The Frost and Blank English cricket show
This is the time of year in England when the larks sing in the early morning sunshine and the sweet sound of bat on ball closes the long and happy summer days. Given fine weather, there really is nowhere like it. The best tennis players in the world were on court at Wimbledon until 9pm last night while across the road from us, in Battersea Park, club cricketers (of sorts) were still heaving full tosses to leg and scampering the runs that so nearly brought victory.
It is no surprise that cricketers from all over the world come to enjoy the English summer. There are varieties of the game that suit everyone, and, for those who wish, there are matches pretty much every day of the week. From Monday to Friday you can find festivals, charity events and testimonials, old boys of grand and not-so-grand schools playing for jugs of beer, households and private clubs popping champagne, village greens alive with laughter and many a jazz hat in garish colours talking one hell of a game and playing a pretty decent one too.
Numerous instituitons, led of course by the MCC, provide extraordinary opportunities for cricketers of all ages, sizes, shapes and talent. On Saturdays league cricket still thrives, and on Sundays the clubs play friendly, and often not-so-friendly, fixtures that have long held a place in their history. In short, a kaleidoscope of matches is offered, mostly on elysian fields that harbour a nearby pub to quench the thirst of a match-winning spell and embellish the story of the one that got away.
Alongside the MCC, it is the wandering clubs that have provided for so many, spreading a gospel of generosity and spirit that is incomparable anywhere in the world. Yes, the eccentricities defy belief but the message is simple enough. The game is the thing - play it, love it, respect it. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a stalwart of the Leicester Gents, was once knocked over for a duck soon after an 11am start, made his excuses and disappeared to open the batting elsewhere in the county for another employer whose match began at 2.30pm! A truly splendid painting of the founding fathers of wandering cricket, the three wise men of the I Zingari, hangs in the Long Room at Lord's today.
Those of us lucky enough to have a made a living from the game for a while tend to shy away as the years pass us by. Amongst those who have not picked up a bat since they retired are Sir Ian Botham, Geoffrey Boycott and Alec Stewart, all on the simple premise that you cannot possibly be as good as you once were. You can hardly blame them. Others are less dogmatic. Last Sunday, an astonishing array of names appeared on a private ground in Oxfordshire for WellBeing of Women, the charity dedicated to improving the health of women and babies.
Twenty-six years ago Sir David Frost, the writer and broadcaster, and Sir Victor Blank, the banker (both plain David and Victor back then) came up with the idea of 11 top class-cricketers mixing and matching with 11 paying punters in a gentle 35-over match watched by shoulder-rubbing philanthropists. Victor has his own ground, which is handy, and he vividly recalls Dennis Lillee bowling to Sunil Gavaskar in the first match. Since then, the last Sunday in June or occasionally the first Sunday in July has made £250,000 a pop for WellBeing. Viv and Barry Richards, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, Greg Chappell, Jeff Thomson and many, many more in a stellar list have more then done their bit.
This last Sunday, however, broke many a record and filled hearts with a special joy. The day was dedicated to the memory of Sir David, who died suddenly at the end of last August. Eight hundred people sat down for lunch as a veritable World XI prepared to entertain them. Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes; Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara; Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff (who sadly withdrew at the very last minute) ; Wasim Akram and Mike Procter, and, wait for it, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. Thank you all! It is fabulous that you give your time. Yes, it is a good day out, especially for the kids, but much is asked of you and you do not disappoint.
Sachin's 14-year-old son, Arjun, played too. He made 50 - can't think where he gets it from - and, with Wasim at mid-on to guide him, took a couple of wickets with lively left-arm swing. He bowled to his dad, which was fun, but dad gave him nothing. Later he asked for a go at Lara and promptly knocked him over, albeit with some help. Lara looked in tremendous touch by the way and is the money bet for a score in the 200-year celebration match at Lord's tomorrow. Sachin said he had not had a bat in his hand since that memorable afternoon in Mumbai last November when he said goodbye. All the same, after a good look he followed through on a forward-defensive and chipped the ball over the sightscreen. Murali fizzed it, like he still bowled every day. Wasim looked like, and bowled like, a god.
On Sunday last, a little hamlet set deep in the British countryside was home to a field of dreams. The owner of Saracens rugby club, Nigel Wray, opened the innings with Haynes, and David Menton, a good club cricketer, traded blows with Greenidge. It was the day that Phil Jansen batted with Tendulkar and faced up to Murali, and the June afternoon that Geoff Maynard played and missed at two ripping Warne legbreaks before thumping a half-volley over long-on for six. When Vipin Sharma bowled to KP he could have expected nothing less than a flip over extra cover and a whoop down midwicket way. These chaps paid some chunky premium for the privilege but their heart is in the charity and their mind is now forever overwhelmed by the unique experience that came with it. Jeffrey Archer performed a tea-time auction of note and the final count told us that £360,000 had been raised on the day. Amazing. Thank you, cricket.
All that was missing was Frosty himself. He kept wicket in this match and had a frighteningly near miss some years back. Dropping to the crouch position for Wasim's first over, the first slip - your writer here - and the second slip, Michael Atherton, urged him back a yard or two. "Really?" "Yes, David, really." Back he came, a yard. "Bit more, David." "Really?" "Yes, really David." "Oh, okay." And he edged back, another yard or so. From even a three-pace run, the Wasim Akram loosener is a formidable thing. The batsman, Sir Martin Sorrell, moved not a muscle. Neither did Sir David (these knights!). The ball hit his chest with a terrible thud. He hit the ground and both Athers and I had a more terrible foreboding. The ambulance came. His breathing seemed regular but a pall fell over the day.
After tea the chase was on. Frost and Blank are about even in these matches but we had fallen behind the rate. Barry Richards was next in to bat when the unmistakeable sound of David's voice lifted the spirits of all of us in hearing. "They say you're the best of the lot, Barry, good time to prove it." And that infectious smile was alive and well and with it came victory and a glass of beer in celebration. It was the same result this year, only this time we raised, rather than shared, the glass. Millions of pounds found for WellBeing of Women, courtesy of Frost and Blank and the English summer game.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK