November 4, 2013

When Dad's Army did cricket, wretchedly

Television dramas have been historically poor at depicting cricket. Exhibit A: an episode of a well-loved British sitcom

Cover your eyes when they take to a cricket field © Getty Images

I like Dad's Army. I like it a lot. It might not have been funny (sitcoms of the period focused far more on the situation than the comedy) but it was warm and gentle and clever in its way. More than that, it reminds me of going as a kid to have tea at my gran's on a Saturday afternoon and popping along to Roker Park at 20 past 4 to sneak in to watch the last quarter of an hour of Sunderland's match for free when they opened the gates to let people out.

Over the years I thought I'd seen every one of the 80 episodes that were screened between 1968 and 1977 (or at least those that still exist; three have somehow been lost), but last week a chance conversation about how bad television dramas are at depicting cricket led to the revelation that there'd been a Dad's Army episode featuring a match between Captain Mainwaring's Home Guard platoon and a team led by his bête noire Hodges, the ARP warden. Wikipedia says it's one of the "most repeated" episodes because of "its simple plot", yet somehow I'd missed it. So I did what anybody who could get away with watching a 43-year-old sitcom and calling it work would do and looked it up on Youtube.

This is one of the saddest paragraphs I've ever had to write. I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be gently whimsical, to feature Mainwaring pompously making a fool of himself and being bailed out by the elegance of Sergeant Wilson, the well-meaning fluster of Corporal Jones and the cunning of the spiv, Walker. But it's awful. Desperately, unremittingly ghastly. Yes, Mainwaring is as self-important as ever; yes, Wilson saves the day with his unflustered class, and there's even a cameo from Fred Trueman, but so much is wrong that it's almost impossible to watch without howling at the screen.

The warning signs are there when Mainwaring announces to his platoon that they have been challenged to a game. Jones volunteers to keep wicket, revealing he once stumped Ranjitsinjhi (in terms of chronology that is plausible; Jones would have been perhaps a decade younger than Ranji) by "whipping 'is bails off", something that produces a great gusto of canned laughter, presumably in response to some barely comprehensible innuendo.

The platoon then practise in nets erected behind the church hall and Mainwaring predictably tries to correct everybody's technique. That provides some conventional laughs as he is bowled by what looks to be a decent away swinger from Private Pike, but even they are ruined when Pike later asks Mainwaring, loudly so the new batsman can hear, "Shall I give him the googly or an easy one like you had?"

I know we probably shouldn't be too picky, but that is wrong on two levels and suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what a googly is. If a batsman knows a googly's coming, of course, then it is no longer a delivery of any more danger than any other, while the ball with which he'd bowled Mainwaring either swung away or moved off the seam - it wasn't a legbreak.

Mainwaring's instructions for bowling make this lack of comprehension clear. He seems to want everybody in the platoon to bowl offcutters, talking about giving "a flick with the finger" on delivery to "bring the ball in from outside the off". In the match itself, though, he is no-balled for chucking (by Mr Yateman, the verger; the other umpire is the vicar, who bears a striking resemblance to James Tredwell) when attempting "my googly". Why on earth would somebody bowling offcutters suddenly attempt a googly?

I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be gently whimsical. But it's awful. Desperately, unremittingly ghastly

Jones is an over-enthusiastic wicketkeeper, hopping around irritatingly and clattering into the stumps whenever possible. The field positions are mystifying, Wilson standing louchely by the non-striker while Walker and Frazer crouch next to each other as though in the slips but nowhere in shot when we see the batsman. Is it really so hard to get right?

Worst is Godfrey, who has requested to field near the pavilion because of his weak bladder, and is consigned to a tussocked, overgrown wilderness on what appears to be a disused golf course. When the rest of the outfield looks in relatively good condition (although the wicket itself has not been cut and is the same shade of green as everywhere else), why should that corner have been left so unkempt? Needless to say, the ball ends up there, is lost, and Hodges and his partner run 24 before Walker produces a new ball that Mainwaring passes off as the one hit into the long grass.

Hodges declares at tea on 152 for 4, at which he unveils his secret weapon: Ernie Egan, a fast bowler played by Trueman, a professional who would have played for England but for the war. His first ball, off a long run, sends Mainwaring crashing to the ground - Hodges, keeping wicket, mysteriously doesn't bother stumping him - but also wrenches his shoulder. With Egan unable to continue, Mainwaring's team suddenly has a chance. Mainwaring actually places a realistic pull on his way to 17, but then farce sets in again as Pike is bowled while standing back from the crease assessing the field. There are a million ways Pike could have been out for a duck while demonstrating his haplessness: why choose one so unrealistic?

Wickets tumble at one end, but Wilson, battling with a Jonathan Trott-style handkerchief knotted around his neck, plays a series of raffish strokes outside off. Various websites suggest he scores 81, but we actually see him on 81 with the score at 137 for 8, and it's probable he adds a few more than that.

The ninth wicket goes down with the score on 148. In comes Godfrey, as doddery and fey as ever. The assumption is that he will be out first ball, but he had hinted earlier that he had been a regular player in his youth. Sure enough, he gets in line for the first ball, front foot moving nicely to the pitch as he pushes the ball through the off side - an element of realism at last. He drops his bat, and Wilson has to push him to complete a second run before racing back to the other end, but the platoon are within one. The next ball is short, and Godfrey leans back, lofting it over square leg for six.

As Mainwaring gloats in victory, an air-raid siren goes off, a reminder that the game, however seriously both sides took it, was only ever a break from the far more serious matter of war. It could have been a genuinely poignant moment, the idyll shattered, but the match has been so absurd, so far removed from actual cricket, any emotion it may have generated has long since dissipated.

No game is played by more unathletic people than cricket, no game so lends itself to all shapes and sizes: is it really so hard to get a group of actors to play it so it looks even vaguely lifelike?

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here