Caught Niven, bowled Flynn
When it was launched 70 years ago, the Hollywood Cricket Club looked like an English village green. Except not many village greens have a pavilion floored in sun-bleached Spanish tiles, a backdrop of canyons and gorges fringed with bougainvillea and the likes of Boris Karloff keeping wicket.
The club was officially formed in February 1932 as a vehicle for Sunday afternoon fixtures against nearby Venice, Malibu and Pasadena, but also as a way of bringing civilisation to the film colony. Its founding father was one Charles Aubrey Smith, aged 68, a craggy, moustachioed character actor given to baggy plus-fours - with Old Carthusian tassels at the knee and loudly checked socks - who had come to represent Hollywood's ideal of the screen Englishman.
Although Aubrey Smith - winner of a single Test cap, against South Africa in 1888 - may not have had the most skilled group of players, they were certainly the best dressed. Hollywood CC turned out in harlequin caps and magenta, mauve and black striped blazers. The club's dinner dances at the Roosevelt Hotel were legendary for being urbane and British in an oldfashioned way. As America fell headlong into the Great Depression and Europe slid ever closer to war, Aubrey Smith's side continued to remind people of a vanished, altogether gentler Edwardian world.
Aubrey Smith worked long and hard to bring cricket to southern California, where he had settled himself after the Great War. He would always call the negotiations for a home ground to be quite the toughest and longest-running role of his life. Certainly, in the category of epic performances this famous eccentric's wranglings with the Los Angeles park commission richly deserved an Oscar. He was nothing if not persistent, though, and after three years of debate he had a plot of land, five cartloads of English grass seed to plant a wicket and a new $30,000 pavilion. Laid out at the north end of Griffith Park, high up in the Hollywood hills, the playing area was formally named the C. Aubrey Smith Field at a ceremony on May 21, 1933.
Later that same month, the young Laurence Olivier sashayed into the Chateau Marmont Hotel to begin his first day as a film star in America. Waiting for him was a note: `There will be nets tomorrow at 9am. I trust I shall see you there.' In the 1930s and '40s, the golden era of Hollywood, Smith's arm-twisting of expatriate and home-grown talent alike always followed much the same script: a polite summons to net practice, two hours of peak-decibel abuse of the man's technique, then a guffaw, a warm handshake and an invitation to that weekend's match.
Few A-list names, from David Niven to Errol Flynn to Ronald Colman, failed to pay a ritual call to Smith's villa at 2881 Coldwater Canyon Drive, where the raised Union Jack denoted a sort of semi-ambassadorial status. Many more found themselves pressed into spending long hot Sunday afternoons in the field, where Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) mingled with the likes of George Coulouris (Citizen Kane) while P.G. Wodehouse took notes from the boundary. Like every major star before him, Olivier dutifully joined the consensus that spring morning in 1933. He showed up at the ground in size 13 boots hurriedly borrowed from Boris Karloff. Smith himself remained an active member of the side throughout his 70s, and an occasional player into his 80s. Dubbed `Round the Corner' because of a peculiar crablike run when bowling, he not only regularly took 50 wickets a season but also interested himself in literally everyone and everything behind the scenes. An annual general meeting early in the Second World War included a vote of thanks to the president, Karloff, Cary Grant and others `in connection with the large sums raised for the Commando Fund', while at the AGM of May 1945 he spoke at length not about victory in Europe but rather the knotty problem of moles damaging the wicket.
Three years later Sir Aubrey, as he now was, expressed his wish to retire `within the foreseeable future' to allow someone younger to take over. The mere suggestion caused such an uproar from the members present that he smiled and withdrew his remarks. He died on December 20, 1948, a dapper, kindly and humorous man to the very end, bequeathing the club generous royalties from films like The Prisoner of Zenda .
Long before then, Smith's club had become a legendary enclave, at once rigidly British and yet gaudily American, a rich blend of country-house civility, New World chutzpah and a discreet trysting place for the rich and famous. This heady mixture of contradictions and exotic personalities made it a perfect resort for visiting international cricketers. Among those who played amid the tropical limes and reds of Griffith Park were England's Gubby Allen, Denis Compton and a future star of The Final Test, Len Hutton. Godfrey Evans had fond memories of a day and night spent at the club on his way home from the 1950/51 MCC tour of Australia.
Top Test players were invariably struck by both the quality and chivalrous spirit of the matches. Since 1955 an annual prize, the Rodney Sober Cup, has been presented to the Hollywood player who best exemplifies the Corinthian ethic of Sir Aubrey himself. Its first sponsor was the Welshborn Oscar winning actor Edmund Gwenn, who took time out from filming Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry to present the award.
Like so much else, Hollywood CC changed during the 1960s. Those with long memories still evoked names like Karloff and Flynn but, increasingly, the club aligned itself with a new set of stars. Millionaire rock musicians began to patronise Griffith Park, which meant more, and flashier, limousines snaking up Cahuenga Boulevard and the occasional whiff of herbally scented cigarettes from the dressing room.
Perhaps inevitably, some of the original charm of the place, with its cast of characters seemingly on permanent audition for the film of The Loved One, began to fade. Sportsmanship and fair play were no longer accorded the priority they once had. In a physical but also symbolic break from the past, the club left its base of more than 30 years and moved west along the Los Angeles river to Woodley Park, a sprawling heath dotted by golf courses and municipal waterworks in the perfectly respectable but unlovely town of Van Nuys.
More recently, a parallel migration to southern California of scores of club or first-class cricketers, many from the subcontinent, has reignited a professional pride that had been badly diminished or lost. Players like Ronnie Iranpur, a graduate of India's West Zone University, veteran 'keeper Mark Azeez and club president Jimmy Colabavala - each a winner of the Rodney Sober Cup - have been a steadying presence.
The Indian Test caps Rajesh Chauhan and Nikhil Chopra, India's one-day star Rajinder Singh Ghai, Pakistani leg-spinner Igbal Sikander and Nick Taylor, formerly of Yorkshire and Somerset, all bring in a kind of vestigial authority, not only as links to the professional game but in marking a return to Sir Aubrey's ideals. Today's club, for all its changed membership and location, is grounded in cricket's core traditional values, genuinely suggestive of community.
Even so, early in 1999 a team of diehard British enthusiasts set out to check what they saw as a deplorable decline of manners and standards, not so much in Hollywood CC but in Californian cricket as a whole. `We want to make it a decent game again,' said Andy Rose, 38, a landscape gardener from Runcorn in Cheshire who formed a Social Cricket Alliance of 10 teams, subsidised in part by Mick Jagger, to rival the established Southem California Cricket Association.
For its part, the SCCA, through its English treasurer, David Sentance, admitted that matches were `extremely competitive' but said that breaches of the rules, threats of violence and foul language were not condoned. `Anyone coming to play cricket here from England is in for a bit of a shock,' Sentance added. `But it's still surprising to me that anyone would expect things to be the way they were 65 years ago.'
More controversy visited Hollywood at the end of the 2001 season when the club twice fielded a former Indian Test captain, Ajay Jadeja, who had been banned for his alleged involvement in the match-fixing scandal. In fact, it was only his home board, not the ICC, who imposed the ban, which is still being debated in the Indian courts. Both Hollywood CC's decision to play him, and their subsequent fine for doing so, have drawn fire from opposing sides of the Press.
Reassuring signs lately, both of visiting teams and overseas tours, have rightly diffused the controversy about what the club's founder might have made of all this. As a lifelong ambassador and world traveller, Sir Aubrey would have welcomed the recent arrival at Woodley Park of an MCC side complete with Bill Frindall, and applauded Hollywood CC's wildly successful visits to the West Indies, Zimbabwe and Malaysia. He would have positively loved the annual Old Timers game, where players still conform to his strict sartorial sense and bring Edwardian style to the park. They bring convention too, with bunting, flags and a proper tea-tent, and even Van Nuys, with its huddle of red roofs and vivid neon, becomes a contented; looking place.
There it is then, a solid and friendly club, with two teams playing good cricket in a well organised league. It is crazy and funny and not a little comforting: civilisation in Hollywood. It will never last, people said. That was 70 years ago.