The vote, by 114 to 89, means that home sides will no longer have to lay on food for themselves and the visiting team during the innings break (though they will still be expected to offer cold drinks or a measly cup of tea).

Said a spokesman for Forest Row Cricket Club, which plays in the league and voted for the resolution: 'We think it will encourage new players. For too long cricket has had the stigma of cucumber sandwiches and a little bit of cricket.

'Times have changed and not everyone wants teas.

'Lots of clubs don't have a tea lady or enough volunteers.'

Well, I hate to break it to those who voted with the majority — the type, I suspect, whose idea of a riveting bedtime read is the latest edition of Wisden — but most who take part in amateur matches are not much interested in a sweet cover-drive or an unplayable Yorker.

Ritual

Nor do they care all that much who wins (although of course it will add to the jollity in the Lamb and Flag later in the evening if the home team emerges victorious).

No, they're in it for the time-honoured ritual of the day, in which the interval tea plays a part as essential as the post mortem in the pub.

Do away with the sandwiches and cakes, indeed, and you'd be left with one bunch of incompetents bowling at three sticks of wood, while another lot tried to hit it with a lump of willow. How many would wish to give up a whole afternoon to that — let alone turn out to watch it?

Do away with the sandwiches and cakes, indeed, and you’d be left with one bunch of incompetents bowling at three sticks of wood, while another lot tried to hit it with a lump of willow (stock image)

Do away with the sandwiches and cakes, indeed, and you'd be left with one bunch of incompetents bowling at three sticks of wood, while another lot tried to hit it with a lump of willow (stock image)

As the late writer, critic and cricket reporter Sir Neville Cardus once observed, going to a match solely to watch cricket would be like going to a pub solely to drink beer.

Include a lavish tea in the afternoon interval, however, and the match becomes part of a centuries-old ceremony that ranks with the church fete and the am-dram Christmas production among the great social events in the village calendar.

It's an occasion that brings together young and old, landowner and labourer, postmistress and plumber, in a celebration of the sheer beauty of an English summer afternoon.

As for the true contest of the day, this has little to do with the two teams on the pitch. The real competition is to determine which of the rival villages can put on the more magnificent spread.

Will the ladies of Little Stuffingham outdo last month's efforts by those of Much Crumbling-in-the-Marsh, with their sublime Victoria sponge and those delicious melt-in-the- mouth scones?

Speaking for myself, the traditional teas alone were responsible for firing my interest in cricket, in the far-off days of my childhood when I actually played.

From that first slap-up tea onwards, I was hooked on cricket — which remains to this day the only sport I watch with any real pleasure (stock image)

From that first slap-up tea onwards, I was hooked on cricket — which remains to this day the only sport I watch with any real pleasure (stock image)

The least sporty boy at a sports-mad Suffolk boarding school, I was always the last to be picked for any soccer or rugby team — apart from a friend who was so fat that he could hardly move.

Indeed, I would dread winter afternoons spent shivering on the pitch in scratchy sandpaper shorts, waiting to be thumped on the head by the sodden brown leather lumps that passed in those days for footballs.

But the summer was different.

True, I was hopeless with the bat — and when I was fielding, I used to dread the moment when a dolly of a catch would come in my direction, for me to fumble and drop.

But somehow or other, I turned out to be quite a useful off-spin bowler — useful enough, anyway, to be picked one day for the third XI in an away match against another local school.

That was when I first experienced the sheer ecstasy of a cricket tea. There were sandwiches of every sort, chocolate biscuits, cakes and even eclairs — luxuries unheard of at a boys' boarding school in the early 1960s, where our more usual diet was gristly liver and greasy bacon, with tapioca for afters.

Hooked

And when it came to the return match, my own school pushed the boat out to compete for the reputation of providing the best cricket teas in the county.

From that first slap-up tea onwards, I was hooked on cricket — which remains to this day the only sport I watch with any real pleasure.

But don't take the word of this sporting ignoramus that cricket isn't cricket without a slap-up tea. Read the great Henry Blofeld, veteran of Test Match Special and fully accredited National Treasure, fulminating against the Sussex league's decision in a letter to yesterday's Times.

Coronavirus has already inflicted lasting damage on too many of our traditional pastimes and pleasures. Don’t let it be cited as an excuse to suck the social heart from the most English of our legacies to the world, writes Tom Utley (stock image)

Coronavirus has already inflicted lasting damage on too many of our traditional pastimes and pleasures. Don't let it be cited as an excuse to suck the social heart from the most English of our legacies to the world, writes Tom Utley (stock image)

'Sir,' he wrote, 'the tea interval has, since the game began, been one of cricket's most charming, intrepid [sic] and surely immovable institutions: sandwiches, occasionally scones and strawberry jam, cakes and a huge battered tin teapot and mugs, some of which have lost their handles . . .'

On and on he goes, painting an elegiac picture of the central role tea plays in the game, before spluttering: 'Why can't the petty bureaucrats of the Sussex Cricket League mind their own business?

'I dare say that taking this large dollop of romance out of the game is all about saving half an hour. Talk about cutting off your cucumber sandwich to spite your batting average.'

Howzat? I couldn't have put it better myself.

Coronavirus has already inflicted lasting damage on too many of our traditional pastimes and pleasures. Don't let it be cited as an excuse to suck the social heart from the most English of our legacies to the world.  

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