Stories from stately venues
Country houses and cricket pitches. How frightfully English. As an idea for a book, it might be in danger of sailing close to caricature. Thankfully, Pete Langman, aka the Country House Cricketer, is a down-to-earth Sunday-sportsman type, who mixes in a little renaissance poetry along with the wisdom of Steven Seagal to describe his summer of playing a humble ball game in less-than-humble surroundings.
The simple aim was to create a record of cricket at a selection of rather striking grounds. Alongside the photographs and match reports, Langman wanted to "connect the past and the present, to give some idea of the how and why, not merely the where". The other goal was to raise awareness, not for a few country piles in need of repair but for Parkinson's, the disease Langman suffers from. To that end, all profits from the book will go to two charities, Parkinson's UK and the Cure Parkinson's Trust.
Why not create a collection focusing on (rapidly disappearing) municipal sports grounds and urban playing fields, some might ask? Those are the venues where the game is fighting for relevance. But if the premise of The Country House Cricketer looks a little like pandering to privilege, it is worth taking a moment to consider cricket's origin story.
The late Brian Johnston is quoted from a souvenir programme for the centenary of Clumber Park CC as saying he liked to come to the ground on the rest day of the Trent Bridge Test, "because this, the village green, is the origin of the game and way it ought to be played". Clumber, being a country estate, is hardly Broadhalfpenny Down, as Langman notes, but Johnston may have been closer to the truth than he thought.
Rather than cricket emerging from some bucolic wellspring for 18th-century villagers to enjoy, it was often the landed gentry who were responsible for establishing the game. Names such as Sir William Gage, Charles Lennox and assorted other dukes crop up regularly through the 12 chapters (the majority of locations are in the south-east, which explains some of the interconnections) and help provide an understanding of what Mike Marqusee called "cricket's origins in commerce, politics, patronage and urban society".
Langman's trip to Knole, in Kent, provides a link right back to the very start. The third Duke of Dorset, John Frederick Sackville, employed John Minshull - who is accorded the honour of scoring the first recorded hundred - and the fast bowler Edward "Lumpy" Stevens on his ground staff. Lumpy's accuracy in bowling the ball clean through the wicket was reputedly the spur for a third stump being added in the middle.
Australians may instinctively bridle at the association of cricket and the upper classes, but a day at Sheffield Park ought to force a rethink. Lord Sheffield might have been a posh Pom but he was also a cricket tragic, it seems. He made a pair on his only first-class appearance and "had no great personal aptitude for the game… but no one could doubt his enthusiasm"; he also loved to host touring Australian teams and even found the money to pay for the trophy that their first-class compeititon is still contested for, 125 years later: the Sheffield Shield. Rather than being situated in Yorkshire, Sheffield Park is in East Sussex and it was there, with WG Grace gazing down from a picture on the wall, that the idea for The Country House Cricketer was formed.
History is never far away, even if the changing rooms are rarely as gilded as the adjoining properties. At Penshurst Park we come across Sir Philip Sidney, a towering figure of the Elizabethan age, who Langman reckons "would, surely, have captained the England cricket team had there only been one to captain". Blenheim Palace, meanwhile, was the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Blenheim Park CC play right in front of the towering edifice, one of the largest houses in England, which unsurprisingly looks on with a "quietly superior air".
It seems English cricket has always been a small, close-knit world and the book emphasises that. Barney, one of Langman's team-mates when he turns out for Stansted, is also captain of Goodwood and able to get him a game there. At Arundel Castle - which is still a first-class ground - former Sussex captain John Barclay makes an appearance. Then there is the chance meeting with an old friend that leads to the closing chapter at Stourhead (where the Authors XI also make their third appearance).
On the same theme, incidentally, I have a suspicion that "Lippy" Lipscombe, the sledge-happy ringer who turns out for an English Heritage XI against Langman's National Trust XI at Audley End, is the husband of my cousin, though he is currently denying it.
There is another connection, too. Langman has written for these pages about the rare experience of being an ambidextrous batsman. He also sheds light on the depredations of Parkinson's, takes very decent photographs (revealing a particular yen for snaps of old rollers), and tells clubhouse tales with appropriate bonhomie. It is not only the buildings in The Country House Cricketer that have character.
The Country House Cricketer
By Pete Langman
£20, 98 pages
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick