July 29, 2013

And that's tea

A peek at a tradition enshrined in the longer versions of the game

Cricket is often spoken of as the most English of games, and American visitors in particular are usually amused - or amazed - by the average day at a match. "Cricket," wrote Bill Bryson (a transplanted American who embraced most things British, but couldn't quite cope with its summer game), "is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks," adding that it is also "the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players (more if they are moderately restless)". Yes, lunch and tea are ingrained into the fabric of a day's play, although floodlit games do vary the time table a bit.

Actually a day of Test cricket has a fine rhythm to it: two hours play, then a spot of lunch, two more hours of cricket before a cup of tea, followed by another couple of hours, or a little more if the over rate has been slow. The intervals break up the day nicely, and also build in a tension that isn't there in a one-day game, with its one between-innings break (dinner? supper?).

Two batsmen could be well set in a Test… but now there's only ten minutes to lunch, and you don't want to lose a wicket then. And after the interval the batsmen have to come out again, shake off the effects of whatever they've consumed, and play themselves in once more. Less than two hours later and tea is looming: well, that's a bad time to lose a wicket too, so better dig in again.

It's actually rather surprising to discover that stopping for tea during the cricket isn't an English invention at all - the interval was imported from Australia. Going off for a cuppa became standard Down Under in the Tests of 1881-82, but it didn't really catch on in England for some time. Maybe escaping the midsummer sun was more of a priority in Melbourne than Manchester.

Joe Darling, Australia's flinty captain, suggested a tea-break when he led the 1899 team to England, and it was taken up after a fashion - refreshments were brought out to the players on the field. In 1902 the same system applied, and it wasn't till 1905, with Darling still in charge, that the players officially left the field. The tradition of taking tea on the field didn't die out completely for some time - charming photos remain of later Gentlemen v Players matches at Scarborough in which the cricketers are being served tea by waitresses who look like "Nippies" from J Lyons & Co. Most of the pictures also feature the players taking the chance to have a not-so-crafty fag, which seems incredible to modern eyes (except perhaps Phil Tufnell's).

I remember, as a rather impoverished junior clerk, sometimes lying in wait for the tea trolley to be wheeled back to the bottom of the stairs, and pouncing on any uneaten sandwiches and cakes

These days the tea interval is enshrined in the longer versions of the game, and a common grumble is that it's not long enough: if an over started before the scheduled time to stop, the break used to be reduced - sometimes the notional 20 minutes shrank to 15 or so. The Cricketers' Who's Who, one of county cricket's standard reference books, always asked the players featured for a suggestion to improve the game - and for years the idea most frequently aired was not fewer overseas players or better pitches, but "extend the tea interval". Everyone does get their full 20 minutes now, after the umpires finally grumbled, but there's no sign of any extension beyond that for the tea break.

When I worked at Lord's, in the 1980s, the tea itself - a fine array of well-filled sandwiches and stodgy cakes - was produced at the top of the pavilion by Nancy, the famously volatile Irish cook, and conveyed to the dressing rooms on the floor below on a couple of rickety old wooden trolleys that may have come as a job lot when the pavilion itself was completed in 1890. The home team's trolley was pushed along the corridor, sandwich plates and antique tea urn jangling, by the genial old dressing-room attendant Roy Harrington, who also seemed to date from the building of the place, or possibly before. He was the only person in the pavilion who had his name on his office door: rumour had it that he was once offered a £50 annual pay rise (not an insignificant sum at the time) or the brass plaque... and he chose the name.

Quite what Roy's wife thought about that was lost in the mists of time - but Jackie Harrington may have got her revenge a few years later, when she took charge of the dressing rooms on the historic day in 1976 when the women of England and Australia played there for the first time in a one-day international. Roy, who had been rather looking forward to arranging baths for the ladies, was disappointed to be sent home for the day.

Roy's little office, though, was quite a treasure trove: I once asked if he had anything to whiten pads, as mine were looking a bit lived-in. From the depths of a cupboard he produced a little box, containing an ancient bottle of "Gleamo", or some similar name. The weathered cardboard still carried the price tag - two and a half old pence, or tuppence-ha'penny (about 1p). It worked, though. And a colleague asked about a pair of heavy flannel trousers that were another feature of the cupboard: "Oh, you can't have those," said Roy, "they're FG Mann's. He might need them." Now George Mann had captained England, but he hadn't played for Middlesex since 1954, about 30 years previously. Still, we left them there just in case.

I remember, as a rather impoverished junior clerk, sometimes lying in wait for the tea trolley to be wheeled back to the bottom of the stairs, and pouncing on any uneaten sandwiches and cakes before one of Nancy's minions came down to collect them. Your timing had to be spot-on, but there were sometimes rich pickings to be had, especially when Mike Gatting was away playing for England.

Memories of cheese and pickle suffusing my thoughts, I asked with some trepidation whether the same system is in use at Lord's nowadays. I rather feared that nutrition bars and power drinks would have replaced the trolley and the trusty old tea urn, but was reassured to discover that sandwiches were still served, although "fruit platters" are also popular, and calorie-packed cakes seem to be a thing of the past. There's a toaster and a sandwich-maker in the dressing room now too, which Roy would have disapproved of. The trolleys have finally gone, though: Roy's more youthful successors carry the plates around themselves without wheeled assistance.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Tom on July 29, 2013, 15:08 GMT

    I first worked at Lord's in the summer of 97 - incidentally scoring my first taste of Ashes cricket (watching) - working the bar in the New Member's Bar - top left of the pavilion, above the home dressing room. The bar would start out fully stocked, but if we ran out of beer at all, we couldn't use the goods lift during the day, and so had to carry the kegs up three flights of stairs - past all the members!

    Similarly for ice, I remember being sent with a trolley to fetch more ice - literally from the other side of the ground - I swear half the ice had melted by the time I got back.

  • Android on July 29, 2013, 10:12 GMT

    great artical 2 hear about the inside workings of lords & it's traditions

  • John on July 29, 2013, 6:46 GMT

    I wonder if there IS a case for a 30-minute tea break (and even a 50-minute lunch break)? But ONLY if the players have bowled at least 32 overs in the preceding two-hour session! If not, they have to complete the 32 overs before they adjourn, and this time is taken out of the interval. It would be one way to persuade them to get through their overs a bit more quickly, since they would lose part of their interval for tardiness!

  • Dummy4 on July 29, 2013, 6:07 GMT

    Very charming and nostalgic!! My heart longs for these scenes...

  • Warks on July 29, 2013, 4:28 GMT

    Very interesting. So when did the drinks break (on the hour) start? If you go to a game in Australia there's a drinks break every couple of overs - you don't see it on TV but at every opportunity the 12th or 13th man rushes onto the field with a bottle of "energy drink" and has a word to the batsmen or the captain of the fielding side. That's something that should be stamped out in my opinion. It often occurs a couple of overs after a drinks break.

    But love the old stories!